Sports

Ducks-Kings clash could spark golden age of hockey locally

Santa Margarita's Blake Duarte keeps the puck from Bellarmine players. Santa Margarita won the California Amateur Hockey Association high school state championship in 2013 and JSerra won it this year, illustrating the growth of hockey locally. Will the Kings-Ducks series boost that growth even further? ISAAC ARJONILLA, STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

ON THE RISE

Registered hockey players in California (children and adults), as provided by USA Hockey:

2004: 17,016

2005: 16,758

2006: 16,176

2007: 19,660

2008: 21,167

2009: 20,380

2010: 20,404

2011: 22,305

2012: 24,101

2013: 24,126

KINGS VS. DUCKS

Game 1: Saturday at Anaheim, 5 p.m.

Game 2: Monday at Anaheim, 7 p.m.

Game 3: Thursday at L.A., 7 p.m.

Game 4: Saturday, May 10 at L.A., TBD

*Game 5: Monday, May 12 at Anaheim, TBD

*Game 6: Wednesday, May 14 at L.A., TBD

*Game 7: Friday, May 16 at Anaheim, TBD

*If necessary

Even though the Ducks and Kings are second-round playoff opponents, both can win.

The players are vying for a spot in the Western Conference finals, but there’s a bigger game taking place off the ice, a battle to attract and retain the interest of fans and kids who might be giving hockey a fresh look.

To that end, the two franchises are teammates. Their first playoff series, which starts Saturday, is expected to draw a high level of media interest, and if hockey is ever to (permanently) rise above the level of niche sport in this area, now is the time. Could this turn into the golden age of hockey in Southern California?

“You’d have to be under a rock not to hear about this series in some fashion,” said David Carter, the executive director of USC’s Sports Business Institute and a longtime local sports marketing analyst. “These teams have a unique opportunity now, because of the circumstances of the market.”

The climate seems right for the sport to bloom here. The Ducks won the Stanley Cup in 2007, followed by the Kings in 2012. The Olympics in 2010 and 2014 drew huge television ratings. More than 50,000 fans crammed into Dodger Stadium to watch the Ducks and Kings play an outdoor game in January.

Casual fans, and even non-fans, are being exposed to major hockey events at a more frequent rate than ever before. The question is, how much “stickiness” is there when it comes to these high-profile events?

Those people who catch five minutes of a Kings-Ducks game on TV, will they watch the rest of the series? Buy a jersey? Buy season tickets? Take their kids to a local rink for skating lessons? Or, as soon as football starts in the fall, will hockey return to being a passing fancy in their lives?

“There’s a real chance for stickiness, beyond just those who are passionate,” Carter said. “People are going to be curious about hockey. The first thing you have to do is build their awareness around it, and I really think that awareness is going to be on full display in the next couple weeks.”

There are other factors. The Lakers aren’t playing. The Clippers are getting attention, but for the wrong reasons. It’s still early in the baseball season, and many people can’t watch the Dodgers on TV anyway.

The Kings and Ducks have a chance, perhaps like never before, to capture the attention of local sports fans. After that, it’s up to people such as Art Trottier and Daryl Evans to help maintain hockey’s momentum.

Trottier is vice president of The Rinks, the Ducks-owned chain of seven facilities in Orange County. Evans, the Kings’ radio analyst, also works tirelessly as a year-round instructor at clinics for children and adults.

“The Ducks and Kings do a good job of getting the kids to the rinks, and it’s our job to keep them,” Trottier said. “We want to make it enjoyable for them. That’s what it’s all about.”

Both franchises have been aggressive, in recent years, in building junior programs for young hockey players and in purchasing, branding and operating local rinks. Those rinks are open to kids who play in structured leagues, adults who play pick-up games and teenagers who might just go for an informal twirl.

What can this playoff series do to increase their number? A lot, it seems.

Trottier cited a significant increase in participation in the Ducks’ rinks after their 2007 championship. Evans said the “Little Kings” program went from 160 kids to 600 in a one-year span shortly after the Kings’ title.

“I think it’s definitely tangible,” Evans said. “The Kings winning the Cup definitely had a huge impact. All of a sudden, there was a surge of interest there. We had a lot of first-timers coming out to try the sport. That’s the kind of thing you can’t measure just from (the number of) tickets sold.”

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