The term itself has a bit of a negative connotation, typically used by long-standing devotees of a team or trend that has picked up new followers and fans by way of recent popularity, usually resulting from success.
But why does it have to be negative?
Everyone reading this story was a bandwagon hockey fan at some point, be it at the encouragement of family members, friends, a new local team, or – hey, how about this one – a championship. A thrilling championship run is as good a reason as any to become a fan of a sport and/or team, because let’s face it – nobody arbitrarily wakes up one morning and declares boldly: “Today, I’m going to become a hockey fan!” (Sarcasm level = shaking wildly.)
The hockey championship bandwagon has taken a few good spins in the last 20 years, with the LA Kings appearance in the Stanley Cup Final in 1993, the then Mighty Ducks reaching the same mark 10 years later in 2003, the Anaheim Ducks Stanley Cup Championship in 2007, and most recently the Kings Cup Championship in 2012.
That’s a lot of opportunity to pick up new fans of the game and grow the fan base throughout Southern California.
“I wasn't here for that run in '93, but hockey is a lot more mainstream in the last 20 years,” says the Kings’ newly appointed Manager of Fan Development and Alumni Relations, Sean O’Donnell. “There have always been Kings fans, but now you’re seeing more of a hockey-culture in the LA area.”
O’Donnell, a retired NHL Alum, made is playing debut for the Kings during the 1995 shortened season, having just missed the Cup Final run in ’93. O’Donnell played in LA until 2000, after which he played for the Minnesota Wild, New Jersey Devils, Boston Bruins, and Phoenix Coyotes, before returning to Southern California with the Ducks.
Playing parts of three seasons in Anaheim, O’Donnell was part of the ’07 team that brought the Ducks and SoCal their first Stanley Cup. Following his tour in Anaheim, O’Donnell came back to the Kings for two more seasons before playing his final seasons for the Philadelphia Flyers and Chicago Blackhawks.
“I think the Ducks winning in ‘07 and the Kings winning two years ago have been huge to the area,” says O’Donnell, who cites the local climate and entertainment options as reasons for his eagerness to return to SoCal.
The Ducks sold out 74 consecutive games between the ’06-’07 and ’07-’08 seasons, while the Kings, dating back to December of 2011, have a 70-game sellout streak going into Saturday’s contest against the Dallas Stars.
“After our Cup win we saw a large increase in our participation rate at our Ducks-owned rinks, and most importantly, I believe hockey at the forefront encouraged family units to begin talking about hockey as a viable sport for their children,” reports the Ducks’ Senior Manager of Fan Development, Joseph Hwang.
“I feel that the general public here in SoCal is communicating the things that make our sport great instead of the brutality most people wrongly associate us with,” adds Hwang. “Back then, conversation around hockey would just be about the fights. Now, people have an outward appreciation for the skill set one needs to score goals like Teemu Selanne.”
The Ducks have a school and youth outreach program called Anaheim Ducks S.C.O.R.E. (Scholastic Curriculum of Recreation and Education) that they use to build brand equity, and increase hockey participation in both roller and ice capacities. They also have the Anaheim Ducks High School Hockey League that is currently comprised of 28 teams.
“Those games are highly attended and the league is garnering much attention in the hockey world,” reports Hwang, who also began playing ice hockey in adult leagues in 2007.
The Kings have seen a similar upswing within their grassroots programs since their championship, and last season’s launch of Lil’ Kings, a low-cost hockey instruction program that also gives kids free equipment from head to ankles, is a prime example.
“We want each family to have a positive experience and let word of mouth spread,” explains James Cefaly, the Kings senior director of fan development and community relations. “We want the Kings growing popularity in the area to inspire local youth to want to play, and to learn about this program when they watch a game on TV, attend a game at STAPLES Center, or visit our website.”
“We also expect to grow this program slowly and manage it so that each participant can get the proper attention and no one gets lost in the numbers. We hope to double the program in year two,” Cefaly adds.
Numbers, projects and initiatives aside, the growing hockey trend is even visible to the naked eye. Following the Cup victories, the number of local establishments, billboards and civilian cars with hockey branding popped up like weeds.
“We visit a lot of schools yearly and we see the same thing. Kids – and teachers – have some form of Ducks item on them or on their desks. When I first started, you would only see these things at Ducks games,” admits Hwang, who has been with the Ducks for 10 years.
Both the Ducks and Kings having won Stanley Cups in recent years undoubtedly played a big role in bringing a Stadium Series Game to SoCal, but for those who want it in laymen’s terms, O’Donnell has it down:
“The area has won two Cups since the lockout. There are great fans here, and Dodgers Stadium is a landmark. It's going to be a great show.”
It will also be an excellent display of the work put in by those behind the scenes to grow the sport of hockey in a city that has no real frozen ponds and hasn’t ever been closed for a snow day.
“It’s great to finally be recognized for the amount of work both of these organizations have done to be great ambassadors of the game here in Southern California,” says Hwang, who grew up locally. “It’s time that everyone outside of California knows about our hockey market and especially the great things we have done and are doing to grow the game.”
So to the newly acquired fans whose interest and investment in SoCal hockey has helped put the area on the NHL’s radar:
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