*This is the fifth of a seven-part season series, titled ‘The California Cold Rush’ that will explore key points in the growing popularity of hockey in California over the last 25 years, which has ultimately led to the much-anticipated Outdoor Game between the Los Angeles Kings and the Anaheim Ducks to be played at Dodgers Stadium on January 25, 2014.*
When LA Kings forward Dustin Brown lifted the Stanley Cup on June 11, 2012, he became only the second American-born Captain to do so. This says a lot about where most professional hockey players are – or are not – from.
While the number of US-born hockey professionals is increasing, so too, is the number of non-American hockey professionals who are choosing to settle in the States, even after their playing days are over. As a result, these retirees are intertwining themselves into local communities where hockey is growing exponentially more popular.
Between the Kings and the Anaheim Ducks, Southern California has no shortage of hockey alumni contributing to traffic congestion on the 405 freeway in recent years.
The Kings’ Manager of Fan Development and Alumni Relations, Sean O’Donnell, who spent playing days in both LA and Anaheim, is well-aware of the recent migration trend.
“I don’t know why it is, in the 80s or 90s not very many people stayed here, but it does seem like now there are more,” observes O’Donnell, who is also part of the Kings’ FOX Sports West broadcast team. “Maybe there’s less turnover now than before when they didn’t have very good teams, I don’t know exactly what the reason is.”
While O’Donnell may not know why everyone else chooses to settle in SoCal, he obviously knows why he does.
“Getting introduced to this, I think it’s the best weather in the world,” O’Donnell declares. “There are so many things to do and so many options, whether you like to ski or mountain climb, be by the beach, surf or whatever it is, there are so many things. There are now players who realize how good it is and feel privileged to not only play for the LA Kings, but also to live in this kind of place.”
Overseeing alumni relations for the Kings, it certainly helps O’Donnell that the local alumni population is increasing.
“It’s kind of neat having the alumni that live here full time, especially now one step further, many of us are working within the Kings organization, so I think that’s a cool step in the right direction,” says O’Donnell.
Amongst O’Donnell’s inner-most circle of friends are Kings President of Business Operations Luc Robitaille, and Kings Player Development Consultant Glen Murray. Murray and O’Donnell played junior hockey together, spent playing time in both LA and Boston together, and were in each other’s weddings.
Television Color Analyst Jim Fox, Radio Color Analyst Daryl Evans, Player Development Associate Nelson Emerson and Assistant General Manager Rob Blake are only some of the other Kings alumni who are currently working in the Kings organization.
“It’s great for our young players, it’s great for the fans, they love to see our alumni around, and it shows continuity of what we’ve done and the franchise we’ve established,” Robitaille states.
Although the Ducks organization is about 25 years younger than the Kings franchise, they too have their share of alumni that has maintained their place on the Ducks’ payroll, like Assistant Coach Scott Niedermayer and Director of Player Development Todd Marchant. Current Ducks player Teemu Selanne, arguably the most iconic Duck in team history, has also made his loyalty to Anaheim obvious.
“Teemu is one of those guys who is great for amateur hockey, kids love him, they want to be him, and he’s going to be great to help us develop hockey in the future,” says Robitaille.
As a whole, SoCal is pretty well set up as far as having big-named players continuing to leave their mark on the hockey community, by way of retiring, keeping an off-season home in the area, or both.
“You’re getting these major stars, whether in LA it’s Wayne Gretzky or Luc Robitaille or Dave Taylor, and in Anaheim you’re getting Teemu Selanne, Scott Niedermayer, and maybe Ryan Getzlaf – these people are staying and it’s almost a source of pride for the fans to see that not only are they great players, but they love it here and they’re staying here,” explains O’Donnell. “They’re part of the team we cheer for and the city we live in, and everyone likes to be proud of where they’re living.”
With the current and somewhat uncharacteristic January heat wave in SoCal, O’Donnell sent a photo of scantily-clad people playing beach volleyball to his parents, who, at the time, were caught in a snow-storm in Ottawa. The only text necessary said: January 7th.
What was their response?
“Something that I can’t say in an interview,” laughs O’Donnell.
It’s clearly something more and more hockey players are learning to take advantage of.
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