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Kings Are Trying to Win Back Their Fans

Hockey: That's a top priority as team opens training camp with some familiar faces missing.

September 07, 1996|ROBYN NORWOOD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

King season-ticket renewals were barely past 4,000 at one point this summer when new club President Tim Leiweke, longtime executive Rogie Vachon, General Manager Sam McMaster and a few others each took 20 phone numbers and called disaffected fans, urging them to renew.

The depth of King fans' resentment and anger hit the organization's new management like a blast of cold air.

"The first six or seven read me the riot act," Leiweke said. "None of them renewed. We were amazed and shocked at the hostility."

As the Kings report for training camp physicals today, they are preparing to start a season without Wayne Gretzky for the first time since 1988. Traded to St. Louis in February, Gretzky has since become a New York Ranger. There's no Jari Kurri and no Pat Conacher. Kurri is now a Mighty Duck and Conacher a Duck broadcaster. No Marty McSorley, Tony Granato or Kelly Hrudey--all San Jose Sharks.

"I'd probably know more guys there than here," said defenseman Rob Blake, who is returning from the knee injury and subsequent surgery that ended his season only six games into last season.

Leiweke is convinced that fan disenchantment has less to do with the player overhaul and more to do with the organization's tumultuous past few years and the accompanying mistreatment of fans.

"Amazingly, very few [fans] talked about Gretzky," Leiweke said. "More were upset about the refunds, the lack of customer service. Things like, instead of upgrading season-ticket holders, taking care of celebrities. There's been no integrity in the relationship with our fans."

Twice, the team delayed refunding as much as $1.5 million in playoff ticket deposits for months after the Kings failed to reach the playoffs.

"We have a lot of loyal fans who believe in the club," Coach Larry Robinson said. "Others have been burnt very badly by the things that have happened. We made promises. We took their money and used their money because we couldn't afford to pay them back. They've been beat up pretty badly. You get the crap beat out of you and you don't want to go hug the person who beat you up."

Leiweke says the purchase of the team by Denver billionaire Philip F. Anschutz and Los Angeles developer Edward P. Roski Jr. has put an end to the shenanigans that accompanied former owner Bruce McNall's downfall and bankruptcy as well as the financial troubles of interim owners Joseph Cohen and Jeffrey Sudikoff.

The task now is to win back fans, some of whom have been lost to the Ducks, who have a 12,500 season-ticket base and two young stars in Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne. In an effort to do that, the Kings have launched a nearly $1-million advertisement campaign.

The effort is of unprecedented proportions for the Kings, according to John Cimperman, the new vice president for marketing and communications who says the Kings' previous advertising was a "zero."

"Wayne Gretzky was the marketing budget," Cimperman said.

The main slogan is "serious hockey," and if that doesn't immediately register as a sideswipe at the Ducks, listen to Cimperman: "This is not about showtime, this is not about egos, this is not about cartoons."

Already, the Kings have produced a four-page newspaper advertising supplement, and television ads are forthcoming. Monday, they'll hit the streets with a series of ads on the sides and back of city buses.

So far, the season-ticket base is still down more than 1,500 seats from 8,000 last year when attendance averaged only 13,556.

The marketing is major league, but the product hasn't been so close to minor league in some time. The team added talented goalie Stephane Fiset in a trade with Colorado this summer and signed free agents Ed Olczyk and Petr Klima. But beyond those, Blake, Dimitri Khristich, Kevin Stevens and Ray Ferraro, there aren't many proven NHL players on the roster.

King Notes

Defenseman Rob Blake, who has a pulled groin muscle, will report shortly after the conclusion of Canada's competition in the World Cup, which ends no later than Sept. 14.

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