Mark Kates rolled his eyes, as if the answer were as brutally obvious as a 220-pound defenseman slamming into the boards with a spray of ice chips. "What's the difference between a Kings fan and a Laker fan?" he repeated.
"About 60 decibels," said Kates, shouting to make himself heard over a steel-drum band and the dull roar of the gathering throng outside Staples Center.
His point was well taken. Oh, you'll hear other accounts of what supposedly distinguishes L.A's pro-hockey partisans from supporters of our heavily belaureled basketball franchise. You know: Laker fans wear black leather and carry cell phones. Kings fans wear black-and-purple sweatshirts and carry six-packs. Laker fans take their behavioral cues from Dyan and Jack--the essence of privileged Hollywood cool. Kings fans follow the lead of Dancing Boy, a gyratin' madman who pumps up the crowd between periods. Laker fans arrive at games in limos. So do Kings fans--as their chauffeurs.
Stuff like that.
But the old jokes didn't faze the faithful on Monday night at Staples Center, as the Kings crossed sticks with the Colorado Avalanche in game 3 of their Western Conference playoff series. With the Lakers battling to keep their NBA title and the Kings in the hunt for hockey's holy goblet, the Stanley Cup, L.A. sports fans have been doubly blessed this spring. Throw in the (gasp!) first-place Dodgers, and you've got a veritable trifecta of major-league actualization. In a city that loves flirting with winners, pro sports in L.A. is conducting a three-way affair--though some parts may turn out to be merely casual flings.
For Kings fans, recognition is especially sweet. Vanished are the days when L.A.'s long-suffering devotees of the glacial arts skulked in the shadows of the Great Western Forum, and finding a hard-core hockey fan in Los Angeles was like searching for an Iroquois sweat lodge in Beverly Hills. Gone is the era when not even Southern California's radiant skies could brighten the long, dark Canadian winter of the L.A. hockey fan's soul.
The icy buildup of defeat and despair began to thaw more than a dozen years ago, when the Kings acquired superstar Wayne Gretzky, the baby-faced assassin from Edmonton, and went all the way to the Stanley Cup finals. Since then, many previously closeted hockey fans have come out, and some L.A. scenesters have discovered that Kings tix still are a bargain compared with what it costs to watch Kobe and Shaq. Plus you won't be distracted by bare-midriffed halftime shows. Nowadays, as L.A.'s unofficial hockey culture expands and evolves, and the Kings burrow deeper into the city's affections, some fans seem more concerned about attracting too many zealots, rather than too few.
"Personally, I don't mind the Johnny-come-latelies," said Jon Kaplan, 36, as he and his parents, Mary and Don Kaplan, dashed toward the arena in the fading afternoon light. "They come for the violence more than the actual play-making."
A fifth-grade teacher at Benito Juarez elementary school in Anaheim, Kaplan said he's been coming to Kings games since the '60s. Among his most cherished childhood memories is "almost getting hit by a puck by Bobby Orr during warmups." Today, he transmits his love of the game to his students. "I give 'em extra credit if they give me the score the following day."
A few yards away, a group of tie-dyed classmates from Peninsula High School on the Palos Verdes Peninsula hoisted a large banner in psychedelic shades, proclaiming themselves followers of the "Grateful Deadmarsh"--a reference to the Kings' play-making winger Adam Deadmarsh, with apologies to the late Jerry Garcia. "I'm a die-hard Laker fan," said Matt Willens, 16, "but I think this year Kings fans have a lot more emotion. You can feel it in the air all around Los Angeles." Just what Southern California needs: another cult.
What the Kings really have needed is a good-luck talisman. Currently auditioning for the role is Davis Gaines, best known for playing the title role more than 2,000 times in Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Phantom of the Opera." At Kings games, Gaines has become the voice behind "The Star-Spangled Banner," his soaring tenor a rallying cry akin to Kate Smith's booming vibrato when she serenaded the "Broad Street Bullies" Philadelphia Flyers teams of the '70s to glory.
On Monday, Gaines sent the sellout crowd of 18,478 into near-pandemonium. They didn't quiet down until former King Rob Blake stunned his ex-teammates with a goal less than five minutes into the game.
That temporary setback was enough to make Kings fan Sean Weiss start crying and screaming like a baby. Sean has a good excuse, though: He's only 10 weeks old. "He didn't like that one," Sean's mother, Nicola Weiss, joked as she cuddled and cajoled her son in the concessions area outside the upper deck.