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If It Quacks With Attitude, It's a Ducks Fan

Many were raised on hockey in colder climes and share the game's visceral energy.

May 27, 2003|Scott Martelle and Kimi Yoshino | Times Staff Writers

Ron Walker learned to love hockey just by growing up near Halifax, Nova Scotia. Pickup matches before school, winter leagues and a tournament once against a team with some kid named Wayne Gretzky tearing up the ice.

"Where I grew up in Canada, everybody eats, sleeps and drinks hockey," said Walker, 36, of Anaheim. "When I was born, my dad said, 'There's my hockey player.' "

The sport stayed in his blood even after he moved nearly 20 years ago to Anaheim, home of the Mighty Ducks, an upstart hockey franchise that improbably could win the NHL championship in Stanley Cup finals that open tonight in New Jersey. Even now, the sunny distractions of Southern California fade when he attends a game. Going to the arena reminds him of winter. And home.

Baseball, basketball and football all have large and loyal followings. But hockey, especially in Southern California, attracts a different breed, a smaller audience whose bond with the sport is as much a matter of culture and upbringing as it is an acquired trait.

Hockey draws crowds that are younger, more male and, despite its reputation as a blue-collar sport, more affluent than those of other major sports.

And, some say, more obsessed.

"I can't eat. I can't sleep," said Chris Shedlowski, 52, of Anaheim, another Canada native whose nerves have inexplicably awakened her at 3:50 a.m. on the days of Ducks games. "I feel like I'm skating out there. On the way to work, I drove past the Pond and I started to cry, thinking, 'We're going to win it.' "

Even hockey fans' expectations are different, said Bill Littlefield, author and host of the Boston-based "Only a Game" sports show that airs Saturdays on National Public Radio.

"People go to a hockey game with a little different frame of mind," Littlefield said. Some in the sport, he said, have long maintained "that if they were to change the rules in order to cut down on the number of fights, they would lose a certain number of fans.... There's no other game in which that's the expectation."

If there's a common thread among fans, it's an appreciation for the stark energy of hockey. It's a game of speed and emotion, more visceral and brutal -- felonies on ice, as one joke goes -- than the intricate chess moves of baseball in which managers plot sacrifices, bunts and hit-and-run plays.

"The game, it's just fast and interesting and fun to watch," Walker said. "It takes so much more skill to be a hockey player. You have to skate on that ice, handle the puck. There's a sense of danger involved. The puck sometimes moves faster than 100 mph."

Marketing research shows that some characteristics of hockey audiences are exaggerated in Southern California. Fans here are more likely to be in the 18-to-34 age group and more likely to be single than elsewhere in the nation, according to figures compiled by Scarborough Research from August 2001 to September 2002.

The overall picture, however, obscures subtle differences. Ducks Marketing Director Michael Williams identifies three types of local fans. There are families who gravitate to Sunday games, drawn in part by family price breaks. There are the casual fans drawn by the spectacle. "The casual fan may not understand the game, but they know it's a cool place to be," especially on Friday nights, Williams said. And then there are the die-hards -- hockey fans who come midweek regardless of who is playing.

They could just catch a game on television, but true fans would rather watch in person. Although TV viewership of hockey lags behind that of other major sports, the NHL set attendance records last year for the fifth consecutive season.

"You really have to go to a hockey game to get the feel for it," said fan Rick Horstmann, 51, of Huntington Beach. "Hockey is just something you have to develop a taste for."

Like Walker, Horstmann and Shedlowski, many Southern California hockey fans learned to love the sport by growing up in a place where snow is more than a decoration on distant mountains in winter.

"The first thing you learn how to do is play hockey," Walker said. "You skate first and walk later."

Part of the link is familial.

"My father was into hockey big-time, and all his family watched the game as we grew up," Walker said. "Hockey is a different kind of sport, just something that I was born with, and it stayed with me."

Horstmann's taste evolved as he grew up in Philadelphia, home to the Flyers, who twice won the Stanley Cup in the 1970s and earned the nickname the Broad Street Bullies for their rough play.

As an old-school Flyers fan, he could never quite take the Ducks -- named, after all, for a Disney movie and only 10 years old -- seriously. Until this year. In the last few weeks, he's seen three playoff games and is hoping to score tickets for the finals.

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