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Kings getting left at the gate

October 18, 2008|Helene Elliott

Finally, the Kings have a team that's worth watching.

Too bad they've accomplished this minor miracle just when the economy is at a low and the number of fans they alienated while bumbling to five consecutive non-playoff finishes is at a high.

Rows of empty seats and mutedly dark suites at Staples Center on Friday night during the Kings' 4-3 overtime victory over the Carolina Hurricanes testified to the difficulty of selling a rebuilding project. And of simply selling tickets at a time when jobs are disappearing and every street in Southern California seems to have at least one bank-owned house for sale.

The attendance was announced as 14,194, a generous figure thanks to the NHL's policy of stating the number of tickets distributed rather than tickets sold or bodies in the building. That followed the shockingly small announced crowd of 14,451 for Tuesday's game against the Ducks, a matchup that once would have been an automatic sellout.

"It's an interesting thing going on," said Chris McGowan, the Kings' chief marketing officer. "The people that are still with us are starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel as far as what's going on, and we have some people that we're still trying to earn back -- and that's a process. Building a team is a process. When you lose some of your fan base, it's a bit of a process to get them back."

That's like calling the Pacific Ocean a bit of a puddle.

Fans who had room to stretch their legs Friday were treated to an entertaining display by a young team that is still learning how good it could be -- and that might be quite good.

Michal Handzus completed a rally from a 3-1 deficit when his 20-foot wrist shot from the right side eluded goaltender Cam Ward 3:21 into overtime. It was as exciting as the goal that tied the score, a brilliant, slicing back-hander by Anze Kopitar with 9:19 left in the third period.

Kopitar was patient and persistent, positioning the puck so perfectly on his stick that Ward might just as well have been in the locker room, so helpless was he to stop that world-class shot.

That capped a series of dramatic turns in a game played with passion and energy.

The Kings scored first, 56 seconds into the game, when rookie Wayne Simmonds checked Joni Pitkanen and jarred the puck away from the Hurricanes defenseman. Simmonds pursued it into the corner and threw a pass in front to Handzus, who tipped it in for his first goal of the young season.

Carolina scored the next three goals, all in the second period and on odd plays.

Ryan Bayda tied it when he bunted the puck past Jason LaBarbera at 9:16 after Niclas Wallin had shot it from the point. Dan LaCouture, not tied up in the slot by Kings defensemen Matt Greene and Kyle Quincey, was free to tip in another shot by Wallin to give Carolina the lead at 12:10.

Matt Cullen was credited with the third goal, at 15:36, when he tapped in a puck that had hit the leg of teammate Ryan Whitney in front of the net.

The Kings came back before the end of the period, when Dustin Brown's 30-foot wrist shot snaked its way through a crowd of players -- teammate Patrick O'Sullivan leaped in the air to avoid being hit -- and past Ward at 17:55. It was Brown's first goal of the season, a good omen for the rugged winger, who last season scored a team-leading 33 times and was recently appointed the Kings' captain.

These Kings clearly aren't daunted by deficits, but they still have a tough road on the ice and at the box office.

Their season-ticket base is at about 11,000 following an 81% renewal rate from last season. Although McGowan said he was encouraged by advance sales for November and December, low ticket sales would hurt their bottom line in a league where gate receipts must make up for low national TV revenue.

The Kings have made huge progress on the competitive front, but the economy is a factor in keeping all those seats empty. McGowan said the club would look at discounting group sales and other ways to make games more affordable to fans.

"In terms of consumer reaction to the economy I think it's pretty early," he said. "It's one of those things that we're going to have to watch over the next several months."

Hockey remains a sport best watched in person because TV doesn't capture the speed or precision of the passing plays. It's just a shame that just when the Kings are providing compelling reasons to watch them, the economy is putting up obstacles that might keep fans away.

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Helene Elliott can be reached at helene.elliott@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Elliott, go to latimes.com/elliott.

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