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Come along for a Kings joy ride

It's time to get on board with a team that's reigniting a hockey buzz in L.A.

November 07, 2010|Bill Plaschke

So it's a beautiful fall football Saturday morning, and I'm standing in a sweaty El Segundo locker room, and I'm not quite sure why, until I'm gently tapped on the shoulder by an official of the league-best Los Angeles Kings.

"You can walk anywhere you want in here except for there," he says, pointing to the large Kings emblem stitched into the center of the carpet.

"There?" I say.

"We don't step on our logo," he says.

I wander over to Dustin Brown, the long-suffering Kings veteran and team captain, and I'm not quite sure why, then he talks about how easy it is to drive to the games from his Manhattan Beach home.

"A bunch of guys from the team carpool," he says.

"Oh, so you can use the carpool lane?" I say.

"Um, no, we just like riding together," he says.

Nobody steps on their logo? Carpooling for the heck of it?

This will come as no surprise to the thousands of fans who love this team with a passion unmatched on the local sports landscape, but for the rest of us, well, what do you know? Even on a football Saturday, it turns out I went to the perfect place to catch an L.A. buzz.

The Kings are cool.

They are in first place, yet they act like they are in high school, all of them wearing mullets during the morning skate and evening warm-ups in honor of Ryan Smyth, the winger playing in his 1,000 game.

"That's the kind of thing that happens around here," defenseman Jack Johnson says, grinning.

The Kings are hot.

After 13 games they are enjoying their best start in 30 years, yet they're still not afraid to be dorky, entering the Staples Center ice through the fake door of a fake castle upon which is tacked a sign: "Protect This House."

"We'll do whatever it takes to get that buzz going," Johnson says. "We know how it works in this town."

How it works in this town is, you have to win to get noticed — unless you play hockey, then you have to win big, and entertain huge, and even be one of the few Los Angeles teams to have a costumed mascot.

But even then, it sort of tugs at your heart. The lion is named Bailey, after the late Ace Bailey, the director of pro scouting who died on one of the planes that crashed on 9/11.

The Kings are like a neighborhood team that plays in an oversized YMCA rink, slowly filling Staples Center turned into a place where little kids played hockey between periods while the loudspeaker blares one of the themes from " A Charlie Brown Christmas."

Then I watched a fan ride around on the Zamboni.

When the Kings are lousy, it's all really cheesy. But when they're good, like they are now, it's a blast.

"People haven't been really excited about hockey in this town for a long time, but we're starting to feel it coming back," Brown says.

It has come back slowly, but smartly, the team building with strong draft picks that include current stars Drew Doughty, Anze Kopitar, Wayne Simmonds and goalie Jonathan Quick. It has come back with some savvy, too, as trades and free-agent signings have brought in strong veterans including Smyth, Willie Mitchell and Jarret Stoll.

"It's young guys in the process of learning what a team is all about," says the Kings' understated coach, Terry Murray. "It's come back very quickly, but very pleasantly."

It's not all the way back — witness the Kings' rejected $80-million offer this summer to prolific left winger Ilya Kovalchuk. To advance past the first round of the playoffs for only the second time since their 1993 trip to the Stanley Cup finals, they're going to have to find a scorer somewhere this season.

But until then, they are fun enough that even while UCLA's Kai Forbath was kicking a game-winning field goal against Oregon State on Saturday night, I was perfectly jazzed watching as Kopitar took a pass off the boards from Brown, juked two Nashville defenders and stuck the puck in the upper corner of the net.

And even while Arizona State was taking an early lead against USC, I was content to watch Brown race down the right side after another great Kings defensive play and flick the puck into the back of the net for another goal.

You might not know any of these guys right now, and, well, they know it.

Johnson, who led the team with eight assists before Saturday night, remembers the welcome he received after playing for the U.S. Olympic team in February.

"I get home and people say, 'OK, so what are you going to do for the next four years?'" Johnson says. "I'm like, 'Um, I'm going to play for your hometown hockey team.'"

Our hometown hockey team? Yes, we have one of those and, for once, they're good company, whether on a sheet of neighborhood ice, a swatch of dressing room carpet or somewhere in the carpool lane.

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

twitter.com/billplaschke

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