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At Staples Center, passion for a game played on ice

All things seem possible in the home of the Kings as a crucial game with the Canucks draws near.

April 18, 2012|Chris Erskine

Here we are, back at tricked-out Staples. I'm surprised they haven't torn it down, seeing as how it's been around a good 10 years, a rare stretch of preservation in a city that sneers at slightly aged things (Dodger Stadium a relic? Yeah, so is Lindsay Lohan, but I wouldn't let you tear her down just yet).

So the Big Staple probably qualifies for historic status, though it lacks the comforting old stadium musk. I'm thinking of that beer hall cologne that develops after a certain amount of Budweiser seeps between layers of plywood deep in the stadium's skin. Cruzzy. Primordial. Such wicked goo-scents remind me I'm alive.

Here's another cologne I like: the NHL playoffs. The Kings are there, and doing much better than anyone dreamed. A month ago, they couldn't buy a date to the postseason, and now they're break-dancing with the mighty Canucks. Turns out Cinderella wears skates and a scowl. Naturally, she'd be a King. Black is so slenderizing.

Now, the only way hockey could be more violent is if they played it with bayonets. Someone once called it a form of disorderly conduct in which the score is kept.

Certainly, Wednesday's game was a disorderly experience from the outset, and I'm talking, of course, about the pregame fan fest: live concert, street hockey, bouncy houses, assorted scalpers and a pretty good beer garden (to me, the best crop you could possibly grow).

After 100 years in journalism, you know in a glance who can give good quote. The guy with a braided beard? Maybe. The scrum of guys in Vancouver jerseys? Less lice, so what the heck.

"If we win this game, it's not going to be over quick," predicts Canucks fan Joe Geluch, a Vancouver resident who combined the game with a trip to Coachella this weekend. "I might wear the jersey if we win," he says, perhaps overestimating the stimulating impact that might have there.

And if you lose?

"It's going in the trash bin outside Staples," says Geluch.

Geluch's polar opposite, physically and spiritually, is Kings Ice Girl Brooke Emery, 18, of Huntington Beach, a human emoticon who is handing out stickers outside Staples, in a job that combines the best parts of shoveling, cheering and being generally peppy.

"Tryouts were pretty intense, I have to say," says Emery of her Ice Girl auditions.

So I'm striking that off my career list.

It's now 60 minutes before the game, and stadium crews are repairing ceiling tiles outside the locker room, where the Kings just played a turbulent game of hallway soccer in the traditional pregame warmup.

In the L.A. Sports Museum annex upstairs, I eye a wool sweater from the 1930s.

"You have that in a medium?" I ask.

(Turns out you can't buy stuff in museums; you can only look, which is something every sports fan should know.)

Back out in L.A. Live, the pretty good beer garden is now going full bore. Playoff beards — somehow, hockey fans become even hairier during the postseason — are on full display.

"You gotta be there," says John Martin of Orange County, discussing the importance of spacing in the Kings offense. "The guy on the point is now trying to make the extra pass."

Luc Robitaille, who used to wage disorderly conduct for the Kings and now helps run the front office, also has some thoughts on these resurgent Kings, who two months ago were left for dead.

A coaching change in November changed the team's attitude, he says, and the addition of Jeff Carter in February opened up the offense.

"Suddenly we had two lines," Robitaille says of the Carter trade. "It gave more room to [Anze] Kopitar. And other teams needed to prepare for us differently."

I'm no puckhead, but I might trace the turnaround to Dustin Brown's hat trick against the Blackhawks in late February, a rallying point as trade rumors swirled.

All I really know for sure is that the Kings have a core group of six or seven young guys including a budding superstar goaltender, Jonathan Quick, who could keep pigeons off a pier. Having Quick in goal is the hockey equivalent of putting Clayton Kershaw on the mound each night.

Though events didn't go their way Wednesday night, the Kings' future still seems bright if they can keep their goaltender around, not to mention Robitaille, whom Montreal is interested in as its next general manager.

"I told [AEG President] Tim Leiweke that I want to stick around to see them get the [Stanley] Cup," he says of a possible move.

With the Kings lately, all things seem possible.

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