Kings fans at the North End bar in Hermosa Beach cheer a playoff victory. (Francine Orr, Los Angeles…)
As the Los Angeles Kings push closer to a Stanley Cup championship, sports bars across Southern California are suddenly enamored with the team and getting a crash course in the culture and rules of the game.
But not at the North End Bar and Grill in Hermosa Beach. Here, the Kings are the hometown team. Many of the players drink there, call patrons their neighbors and mingle freely at community events.
Last week, as the Kings were on the road to their first Cup victory, North End patron Jennifer Henriksen proudly pulled out her iPhone and showed off images of players celebrating at the bar a few weeks earlier.
"These boys are just real down-to-earth, solid people," said Henriksen, better known as "Hockey Jen" to bar regulars. "We want to see them have the run of their lives.... Really, it couldn't happen to a more solid, genuine, grounded group of guys."
As the only L.A. team in championship contention, the Kings have a lot of new fans. But their base has long been the beach cities of the South Bay.
All but one of the 24 players on the Kings' roster live in Manhattan Beach, Hermosa Beach or Redondo Beach, said Mike Altieri, the team's vice president of communications. Altieri said the players, who mostly come from small towns in Canada and Europe, prefer the close-knit feel of the beach communities to the glitz of the Hollywood Hills or the Westside. It's also where the team trains.
The players — who might not be recognized if they walked down Hollywood Boulevard or Rodeo Drive — have a special stature in the beach cities. Both players and team executives are active in local fundraising and beach volleyball tournaments. During the off-season they gather with residents to watch NFL games at the North End or at the 900, a bar in Manhattan Beach.
"We consider ourselves Kings central — this is the home base," said Richard Montgomery, a Manhattan Beach city councilman. "The players are not just strangers on TV, they are our neighbors and friends."
Montgomery said former Kings defenseman Jack Johnson even served on Manhattan Beach's Centennial Committee this year.
The city's hockey fever is apparent along Manhattan Beach Boulevard, above the pier. Signs with the team's chant — "Go Kings Go!" — are taped in front of bars; even a beauty salon displays the jersey of team captain Dustin Brown.
At Pockets Sports Bar on Sepulveda Boulevard in Manhattan Beach, Kevin Danis watched with a group of friends as the Kings battled the New Jersey Devils. Danis, who grew up playing roller hockey, said he hangs out at the team's practice facility in nearby El Segundo to get autographs and catch glimpses of the players.
Unlike most other professional sports teams, the Kings' practices are open to the public, and in recent weeks hundreds of fans have turned out for a free peek at the team in action, Altieri said.
Although the Kings are obscured by the overwhelming popularity of the Lakers, Dodgers, UCLA and USC, there's still a solid base of intelligent and passionate hockey fans who are deeply devoted to their team.
The team sold out 37 of its 39 home games this year and is projecting its strongest sales ever for next season, Altieri said.
If there's an epicenter for Kings culture in the South Bay, it may just be the North End, where the team held a private party after winning the Western Conference Finals in Phoenix last month. Longtime fans will gather as they do for almost every game at the tiny neighborhood bar in Hermosa Beach.
Owner John Courts said he never intended to run a hockey bar. But in 2008, defenseman Matt Greene moved into a home across the street, and the two struck a friendship. Soon, Greene's teammates began showing up at the North End too.
"These are great, great guys," Courts said. "Business has been great, but really, just having the friendship is the best part. We feel like we're a part of this. We love it."
Bartender Ron Ciulei recalled attending Kings games as a kid, when he and friends would buy the $5 "student pass" at the Great Western Forum in Inglewood. But his love for the team reached a new level when he became acquainted with the players themselves.
"They aren't like other pro athletes … they're not high-profile," said Ciulei, who wore a special throwback Kings jersey with his name printed across the back. "It's special once you know them. It's family."
The bar was packed last Wednesday, when the Kings played their first Stanley Cup Final game since 1993. As the game unfolded, the crowd debated forechecks and line changes, speaking in hockey jargon that would probably fly over the heads of most L.A. sports fans.
Many of the fans said they'd been watching all of the Kings' road playoff games at the bar, which sits on a quiet, residential block near where Hermosa Beach borders Manhattan beach.