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Why Southern California should care about hockey

It's an honest sport with strategy, quirks and its own moral code. And the Ducks and the Kings have a shot at a title again.

May 04, 2013|By David Wharton
  • The sport from up north could win some new fans in Southern California, but don't hold your breath.
The sport from up north could win some new fans in Southern California, but… (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles…)

An old coach named Fred "The Fog" Shero once described the relationship between Canadians and their national pastime this way: "Hockey is where we live. … Life is just a place where we spend time between games."

It could feel like that in Southern California over the next few weeks.

This is hockey's time to shine with two local teams in the hunt for the Stanley Cup, the Kings fighting to repeat as champions and the Ducks riding one of the better records in the league.

The way things have gone for the Lakers and Clippers, and with our baseball teams struggling, the sport from up north could win some new fans.

I'm not holding my breath.

For all its speed, power and grace, hockey has always felt like an oddity here, a stranger in a strange land.

The Kings parlayed their title into a significant jump in local Nielsen ratings this season but still ranked well below other teams in the market. Duck fever hasn't exactly swept Orange County.

As someone who split his youth between here and Canada, I understand. I've seen the game from both sides of the border, and I know why Southern Californians have never come aboard in any great numbers.

I also see why they should.

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Southern Californians love their air conditioning. Where else do you put on a jacket to go inside?

We should appreciate the fact that rinks tend to be pleasantly chilly. Still, a wintry game can seem hopelessly out of place in a land where ice is confined mainly to the cubes in our drinks.

The thing is, hockey does not fit our sensibilities.

There is no instant gratification like you have in the NBA. Teams don't score every 24 seconds. No one dunks off lob passes or dribbles between their legs.

The play is fast, guys racing up and down the ice, but hockey does not offer much in the way of flash, which is to say it does not have an equivalent to the sack dance or the home run trot.

There isn't much bling in the locker room and no entourage waiting outside. Twitter scandals? None of those either.

Maybe that is why you rarely see hockey players on television peddling cars or shaving cream. Or maybe it's because of all the missing teeth.

There is also the fighting thing, which makes some people uneasy. Hockey traditionalists offer no apologies.

Rough stuff is part of the business. As the legendary Conn Smythe once said: "If you can't beat them in the alley, you can't beat them on the ice."

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My favorite hockey quote comes from the great Gordie Howe. In the days before the NHL made helmets mandatory, he was asked why players wore protective cups but seemed resistant to safeguarding their brains.

"You can always get someone to do your thinking for you," Howe said.

Hockey is an honest, hardworking sport. No pretensions. Salt of the earth. And that is a big part of why we should embrace it.

The players seem like regular guys, or as close to regular as you can get while earning good money for a kid's game. Even the biggest stars must endure hip checks and slashes, grinding it out along the boards.

Their humility serves as a counterpoint to the Hollywood stereotype, all the prima donnas and the phoniness. They have a strong sense of right and wrong. Just look at the penalty box.

Even the violence has a certain moral quality. The enforcers, the large men paid to start fights, often give their adversaries fair warning — "You ready?" — before dropping the gloves. They adhere to a code.

Never hit a man who is down. Never gloat over a knockout punch. As famed goon Stu Grimson said, "You take a professional approach."

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There are other reasons to like the game.

I could talk about strategy and subtle shifts in momentum. I could say L.A. loves a winner and, right now, the Kings and Ducks might be our best remaining hope. Another title run could boost the passionate — if relatively limited — fan base.

I'll try this instead: If you happen to watch a game this weekend, take note of the stubble on the players' faces. Beneath its gruff, blue-collar mentality, hockey is wonderfully quirky.

Superstitions pervade the game. Players refusing to shave during the playoffs lest they jinx their teams. Players refusing to touch the Stanley Cup — that trophy has been everywhere, been touched by everyone — until they win it all.

A journeyman named Bruce Gardiner used to dunk his stick blades in a toilet to teach them some respect before games. Wayne Gretzky took the opposite approach, pampering his sticks with baby powder and setting them carefully in order.

As former defenseman Jim McKenny once said: "Half of the game is mental, the other half is being mental."

If nothing else, that seems just about crazy enough for Southern California.

david.wharton@latimes.com

twitter.com/LATimesWharton

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