How Gretzky trade changed the hockey landscape in LA

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On the 23rd anniversary of the Wayne Gretzky sale trade, it’s only natural to take a look back at the trade’s importance on the league. Stephen Brunt wrote a good book about the entire deal in “Gretzky’s Tears” and Peter Pocklington was able to get his side of the story to the public in an even better effort: “I’d Trade Him Again: On Gretzky, Politics, and the Pursuit of the Perfect Deal.” Plenty has been made of what the trade meant for Sunbelt hockey, the Edmonton Oilers, and Canadian hockey as a whole. But what gets lost in the mix is the immeasurable impact Gretzky’s trade had on the local Southern California market. Outsiders understand that it was a big trade—but people don’t quite understand how it completely shifted sports landscape of the entire region.

The obvious, immediate impact was at the box office. From his first game of Gretzky’s first season in Los Angeles, attendance at the Forum skyrocketed to levels that only Bruce McNall had dreamed of. Gretzky was the biggest name in a game that was still a regional sport in the United States. People may not have known about offsides, line-changes, or icing—but they knew about Wayne Gretzky. Instantly, he put the Kings on equal footing with Magic and the Lakers, Gibson and the Dodgers, USC football, UCLA basketball, and whoever the Raiders/Rams were trotting out onto the field. The team had a marquee name—more importantly, they had the only name in hockey that could transcend all sports and entertainment.

The old, recycled joke from comedian Alan Thicke captured the lack of interest in the pre-Gretzky era pretty well:

“What time does the Kings game start?”

“Depends, what time can you get there?”

Might not be the greatest joke from Kirk Cameron’s on-screen Dad, but it was painfully true. But everything changed when the Kings had their own superstar to grab the sports headlines away from the teams that dominated the LA sports landscape at the time: Lakers and Dodgers.

In the year before he arrived, the Kings averaged only 11,667 fans per game. In his first year, attendance shot up 27% to 14,667 fans per game. In the six consecutive playoff appearances for the Kings after Gretzky arrived, there wasn’t an empty seat for even a single game. The attendance peaked in 1991-92 when the Kings sold out every single game of their 40 game schedule. Not bad for a team that was used to playing to two-thirds capacity in the mid-1980s.

The Kings finished the 1987-88 season with a 30-42-8 record that was good for 18th in the 21 team NHL. In the year before Gretzky’s arrival, the Kings were 5th in the league in scoring—but dead last in defensive. Gretzky was expected to bring more than just a boatload of points; he was expected to bring wins.

Just important as the success in the stands, was the success on the ice. In the three seasons before Gretzky arrived in LA, the Kings had averaged 64 points per season. In the three seasons after he arrived, they averaged 89 points (including the second best record in franchise history in 1990-91). The Kings went from a near .500 team at home to one of the more difficult places to play. Did the fans show up because they won? Or did they win became more people showed up? Most likely it was a little bit of both.

Both the success at the box office and on the ice can still be seen at Staples Center today. There’s an entire generation of fans who are buying season tickets today because their parents jumped on the bandwagon when Gretzky came to town. John Hoven from the fantastic Kings blog Mayor’s Manor shows that the new fans have provided the gift that keeps on giving:

“In the years that followed the Kings found record attendance and Wayne Gretzky continued to re-write the NHL record book. However, his most significant impact on the hockey landscape is probably just now starting to be felt, some 20+ years later. Over the last few years, more and more California-born (and trained) players have been taken at the NHL Draft, including four last year and five this summer. Just another example of Gretzky giving back to the game of hockey, long after he’s retired.”

As time goes on and success continues to elude the Kings, many of the fans can still look back to the Gretzky era for their fondest memories. Gann Matsuda of Frozen Royalty is a perfect example:

“Looking back to before I started writing about the Kings and the NHL, I was a fan of The Great One and had been since his days with the Oilers. I remember back in those days that whenever the Kings and Oilers were on TV, I would make sure to get home and watch so I could marvel at his extraordinary skill—talent that we had not seen before. And after Gretzky was traded to the Kings, I rarely missed a game on television.

I was in attendance at the Great Western Forum on March 23, 1994, when Gretzky broke Gordie Howe’s career NHL goal-scoring record against the Vancouver Canucks. I remember leaping to my feet, arms raised high over my head, cheering loudly along with everyone else. What a great memory that was.

Of course, there were many others, including the amazing Stanley Cup run in 1993 where he put the team on his back and almost willed the Kings to their first championship.”

But most obviously, the biggest change to the hockey landscape in Southern California was the addition of another team. Before Gretzky arrived, hockey fans were usually transplants that had two choices: the Kings or the team from their old hometown. Often times, they chose the latter. With the buzz Gretzky created in the media, the success the Kings achieved on the ice, and McNall’s willingness to open his market (for a one-time cash grab), the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim were born. Fans in Orange County and the Inland Empire suddenly had a much closer option to satisfy their hockey fix. Ticket prices had exploded as demand increased for the Kings—there were a segment of season ticket holders who jumped at the chance to cut down on their tickets prices and drive time.

It’s been a divided region ever since. Hard to believe that a region that had a hard time supporting a single team for two decades was able to add a whole new franchise only four years after his arrival.

WATCH LIVE: 2018 Kraft Hockeyville USA features Blue Jackets, Sabres

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NBCSN’s coverage of the the 2018 Kraft Hockeyville USA game in Clinton, N.Y. between the Columbus Blue Jackets and Buffalo Sabres begins at 7 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online by clicking here. 

PROJECTED LINEUPS

SABRES
Jeff SkinnerJack EichelSam Reinhart
Alex NylanderPatrik Berglund – Andrew Oglevie
C.J. Smith – Casey MittelstadtKyle Okposo
Justin BaileyEvan Rodrigues – Danny O’Regan

Jake McCabeZach Bogosian
Rasmus DahlinCasey Nelson
Brendan Guhle – William Borgen

Goalies: Scott Wedgewood, Jonas Johansson

[WATCH LIVE – 7 P.M. – NBCSN]

BLUE JACKETS
Anthony DuclairAlexander Wennberg – Kevin Stenlund
Artemi Panarin – Liam Foudy – Jonathan Davidsson
Boone JennerBrandon DubinskyJosh Anderson
Lukas Sedlak – Sam Vigneault – Eric Robinson

Michael PrapavessisSeth Jones
Gabriel CarlssonAdam Clendening
Dean KukanDavid Savard

Goalies: Joonas Korpisalo, J.F. Berube

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

 

Stars ready for fun offense under coach fresh out of college

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DALLAS (AP) — This is the third season in a row the Dallas Stars have a different coach and a different style. They’re ready to have some fun with the guy fresh out of college.

After the differing approaches of grizzled veterans Lindy Ruff and then Ken Hitchcock in a one-season return of their Stanley Cup-winning coach from two decades ago, there is more of an emphasis on relentless offense with new coach Jim Montgomery in his transition from the college ranks to first-time NHL head coach.

”It’s going to be a lot of fun,” captain Jamie Benn said. ”We’re going to work hard and it’ll be a high-flying Stars team with a lot of pressure on the ice.”

The 49-year-old Montgomery said he’s sure the team has the speed and depth to play his style.

Montgomery spent the past five years at the University of Denver, where he had a 125-57-26 record and won a national title two seasons ago. He won two championships as a head coach and general manager in the United States Hockey League before that. He was part of a college national championship as a player at Maine in 1993, and did play 122 NHL games – his last was with Dallas in December 2002.

”We’ve had some great coaches in here,” Tyler Seguin said. ”But at the end of the day, we haven’t had this kind of coach, a younger guy, a player’s coach if you want to call it that, someone that’s won pretty much everywhere he’s gone and is going to change things up. I think everyone’s excited for that and looking forward to a fresh new year.”

SEGUIN AND THE TOP LINE

Seguin, the 26-year-old five-time All-Star with a career-high 40 goals last season, could have become an unrestricted free agent after this season. But he signed a nearly $80 million, eight-year contract extension through 2026-27 just before training camp. Seguin is on the front line with 29-year-old two-time All-Star Benn and Alexander Radulov, who had 27 goals and 45 assists last season. Only Benn had more total points than Seguin’s 78, with Benn at 79 (36 goals, 43 assists) after eight goals and two assists in the last five games.

ON THE DEFENSE

John Klingberg led NHL defensemen with 59 assists last season, when Marc Methot was limited to 36 games in his Stars debut because of knee issues. A healthy Methot should be a boost to the Stars defense.

”If you look at the lineup, we know we have star power. We have everything on paper. It looks good,” Klingberg said. ”We’re just going to have to find those pieces blending into each other.”

MISSED TIME

Dallas missed the playoffs for the eighth time in the past 10 seasons after an eight-game losing streak last March. They finished 42-32-8 for 92 points, which was a 13-point increase from 2016-17 but three points out of the Western Conference’s eighth playoff spot.

”I think we’ve got to stop, I guess, wasting the good talent that we have here and take advantage of it,” Benn said. ”Ten years later, goes by fast. You’ve got to take advantage of the good teams that you have. We have a good team here. So we’ve got to make a good run here.”

TOP 10 BACK IN BIG D

Right wing Valeri Nichushkin played 166 games in three seasons for the Stars by time he was 21 before returning home to Russia and playing the past two seasons in the Kontinental Hockey League. The 10th overall pick by the Stars in the 2013 draft is back after signing a $5.9 million, two-year contract with Dallas at the start of free agency over the summer.

STARTING AT HOME

The Stars open the season Oct. 4 against Arizona, the first of four consecutive home games in 10 days before their first road game.

”I don’t think I could have picked a better schedule to start the season in my first year because everything’s new,” Montgomery said. ”Being at home, having those three days of practice in between home games, is going to be instrumental in us getting off to a good start.”

The Stars have now been in Dallas for 25 years.

AP Sports Writer Schuyler Dixon contributed to this report.

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/tag/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Can Coyotes avoid another awful start with Galchenyuk injured?

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Last season, the Arizona Coyotes came into the year with great expectations. Then they only won one game in all of October.

Their 1-12-1 start (including a loss to begin November) derailed Arizona’s 2017-18 campaign before it could really start, serving as a cautionary tale for any Coyotes fans getting too excited about this season’s possibilities. Sure, the team showed promise late last season, yet such finishes can drum up false hope.

Adding Derek Stepan and Antti Raanta revved up excitement for the Coyotes last time around; this year, the possible growth of young players and the (perceived?) upgrade from Max Domi to Alex Galchenyuk is inspiring plenty of optimism. Coyotes fans even had a reason to gloat during the preseason, as Galchenyuk made a strong first impression in an exhibition at almost the same time that Domi was suspended for punching Aaron Ekblad.

So, the Coyotes are riding high into 2018-19, right? Well, we might need to pump the brakes on that, as Galchenyuk is out week-to-week with a lower-body injury.

To rain a bit more on the parade, the team warned that he might not be available for Arizona’s season opener (an Oct. 4 road game against the Dallas Stars).

It’s a shame that the Coyotes didn’t get to show off their shiny new toy against the Stars. Let’s consider a few of the other factors, and who might be affected by this in the short term.

Schedule

While the Coyotes noted that Galchenyuk might miss that first game on Oct. 4, it’s important to realize that week-to-week is a vague description. For all we know, Galchenyuk may only miss a handful of games, or he might even play on opening night. Then again, it could also mean Galchenyuk may be sidelined for multiple weeks of the regular season.

The former Canadiens forward figures to be a top-six forward for a Coyotes team that’s still expected to be a little light on scoring, so a lengthy loss would sting. That said, it’s not necessarily a lethal blow. When you wonder if another lousy October is looming, the actual context of the schedule may factor in:

Thu, Oct 4 @ Dallas
Sat, Oct 6 vs Anaheim
Wed, Oct 10 @ Anaheim
Sat, Oct 13 vs Buffalo
Tue, Oct 16 @ Minnesota
Thu, Oct 18 @ Chicago
Sat, Oct 20 @ Winnipeg
Tue, Oct 23 @ Columbus
Thu, Oct 25 vs Vancouver
Sat, Oct 27 vs Tampa Bay
Tue, Oct 30 vs Ottawa

That four-game road trip (and five of six games on the road from Oct. 10-23) seems challenging, yet note that the Coyotes don’t face a back-to-back set during the first month. For all we know, that could provide a nice opportunity for Galchenyuk to limit games missed, or strategically heal up. Maybe he’d only need until Oct. 10, thus missing just two contests?

(Such a schedule also opens the door for further coaching sessions – possibly fruitful for a team ripe with young talent – and possibly allows Raanta to soak up a lot of starts.)

Overall, the Coyotes’ early schedule seems manageable enough. Their 2017-18 October wasn’t abnormally difficult, either, so that’s clearly not the only determining factor here.

A window for Strome?

One player’s injury is another player’s chance to earn a spot. Just ask Kurt Warner and Tom Brady how random luck can help you establish a sports career.

With Galchenyuk out, the Coyotes may let Dylan Strome get some extra reps as a center, or maybe a more prominent position on the power play. Even if it’s just for a couple games or merely just extra practice time, Strome badly needs to earn Rick Tocchet’s trust.

Perhaps someone else would run with the opportunity if Galchenyuk misses significant time, but Strome comes to mind as a player who’s really at a fork in the road.

***

We don’t know how much time Galchenyuk might miss. Actually, the Coyotes may not know, either.

It’s not the greatest way for Galchenyuk to begin his Coyotes career, especially since he was probably feeling quite liberated to be out of Montreal. Injury limitations could make it difficult for him to make a good first impression.

Still, this might only be a minor hiccup, and heightened opportunities for Strome (or a peer) could serve as a blessing in disguise.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Senators waiving Smith is latest ‘kick’ to Duchene, fans

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At this point, it would be tough to blame an Ottawa Senators fan if they decided to just take the year off. Seriously, if you were in their shoes, would you mute mention of the team and its players on social media, and maybe just act as if you’re on a deserted island when it comes to news coverage?

We’re getting to the point where it’s refreshing if there’s only one bad news item per week.

The Senators seemed to meet their quota on Tuesday, then, as waiving forward Zack Smith hasn’t exactly been met with rave reviews from other embattled players. It seems like Matt Duchene is saying hello to his old friend darkness, considering the quotes shared by reporters including TSN’s Brent Wallace and the Ottawa Sun’s Don Brennan.

That specific Duchene quote will draw cringes and giggles, yet there are other comments that are honestly a bit more disconcerting, at least if you’re hoping that the Senators can convince Duchene and Mark Stone to stick around.

” … Unfortunately, I guess, sometimes in this business, things happen that are sometimes beyond hockey reasons and things like that,” Duchene said. “It’s tough right now, we are hurting.”

That last bit speaks volumes. The Senators are hurting before they’ve even played their first shifts of an 82-game season.

Hockey teams sometimes depend upon players valuing loyalty and security over getting the most money possible, so the “it’s business” vibe isn’t exactly promising for a franchise that’s projected every sign of penny-pinching.

It’s tough to deny the dark humor of Duchene going from a seemingly miserable situation in Colorado only to eat several extra helpings of extra misery in Ottawa. Still, the situation might be even grimmer for Mark Stone, as he’s spent his entire career with the Sens. Losing his trust risks losing whatever’s remaining of the soul of the Senators.

” … I’m surprised. But again, it’s not my decision,” Stone said, via Wallace. “I have to come to the rink every day and prepare the same way. To say I wasn’t surprised would be a lie.”

In a vacuum, placing Smith on waivers really isn’t that unreasonable.

After generating 30+ points for two straight seasons along with solid possession stats, Smith’s play really slipped alongside his struggling team in 2017-18. For a team trying to count every nickel and dime, there must be real consternation regarding Smith’s $3.25 million salary/cap hit. Moving Smith to the AHL saves the Senators a bit more than $1M, according to Cap Friendly. Such demotions are just a sad way of life in the “What have you done for me lately?” NHL.

With added context, such a move likely registers as callout to players like Duchene and Stone, and could provide yet another pull toward getting out of Ottawa at the first earthly possibility. Loyalty hasn’t exactly been a two-way street with this team:

Yeah, yikes.

Let’s take a quick look back at this debacle of a Senators summer, asking ourselves: how much money would you need to avoid abandoning this sinking ship? (You know, assuming that the Senators won’t just opt to trade Duchene and/or Stone in the near future, anyway.)

The Karlsson – Hoffman catastrophe

You can’t really blame the Senators for everything that happened regarding Erik Karlsson, Mike Hoffman, and those who know them. The franchise blundered their way through the fallout to a jaw-dropping degree, however.

Even outside of the context of the protective order Melinda Karlsson filed against Monica Caryk, the Senators almost certainly could have landed a better collection of assets for Karlsson if they moved the star defender during the trade deadline, rather than before training camp.

Ultimately, they settled for a bucket of “meh,” in part because the lure of one run with Karlsson is less transfixing than the lure of two (as a bidder would have received during the deadline). If it’s true that the Senators limited their offers to West teams, then the situation somehow gets more bleak. Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin deserves to get ripped over many of his trades, but he did a whole lot better – after similarly boxing himself into a cornerin getting some actually useful assets for Max Pacioretty.

The Senators also could have parted ways with Hoffman at a more opportune time. Instead, everyone in the league knew that their locker room was on fire, and GM Pierre Dorion received a humiliating return as a result.

Overall, it was a masterclass in how to implode as a front office, and it was far from the only forehead-slapping moment.

Randy Lee

This development might not be on the radar of casual fans, but assistant GM Randy Lee resigning amid harassment charges is likely the ugliest incident of them all. Lee was with the Senators organization for 23 years, including four as an assistant, running the AHL team as part of that gig.

Owning it

The Senators went viral with laughable video moments sandwiching the lousy Karlsson trade.

From The Department of Unforced Errors comes this absolutely surreal interview between owner Eugene Melnyk and veteran defenseman Mark Borowiecki:

[Even more on that odd interview.]

You’re not really going to “top” that, but Dorion’s response to a question about what to look forward to this season at least kept the ball (of shame) rolling.

Time flies when you’re having fun, right Senators fans? (Sorry.)

Not even having the lure of tanking

One can quibble about the Senators selecting Brady Tkachuk over, say, Filip Zadina with the fourth pick of the 2018 NHL Draft. That debate is mostly beside the point, though.

Thanks to the Matt Duchene trade, the Senators are sending their 2019 first-rounder to the Avalanche after keeping their 2018 first-rounder. For all the miseries of the 2018-19 season, they won’t at least be able to … “Slack for Jack?” Or would it be “Lose Huge for Hughes?”

(Let me know, Hockey Internet.)

For all we know, a mix of lottery luck and possibly better-than-expected play might leave the Avalanche with an inferior pick in 2019. Strange things happen in hockey, and a combination of a solid-to-good coach in Guy Boucher, a plausible rebound for Craig Anderson, and contract years for Duchene and Stone could propel them into more competitive play.

Still, most are betting on abject misery. The prospect of all of that losing and brooding opening the door for the Avalanche to land an elite talent pours a mountain of salt in the Senators’ many, many wounds.

That’s especially true if Brady Tkachuk ends up being nowhere near the prospect that his brother Matthew Tkachuk is.

***

Those are some of the big-picture nightmares that occurred for the Senators, and they probably overlook some other headaches. (Example: attendance issues should only get worse.)

It was already bad enough that the light at the end of the tunnel seemed so dim, and so distant.

To some extent, every rebuilding team faces asks their players “tough things out.” Sometimes you need to just pull the Band-Aid off, which occasionally means ruffling feathers by doing things like they did today in waiving Smith.

The reality, though, is that the Senators continue to pile on more reasons for Duchene and Stone to want to escape what appears to be an explosively dysfunctional franchise. The controversies and poor trade returns for Karlsson and Hoffman might serve as the haystacks, yet sometimes a smaller move like waiving a well-liked player such as Smith may actually be the last straw.

At best, it’s another kick below the belt.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.