MANHATTAN BEACH, Calif. — Smack dab in the middle of paradise they are talking about hockey as the sun pushes above the horizon over the Pacific Ocean.
It is hours after the opening game of the Stanley Cup and the chatter inside Noah’s Bagels on Thursday morning is all about how strong the Los Angeles Kings looked in the third period and how exciting Justin Williams’s winner in overtime was. Signs of support can be found in storefronts all along Manhattan Beach Blvd. and other neighbouring streets.
One at the Pitfire Artisan Pizza invites customers to come in for the game … and there’s no confusion over what game they’re referring to.
Yes, this is becoming a Kings town now — far more than it was even two years ago during the run to the franchise’s first championship. The support is particularly strong in Manhattan Beach, a 30-minute drive from the Staples Center if you’re blessed with good traffic, in part because so many members of the organization make their homes here.
Numerous players, both past and present, are among the 35,000 lucky souls that occupy this suburb of Los Angeles. As are general manager Dean Lombardi and head coach Darryl Sutter.
“Everybody knows what’s going on with the Kings,” said Sutter. “It’s great because it’s a small town attitude or small town atmosphere.”
It is one of the more unexpected discoveries you can make about this organization; playing in a sprawling metropolis with an urban population of about 16 million people, these Kings have carved out their own niche. In fact, the more time you spend around this group the more you see the familial atmosphere they have created.
That is no small achievement in a place where the sheer size of the city presents some obvious obstacles to building those type of bonds. The captain, Dustin Brown, remembers a time when it wasn’t so. There are very few comparisons to be made between his rookie year in 2003-04 and what exists here now.
He credits that lack of cliques inside the dressing room for the success on the ice. The core members of this team have largely remained constant and established a culture that has allowed, say, Mike Richards to be dropped to the fourth line without it becoming an issue. Marian Gaborik, Tanner Pearson and Tyler Toffoli are all filling top-six roles after not being part of the 2012 Stanley Cup team and yet the Kings roll on.
When they fell behind the New York Rangers 2-0 after a sluggish start to the Stanley Cup on Wednesday, there was no sense of panic. No one doubted the possibility of a comeback.
“It’s just a result of us being together for a long time,” said Brown. “I think that goes a longer ways than most people think. When it gets really hard, really tough, you know the guy next to you very well. You know what he’s going to do in those types of situations.
“You can rely on each other in ways that a team that is just forming or getting together, you don’t necessarily have that trust built up to weather the storm when you need to.”
The power of that kinship is something even the Rangers recognize.
Alain Vigneault spent seven years coaching against Los Angeles while with the Vancouver Canucks and pronounced this version of the Kings “one of the best teams I’ve seen in a long time” in the wake of Game 1. That comment came after the New York coach began breaking down the game tape on Thursday morning.
He was looking for weaknesses that might be exploited in Game 2 on Saturday and found none.
“They were a good team in the years past,” said Vigneault. “They’re a real good team now. It’s obvious they’ve got more experience. They play their game plan to a ‘T’ and they don’t deviate in any shape, way or form, so that makes it real challenging for the opposition.”
“If you give them time to skate with the puck, time to spend a lot of time in our end, they’re going to do a good job,” said Rangers forward Carl Hagelin. “They have big bodies. They’re never going to give up.”
This is the 11th playoff series the Kings have played over the last three seasons — a run of success that has given Los Angeles the chance to develop into more of a hockey town. It will never be Montreal or Toronto or Chicago, but that isn’t necessarily the point.
Here in the land of palm trees and pristine beaches, people are talking about ice and pucks and goals. That is notable in itself. There was a certain novelty to the 2012 Stanley Cup run that isn’t present now.
In the words of all-world defenceman Drew Doughty, things have changed “drastically” for the Kings since then.
“Back in the day we could just pretty much roll in anywhere and there was no way anyone would know who you were — no possible way — and now it seems like everywhere we do go we are getting recognized,” said Doughty. “It’s kind of more like when you’re back home in Canada. It’s great because we’re bringing more fans to the games and we’re making hockey a presence in California, but that was kind of the bonus of playing here too.
“You could do what you wanted and not get in trouble for it.”
We’ll mark that down as one of those good problems to have. It’s the price of being a champion.