Boys in the hood bring home goods
In the 1980s in south-central Los Angeles, drive-by shootings were the norm and casualties piled up by the hundreds as gang warfare ruled much of the blood-soaked inner city hoods.
From this bullet-riddled nightmare, gangsta rap was born with a menacing glower. It was a no-holds-barred and nasty form of artistic expression. N.W.A were the pioneers of the genre and their leader, a diminutive and unrepentant thug named Eazy-E, became known as the godfather of gangsta rap.
In 1988, N.W.A released their debut studio album Straight Outta Compton and almost immediately it became an iconic tome not just for the disaffected and violent youth of south-central LA but for rap fans and wannabe gang bangers the world over. Eazy-E became instantly recognisable by the gold bling around his neck and his trademark dark glasses and black Los Angeles Kings hat.
Now if you handed a hockey stick to Eazy-E, he probably would not know what end to hold. But no matter, because the baddest rapper in the world and his thug band were now wearing a hockey team's hat. The LA Kings hat became the choice of fashionable gang bangers all over town and for the first time since they arrived in Los Angeles some 20 years earlier, the Kings had finally made a cultural impact on the city. It might have been unconventional but it was better than being completely insignificant.
Los Angeles was the first experiment for the NHL in the Sun Belt when the expansion franchise was awarded in 1967. A bunch of bearded behemoths from obscure outposts in Canada were now toiling amid the palm trees and endless beaches of Hollywood. These same guys, who grew up shovelling snow for hours just to get to the rink, could now practise in the morning and go to the beach or golf in the afternoon. Not surprisingly, their focus on hockey often waned and the Kings experienced little success. The reception from fans was also somewhat underwhelming.
But within weeks of N.W.A releasing Straight Outta Compton, the Kings actually made some noise of their own when they acquired Wayne Gretzky, who was arguably the greatest player ever and at 28 still in his formidable prime. For a front-running town built on star power, Gretzky was the golden child and attendance increased overnight. He brought a buzz to the buzzless and in 1994 helped the Kings to the Stanley Cup finals for the first time before losing to Montreal.
A little less than eight years after he arrived, Gretzky was traded to St Louis and effectively took what little was left of the buzz with him. The Kings were insignificant again and even Eazy-E, who had died a year earlier, could no longer rep them. They were little more than a passing curiosity in a town ruled by the glitzy and glamorous Lakers in basketball and the Dodgers in baseball. Until this past week, that is. After securing the final spot in the play-offs on the last weekend of the season, the Kings went on an improbable run and became the first No8 seed to win the Stanley Cup for the first time in their history when they beat the New Jersey Devils in six games. Everybody loves a winner and not surprisingly Hollywood came out to show its support.
Will Ferrell, Tom Hanks, James Gandolfini, Matthew Perry and even former N.W.A member Ice Cube joined the likes of David Beckham and family to cheer on, ahem, their Kings. The Stanley Cup, the most iconic and photogenic trophy in all of North American sports, will now reside in La-La land for the next year. It promises to be an unending series of photo-ops as porn stars, and Kings fans, like Taylor Stevens heave their overly enhanced bosoms in front of it. Hollywood stars and starlets will be all over it as well and non-hockey fans are going to see more of the Stanley Cup than ever before simply by osmosis.
It's great for the Kings and the growth of the game and will bring a lot of young fans into the fold. But does this now officially make southern California a hockey hotbed? No, not even close. They play a fair bit of roller-ball hockey around town and there are more arenas popping up, but the high cost of building an indigenous hockey culture is far too daunting for most Los Angeles residents.
By the time you finish buying skates and equipment and paying for ice time, it's well over US$1,000. Hockey is never going to be the sport of choice for the prodigiously talented athletes of southern California and it will never inspire the type of passion that basketball, baseball and football do. The next Kobe Bryant may well come out of south-central LA but the next Wayne Gretzky will almost certainly not. The Kings are by and large a fashionable and trendy experience right now and that's certainly better than not being one. It's just a pity that Eazy-E didn't live long enough to see the boys in the hood finally bring home the goods.