No longer California dreamin'

The Honda Center in Anaheim, California, where Game 1 of the Stanley Cup finals is set to take...

The Honda Center in Anaheim, California, where Game 1 of the Stanley Cup finals is set to take place Mon., May 28.

TERRY JONES

, Last Updated: 7:43 AM ET

ANAHEIM -- Wayne Gretzky knows what it would it mean for the state of hockey in the State of California if the Anaheim Ducks won the Stanley Cup.

"It would be phenomenal. Even over in Phoenix we're riding the Duck wave," said the coach of the Coyotes.

There wouldn't be the Anaheim Ducks if Gretzky hadn't been sold to the Los Angeles Kings from the Edmonton Oilers by Peter Pocklington in 1988.

"The last time the Ducks went to the Stanley Cup final you could see the excitement and enthusiasm from San Diego all the way up to San Francisco," Gretzky said. "People were cheering like crazy for the Ducks to win the Cup."

Just getting there, in California, doesn't do it. What needs to happen is for a west coast team to actually win the Cup. No California club has ever won it. No NHL West Coast team has ever won it.

Only the 1926 Victoria Cougars ever hoisted Lord Stanley's mug. The Vancouver Canucks have made it to the final twice and lost on both occasions. The Ducks, when they open the final here Monday against the Ottawa Senators, will be the first California team to play in the final twice.

They lost in 2003. Gretzky's Kings lost to the Montreal Canadiens in 1993, the last time a Canadian team, the Montreal Canadiens, won the Cup.

Gretzky is cheering for the Ducks, mostly because of location, location, location in terms of the Coyotes. But there also is his legacy.

"Oh yeah. I think all of us who were around back then see the Ducks as a success of our group. It came at the same time as the Disney movie Mighty Ducks and Mr. Eisner of the Disney Corporation came to all our games," said Gretzky, who spends the off season in Southern California.

A BIG BOOST

"The sport has grown an awful lot in the southwest and the Ducks getting to the final and winning the Stanley Cup would only help."

It's one thing for a California team to have all the stars, moons and planets lined up and to knock on the door every once in a while, but the door needs to be knocked down, said No. 99.

"When we reached the finals with the Kings, the excitement was truly remarkable. But it didn't really carry forward. There were a few players who played over their heads that year. Then there was the lockout. Then we missed the playoffs ....

"The same thing happened to the Ducks in 2003 in reverse. They were a seventh seed and missed the playoffs the next year. The year after that there was the lockout.

"This is more the real deal. Trust me, I know. We played against them 16 times in the last two years. They have good goaltending, maybe the best two best defencemen in hockey, are getting production out of Teemu Selanne with big goals at the right time and those two kids, Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry ... they were on the fourth line last year. They've really come on. They're legitimate.

"The best part is that the Ducks play the game properly, hard, fast and unselfish."

Luc Robitaille, a former teammate of Gretzky's who is now president of business operations and alternate governor of the Kings, is watching this series with the same sort of perspective.

"A lot of people in southern California right now are talking about hockey."

Even better, he said, would be if the Ducks and Kings ever played in a playoff series.

It's never happened. In fact, there has only been one all-California playoff series,in 1969, when the Oakland Seals and Kings met in a quarter-final series.

"If it ever happens, one day, that will make a big difference. To have that for two weeks, that would be fantastic," Robitaille said.

It's not easy for the Kings to be cheering for the Ducks. But consider this: The Los Angeles Times didn't send a beat writer on the road with the team this year. Now the Times is giving major coverage to the Ducks. For the moment, hockey is back on their first sports page and even front page.

Up in San Jose it's "Go Ducks Go", too.

"Absolutely," said Greg Jamison, president and CEO of the Sharks. "They're our rival but it would be very positive to have a California team win the Stanley Cup. It would be a good thing for all of us."

FOR THE KIDS

"We're all in it together down here. It's not just selling tickets. It's selling kids." said Gretzky. "When I came here in 1988 there were four high schools playing hockey. Now there are 135 in the area."

Robitaille, who's built five rinks himself, each with two sheets of ice, in southern California knows about that.

"I remember our first rink in the early '90s. Our claim to fame was that it was the first rink with locker rooms and showers. Now rinks are popping up all over the place."

The Sharks, who played to 99% of capacity this season, have the largest practice facility west of the Mississippi.

The last two seasons, three California players were picked in the entry draft.

Right now, there are 32 California players on protected lists of Western Hockey League major junior teams.Last year, a California bantam AAA team won the U.S.A. title.

"A couple years ago two of the top three college players were both from southern California," said David McNab, an original member of the Ducks who has been assistant GM for the past 12 years.

"Where we're at now is close to getting the best athletes in the area wanting to play hockey. It needs to be seen as a popular sport that's fun to play. Nobody wants to be the only kid on his block playing a sport.

"There are a tremendous number of California athletes in pro football, basketball and baseball. Now more and more elite athletes are starting to play hockey. There are more rinks to play in, the coaching better, the talent level is dramatically improved."

Exactly, says Ducks' GM Brian Burke.

"Youth hockey is beginning to be played at an extremely high level in southern California. You're going to see a steady progression of California kids going into the NHL.

"I attribute this entirely to Wayne Gretzky. He started it and it's not going to stop any time soon."

A Duck Cup could accelerate all that.

"People like to associate themselves with winning teams," McNab said. "We came close in '03. But if you win a title, people like associate with it.

KEEP THE MOMENTUM

"I think the thing we're dealing with here is that we had a good team a year ago and we're following it up. We got them excited last year and kept people excited," he said of the team which came back from the lockout with as many empty seats some nights as full ones, but have sold out their last 31 games.

"The ownership change was good. Brian Burke has done a great job putting not only a good team on the ice, but the kind of team people like to watch, playing upbeat hockey, scoring goals and playing very physical, a lot of things fans in the U.S.A. like," McNab said.

Al Coates, the former Calgary Flames GM who has been senior advisor to the GM here since arriving in 2003, said the trip to the final that year had the perception of being something of a fluke, but not this time.

"I think we're miles ahead of where we were in 2003," he said. "Building tradition is extremely important in the business of sport. We're fortunate to get to the final two years of the last four. We're only starting to tap the marketplace in terms of tradition.

"There are a lot of spin-offs being in the final and winning. You don't know when you'll get another chance. You want to make the maximum out of it. That didn't really happen the last time we made it to the final.

"The last time we were kind of on the heels of the Angels winning the World Series. Disney didn't really want to be in the sports business any longer and took the moment to divest themselves. It kind of left you with an empty feeling," he said of the way the team failed to follow with any success the year after, the lockout, the sale and almost starting over as an endangered species.

"What we have here is an opportunity to put a stamp on your franchise. It doesn't happen without success.

"This could go a long way. The mere fact that you're on centre stage against a Canadian team does a lot for a franchise. Our goal is to have a real good long standing franchise like Edmonton.

"It's like Bob Johnson used to say in Calgary. You've got to climb that mountain."

It's no longer California dreamin'.

Two California-based NHL teams have made it to the Cup finals.

1993

June 1 - L.A. 4 at Montreal 1

June 3 - L.A. 2 at Montreal 3

June 5 - Montreal 4 at L.A. 3/OT

June 7 - Montreal 3 at L.A. 2/OT

June 9 - L.A. 1 at Montreal 4


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