Kings of Canada? How fans north of border fell for Los Angeles, despite Gretzky theft

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Matthew Gourlie stood outside Prudential Center in Newark, ready to become one of the few Los Angeles Kings fans inside a sea of New Jersey Devils sweaters at Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final.

Gourlie was used to being outnumbered, having grown up a Canadian Kings fans surrounded by Edmonton Oilers fans.

"All my friends loved the Oilers, so I hated the Oilers. When 1982 happened, I was being ostracized," said Gourlie of the Kings' historic upset of Wayne Gretzky's Oilers just over 30 years ago. "You couldn't find any Kings gear anywhere. My mom actually made me a toque, which I have with me."

Gourlie, a sportswriter from Moose Jaw, placed a beat-up purple and gold toque on his head, clashing eras with the black-and-white Dustin Brown jerseys he wore.

How does a Canadian kid become an LA Kings fan?

"The first hockey game I ever went to was the 1980 Memorial Cup. Larry Murphy played for Peterborough. So the next year, I got a [LA Kings] hockey card with Larry Murphy and my dad reminded me that I saw him play. For whatever reason, that stuck with me," he said.

He's not alone. At least a dozen Kings fans we approached before Game 2 were visiting Newark from Canada. It got us wondering: How does a Canadian hockey fan fall for a California team?

And while our immediate hunch was "Wayne Gretzky Trade, dummy", there are many more points of entry through which Canadian fans have gotten caught up in the Kings.

Jordan Parhar of Cloverdale, British Columbia, has been a Kings fan since childhood.

"I used to fly down to Los Angeles to visit my Aunt and Uncle and we'd go to Kings games together every year. The Gretzky trade and the '93 Cup run didn't affect my fandom as I was born in the summer of 1993. I was also a big fan of Mike Richards when he played in Philly, so his arrival has fueled my love for LA even more," said Pahar.

Adam Williams lives in Edmonton, and isn't sure how he became a Kings fan.

"I was 1 year old when Gretzky was traded to the Kings, so if my fandom has anything to do with Gretzky, its probably more a product of growing up in a time when he was an LA King and was leading them deeper into the playoffs. I would have been six when they made their run to the Stanley Cup, and although I don't have memories of the series, I'm sure it probably had something to do with me becoming a fan," he said.

Sarah Bulger of Morinville, Alberta, said the Gretzky trade didn't influence her fandom.

"I think my becoming an LA Kings fan really stemmed from being a huge fan of so many players on their team. I love players like Richards, Brown, Kopitar, who are fun to watch for their offense, but also really impressive with their defensive skills. So many players on the team are heart and soul guys, and that's what I love to see on the ice," she said.

"I am also a huge Dustin Penner fan. I'm talking I had my Penner LA Kings shirt ordered the day after he got traded to LA. I'm probably the only person in Edmonton who teared up at the news that Penner had been traded."

Scott Denoon lives in Calgary doesn't self-identify as an ardent Kings supporter, but still digs the team.

"Being that I was 3 years old when they made their first cup run, Gretzky and '93 have not influenced me at all," he said. "I have held a soft spot for them the past few years as they rose back to relevance. For much of my hockey-fan life, they were a middling to awful team. But the infusion of young, exciting guys like Doughty and Kopitar over the past few years has really changed my perception of the team, as well as the ballsy gambles they made by trading for the erstwhile Flyers party boys."

But Neil Instant of Kingston became a Kings fan when Gretzky became a King. "I was a big fan of his, and when he went there I adopted them as my team.  I loved Gretz, Robitaille, Hrudey and Kurri," he said.

Of course, being a fan of a team in Los Angeles — that happens to have made an incredible run to the Stanley Cup — has its perils north of the border.

"It's pretty crappy. Everyone on the street thinks you're a bandwagoner," said Alson Lee of Markham, Ont. "My friends on the other hand, it was pretty interesting. The ones who are Canucks fans (there's a lot.), they want to kill me. It's pretty funny. All I ever hear is 'I HOPE THE DEVILS WIN. THE KINGS SUCK' and so on..."

Paula Turcotte of Calgary gets the bandwagon treatment too. "I don't really take offense to it, just because it's natural to assume during playoffs - it does get annoying after a while, though," she said.

Williams said the initial reaction to his Kings fandom from other Canadians is "confusion," but that he's gotten support from friends and family during this run.

"My fear has always been that people will come to think I was a bandwagon fan who jumped on board just for the Cup run, rather than someone who has supported the team for his whole life, even when Yutaka Fukufuji was playing goal for them," said Williams.

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Nolan Kwasney is a Kings fan who rocks a "Don't Dought Drew" sign at Rexall Place when the Kings come to Edmonton.

"The reaction amongst people here has been pretty supportive. Beating Vancouver definitely helped that — this younger generation of Oilers fans seems to hate the Canucks with even more furor than they hate the Flames with," he said.

"I thought more people in Edmonton would be bitter that a team with so many ex-Oilers is enjoying this kind of success, but the reaction from people around me if I'm sporting any kind of Kings apparel has been almost all positive."

Bulger said the most negative comments about her Kings fandom have originated from Canucks fans.

"For example, on Saturday night, I had a guy who looked like he should be on Jersey Shore approach me, and said, 'Why are you wearing that awful shirt? And why would you cheer for the Kings? They knocked out the Canucks.' It took all of my strength not to tell him that was actually a huge positive in my books. And that it made sense that he's cheering for New Jersey since he looks like a Pauly D wannabe, fist-pumping included," she said.

"For the most part though, people that I talk to are also cheering for the Kings. And even if they're not (ahem, Canucks fans), they admit that the Kings are likely going to be Stanley Cup champions this year."

Michelle Robb from Ottawa has gotten a reaction for her Kings fandom through an office pool.

"I joined a pool at my husband's work, picking 5 Kings from day one and am currently in the lead with more than 30 points from the second place seed.  Points are tallied 2 for a goal, 1 for assist, 2 for goaltender win, 3 for goaltender shut out.  My lead has been a topic of conversation at my husband's work," she said. "My husband also organizes the pool and he is almost last, picking no Kings players."

Cecil Castellucci is a Canadian living in Los Angeles since 1996.

"Most of the time my friends are confused at first that I like hockey at all and then they are like, 'Oh, right, you are Canadian.' Because that explains it all.  They often wonder why I like the Kings, but once I say 'LA home town pride,' they get it.  Mostly they just think it's amusing.  Since LA is such a basketball town, it's been sort of stranger solidarity at the sports bar between the people who are watching the few screens that are playing the hockey," said Castellucci.

The playoffs bring together hockey fans in the most random places. But for most LA Kings fans in Canada, it can get a little lonely.

"To sum it up being a Kings fan in Canada — especially in Vancouver — sucks," said Parhar. "You're stuck on your own with nobody to celebrate with during the good times and you are ridiculed during the bad times.

"I know tons of hockey fans, and since the Canucks have been eliminated the only person who will watch hockey with me is my Dad."

For the proud Kings fans of Canada, it could be a night of celebration, even if from afar.

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