All the empty seats began to frustrate Jack Kent Cooke.
The Canadian entrepreneur brought professional hockey to Los Angeles with an expansion team — the Kings — in the mid-1960s. At the very least, he expected to sell tickets to fellow Canadians who had relocated to the area.
Paltry attendance at the Forum in those early years prompted Cooke to grumble that his countrymen had moved to the U.S. for a reason: "They don't like hockey."
The sport from up north has traditionally taken a back seat to football, baseball and basketball in Southern California. But that could change in an otherwise dismal spring for local fans.
The Kings have grabbed the spotlight by charging through the playoffs with a string of do-or-die wins. They need one more Sunday against the Chicago Blackhawks in a decisive Game 7 of the Western Conference finals.
A victory would push the Kings to their second Stanley Cup Final in three seasons. A loss and their season is finished.
Amid the excitement, the Lakers have been searching for a new coach after a miserable season and the Clippers became mired in the Donald Sterling scandal. Even the Dodgers have infuriated longtime followers by showing their games on a new cable channel that reaches only 30% of the region's homes.
So can the Kings make it to the finals and close the popularity gap?
"Those other teams have left the door open and it certainly adds up to an opportunity," said AJ Maestas, president of Navigate Research, a Chicago-based firm. "The question is, how much of a difference will it make?"
Even though L.A. hasn't had an NFL team in 20 years, pro football dominates the market with 51% of adult residents expressing at least some interest in the NFL, according a survey by Nielsen Holdings N.V. But among other major sports, the NBA and Major League Baseball have slipped into the mid-40% range over the past few years while the NHL has climbed to 23%.
Kings center Jeff Carter says he cans feel "the excitement around the city come playoff time. It's a good sign."
The Kings — and the Ducks in Anaheim — have spent decades building loyal, if relatively small, fan bases. It helped when the Ducks took the Cup in 2007 and the Kings won in 2012.
David Carter, the executive director of USC's Sports Business Institute and member of an advisory board to the Kings, does not expect hockey to eclipse more popular sports but says the team has worked its way into the conversation.
"You're hearing about watch parties, you're seeing the car flags," he said. "You're seeing the human interest stories on the news."
The team has caught the public's attention before.
Interest spiked when Wayne Gretzky — arguably the greatest player ever — came to Los Angeles by way of a blockbuster trade in 1988.
Home attendance rose by about 4,000 a game and the Kings reached their first Stanley Cup Final in 1993, losing to Montreal. But the surge did not last.
"There was a huge buzz," said Luc Robitaille, a former star who is now the team's president of business operations. "The reality was, it was all about Wayne."
During Gretzky's final years in Los Angeles, former owner Bruce McNall pleaded guilty to four criminal counts stemming from a bank fraud investigation and the franchise filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. A 1996 trade send Gretzky to St. Louis.
The Kings won only one playoff series over a 17-year span, continuing to struggle even after moving into the new Staples Center in 1999.
This time around, the team appears to have more staying power for several reasons.
The roster has been rebuilt through the draft, with the best players — Jonathan Quick, Anze Kopitar and Drew Doughty — coming up through the organization.
"We have stars but they are homegrown," Robitaille said. "It's about the team. I think our fans have adopted that concept."
The front office has also been working hard at marketing. "The Kings are doing it properly," David Carter said. "They have gained a foothold with sponsors and TV."
Finally, the Kings and Ducks have helped promote youth hockey in the region. During a recent news conference at Honda Center, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman talked about how that effort might create future die-hard fans and, in the meantime, draw parents to the sport.
The result? The Kings have risen from No. 22 in the league to No. 8 in attendance over the past five seasons, selling out 117 consecutive games at Staples Center. Their television ratings in the Los Angeles area during these playoffs have risen by 15% over the same period last season.
The past month has restored some of the erosion in popularity that every team gradually experiences after a championship. Navigate Research data suggests the Kings' 27% spike after the first Cup win subsequently settled down to a 10% increase.
Those numbers pale when compared to the success of the Blackhawks, who increased their average attendance from No. 29 to No. 1 on the way to winning two of the last four championships. That kind of gain seems unrealistic in Los Angeles.
"It's a non-traditional hockey market," Maestas said. "The other sports are nearer and dearer to fans' hearts."
Still, support and interest could reach an all-time high if this season extends to another Stanley Cup Final. With no local team in the NBA playoffs, and Dodgers games reaching so few homes, fans could be hungry for someone to cheer.
"There is a 'bandwagon calculator,'" said Bill Nielsen of Nielsen Holdings. "People see the team in the playoffs and think, 'Let's go watch.' "
Which makes Sunday's game a little more important for a foreign-born sport still fighting for attention so far from home.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times