Los Angeles Kings owner Bruce McNall said Thursday that his hockey club would unequivocally support the relocation of a National Hockey League franchise to Orange County and that team executives are helping a local partnership in its attempt to secure a team for the new Anaheim arena.
Even though Orange County hockey fans make up about 20% of the Kings' season ticket base, McNall and club President Roy Mlakar said in interviews that the team would not stand in the way of another franchise relocating to Southern California.
McNall, chairman of the NHL's Board of Governors, said there was a "very good chance" the city could persuade an existing team to move to Anaheim by next season.
"If anything, I would encourage it. It would be good for the league to bring more hockey in a non-hockey region. The more the merrier," McNall said. "I'm very supportive of it."
The search for a hockey team has become particularly important for Anaheim. If successful, it could mean a difference of $1 million in projected losses to the city during the first year of arena operation.
With the exception of Kings' executives, league officials have expressed surprise at the city of Anaheim's confidence in obtaining a franchise for next season.
"Nothing has come before the owners to consider," NHL spokesman Gary Meagher said in a recent interview. "I'm surprised I haven't heard this."
Any losses in ticket or advertising revenues the Kings would suffer in competition with a second area team could be partially recovered in fees that relocating clubs are required to pay when moving to an area where there is an existing team.
"There are negatives, like loss of ticket sales or advertising. . . . But I'm confident we'll be able to work it out," the Kings owner said.
McNall said that the Anaheim partnership is aware of the fee payment responsibility but that there have been no discussions regarding a specific amount. Sources have indicated that such a fee could well run into the millions of dollars.
Both McNall and Mlakar said an Anaheim franchise would help establish a natural Southern California rivalry in a division now dominated by Canadian teams.
"One of Mr. McNall's responsibilities is to look out for what's good for the game. Anaheim would be a great break for us," Mlakar said, referring to the Kings' hectic travel schedule. "It would be good for the Kings and good for the NHL."
The Kings' endorsement comes as Anaheim officials continue to promise that a NHL team will be in place when the $103-million arena opens next summer.
Mayor Fred Hunter said McNall's position with the Board of Governors is "very important" in the city's continued search for professional sports franchises, particularly hockey.
"Bingo," Hunter said Thursday, when informed of the statements by McNall and Mlakar. "There's no bigger name among hockey owners than Bruce McNall. To get a guy like him supporting us, that's of primary importance."
City Manager James D. Ruth said last week that Anaheim was counting on getting an NHL team but that it could be up to three years before the city is successful in luring a professional basketball franchise to join a hockey team in Orange County.
According to the city's agreement with the Ogden Corp. and the Nederlander Organization, its partners in the arena project, the city is liable for annual payments of up to $2.5 million for eight years if the facility is not being used by professional basketball or hockey teams.
That liability is reduced to $1.5 million per year with one professional sports tenant.
Ruth has said the national recession has made the search for professional teams--especially for basketball--difficult because the cities that have teams are "fighting like heck" to keep their franchises. Ruth and Hunter, however, said they were confident an announcement on hockey could come soon.
Drawing on briefings he's had with project partners, City Councilman William D. Ehrle said Thursday that he was aware the Anaheim group was in negotiations with two possible candidates for relocation from the NHL and two National Basketball Assn. franchises. He declined to identify the teams.
Nederlander's Neil Papiano said this week that the partnership was conducting regular discussions with a number of teams about moving to Anaheim, but also declined to identify the clubs involved.
As late as last Tuesday, an NHL source said that representatives of the Hartford, Conn., Whalers hockey team had been approached by an official linked to the Anaheim partnership who inquired about the club's possible interest in a move to California.
Last Wednesday, Whalers owner Richard Gordon said the team was not moving. Gordon's statement came the day before the state of Connecticut provided his club with $29 million to refinance existing debt.
According to NHL rules, a franchise attempting to relocate must have the unanimous approval of the league's 24 team owners, Meagher said. And in cases where the relocating franchise is settling in the same area as an existing club, the new team is required to pay the senior franchise a negotiated indemnity fee.
Taking issue with city officials who said last week that a hockey announcement for Anaheim could be imminent, Mlakar said an existing club would risk "millions of dollars" in ticket sales this year with the league's 1992-93 season less than a week old.
"No owner in his right mind would announce a move now," Mlakar said. "But are they (Anaheim) going to get a team? I think the chances are outstanding. . . . As early as next year there is an outstanding chance."
Although McNall and Mlakar said they are committed to a long-term lease of more than 20 years at the Great Western Forum in Inglewood and have not considered moving the Kings, they said the club has been providing Ogden with revenue information, sky box costs and other information relative to the partnership's search for an Anaheim franchise.
"The Ogden people have been good friends of ours," McNall said. "We have tried to provide them with information about what a franchise there would look like."
Anaheim city officials have said that the arena's completion--originally set for September, 1993--could come as early as May 1.
Times staff writer Lisa Dillman contributed to this story.