Playing Ice Hooky : L.A. Kings Draw Eager Fans to Practice as the Season Warms Up Again

TIMES STAFF WRITER

On Thursday, Robin Johnson put the education of her two sons on ice.

With hockey back in town, Johnson told Joey, 15, and Brian, 8, they could play hooky, and then she took them to watch their beloved Los Angeles Kings work out at the Iceoplex in North Hills.

"I told them, 'Boys, we got hockey again. It's a holiday. Let's go to practice,' " said Johnson, 38, of Simi Valley.

The Johnsons were not alone. About 50 die-hards paid $5 apiece to attend the informal morning practice session. They sat in Blades, the rink's warm, cozy restaurant, and watched the action through a plate of glass.

Their months of suffering were over.

"I couldn't deal without it," said Martin Ferguson of Northridge. "When I saw on TV that the lockout was over, I was going to come over here, no matter what. It's the only sport in the world that's exciting."

Debbie Convoy and her two daughters showed up to thank the Kings for settling their nerves in the wake of the Northridge quake. After the shaker a year ago, the entire Convoy clan camped out in their Winnetka living room for six weeks. Because televised reports of the quake just made them more jittery, they desperately needed a distraction.

Hockey was just what they needed. The Convoys watched several games a week.

"For a few hours, we forgot about all the troubles," said Debbie Convoy. "Even when there was an aftershock, it was a lot easier to take. It became therapy.

"It brought the family together."

Unity was a familiar theme Thursday with fans. Many showed no interest in whether the players or owners deserved more of the blame for the 103-day lockout. They were just grateful that there will be a hockey season, no matter how truncated.

"I really didn't think they'd pull it off," said one fan. "It looked pretty hopeless."

Added Johnson, a hockey junkie who maintained her fix by watching minor league games on cable and seeing her kids play roller hockey: "I just love the game too much. It's fast and physical, and I like the fighting, too."

Johnson even attended informal workouts in the summer.

"I missed them so much," she said.

The players, however, know it won't be such an easy sell with every pre-lockout fan.

"There will be some fans who won't come back," said superstar Wayne Gretzky after Thursday's session. "We'll win as many back as possible."

But even the optimistic Great One seemed surprised when told about the Simi Valley mother who kept her kids out of school.

"I don't know if my wife would let me do that with my kids," he said.

Gretzky said Thursday's workout, which featured about 15 players, was "pretty high tempo."

He said, however, that the intensity should pick up when Coach Barry Melrose takes over the first official practice today, pending the anticipated ratification by the players of the new labor contract.

If all goes well, the Kings will be practicing at the Iceoplex through Monday.

Does that mean Johnson will let the boys play hooky again today?

"Definitely," she said. "I told the school my kids were sick, and I'll do it again. How does upper respiratory infection sound?"

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