Duck Fans Still Have Their Team All to Themselves
Joe Aranda walked into his downtown Los Angeles office one day this spring, proudly wearing a tie adorned with the logo of his beloved Mighty Ducks.
“Oh, look,” said a curious co-worker. “A hockey chicken!”
Dr. Michael Papadopoulos leaned over a dental patient in his Torrance office recently and told the cute story of his young daughter’s affection for the Ducks’ talented rookie Stanislav Chistov.
“Who?” asked the patient.
The current the Ducks paddle against splashes through the car radio of longtime fan Doug DeWitte, who listens to the postgame show on KPLS (830) as he drives from the Arrowhead Pond to his Valencia home.
The farther north he gets, the weaker the signal, until finally his poor Ducks disappear altogether.
The Pond will be full tonight, 17,174 fans crowding to watch the Ducks play the New Jersey Devils in this area’s first Stanley Cup finals game in a decade.
But will anybody else be watching?
The numbing evidence during this most sensory of times can lead to only one conclusion: If Southern California is the size of a hockey rink, the Ducks have a fan base that could squeeze into a penalty box.
Outside of Orange County and southern portions of the Inland Empire, there is more buzz for the Sparks, more attention paid to the Avengers, and more fans of the Cleveland Browns.
Said Aranda: “It’s unbelievable. In Los Angeles, it’s like the Ducks don’t even exist.”
Said DeWitte: “When neighbors ask about my favorite team, and I tell them, they say, ‘You gotta be crazy.’ ”
There have been no polls conducted, no studies commissioned, but
I have never seen a Duck flag on a car. I have never seen a Duck sweater on a beer drinker. I have never entertained questions about Ducks’ scores or gossip about their players.
When the Stanley Cup visited our downtown newspaper lunchroom recently, it was mobbed with folks wanting to touch perhaps the most famous trophy in sports.
I walked in fresh from making my travel plans for the finals, thinking about Kariya and Stumpy and Jiggy, prepared to talk smack about the hottest story in town.
Nobody was listening.
In feeling alone, I was not alone.
“I have come to work all excited during the playoffs, but people are like, ‘Did they win?’ ” said Aranda, a season-ticket holder since the Ducks’ 1994 inception. “Sometimes it’s hard to take.”
Papadopoulos, another longtime season-ticket holder, enjoys conversation with his patients. But he has learned better than to bring up the Ducks.
“It’s like you’re talking about something foreign,” he said. “They know Paul Kariya, and that’s it.”
And when a Duck fan does suddenly appear in Los Angeles, he is treated with the sort of shock usually reserved for an alien.
Chuck Lejsek, who loves the Ducks so much he wanted to name his son Teemu, watched his worlds collide last fall while working as a production intern at Fox Sports Net’s Staples Center studio during the World Series.
While a dozen staffers were gathered around the television at the studio, watching the Angels play Game 5, he suddenly jumped up from another television and screamed.
Thinking they had somehow missed a home run, they asked Lejsek what happened.
“The Ducks just scored!” he shouted.
Yeah, he was watching Anaheim’s other team.
According to Lejsek, when the stunned staffers had picked themselves off the floor, news director Greg Dowling explained their shock.
“Wow, a real live Ducks’ fan!” he exclaimed. “We haven’t seen one of them around here in 10 years.”
From that day on, Lejsek was known as Chuck the Duck.
And proud of it.
“It’s great these days to see the Laker fans walking around all bitter,” Lejsek said. “To them I say, ‘Stay the heck off my bandwagon.’ ”
It’s more like a bandstand than a bandwagon. And TV ratings will show that more Angelenos are watching the hated San Antonio Spurs than the hometown Ducks.
Which, like our affinity for carpool lanes and hatred of the Giants, makes no sense unless you live here.
The Ducks, it seems, are all about the two things that Angelenos love to ignore: hockey that isn’t the Kings, and Orange County.
Said Aranda, who commutes from below the Orange curtain, “Orange County is so far removed from Los Angeles, people don’t give it a second thought that it exists.”
Added Lejsek, who also commutes, “Then there are the Kings’ fans, who hate the Ducks. They are definitely not the we’ll-root-for-you-because-we’re-out-of-it kind of fans.”
It is an attention-killing combination.
Yes, Angel fever swept the Southland, but that’s because it was baseball. And, yes, Los Angeles embraced the last Stanley Cup finals held here in 1993, but those were Hollywood’s Kings.
Perhaps because they were born in the last decade, and across the street from Fantasyland, the Ducks have always been viewed by outsiders as a Disney creation, worth an occasional visit, but you’d never want to give them your heart, because they just don’t seem real.
Which now seems like a big shame, because their recent run has reminded us of several realities.
The Ducks are a better organization than the Kings. They have a better team, a better owner and a more focused future. Heck, they are the Angels with Canadian accents.
Their arena is also more easily accessible than Staples Center. You park closer, you leave quicker, and fans who have been to both places feel it is safer.
“The Ducks are so easy to admire,” Papadopoulos said. “Great young players, a great place to play, you really feel part of things.”
It can be such an irresistible feeling that -- and you didn’t hear this from me -- a fan wearing a King jersey has reportedly been spotted standing in Duck ticket lines. It’s only one, but isn’t one enough?
And, oh yeah, a co-worker just informed me that she lives near Los Angeles and she has seen a Duck flag on a car. Again, just one, but it’s a start.
Charles Harris, the Ducks’ bright new director of publicity and community development, said the team doesn’t categorize ticket holders by place of residence.
“But just in hearing people talk, there have been a lot more hockey fans coming down here for the playoffs,” he said. “We are reaching out to all parts of Los Angeles.”
Duck fans trapped deep behind apathetic lines hope they start touching those parts, and soon.
Joe Aranda dreams of the day he can walk into work after a Duck victory and find somebody willing to exchange a high five.
Dr. Michael Papadopoulos longs for the day that he can talk trade, and a patient will gargle, spit and talk back.
Doug DeWitte will be thrilled when he can listen to his hometown team on the radio.
Bill Plaschke can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.