It’s a simple enough question to answer. Each of us, as hockey fans has that one team, be it a division rival, a perennial playoff adversary, or otherwise, that just makes the blood boil. We steam and try not to throw things at our televisions when they win (especially against our teams) and cheer emphatically when they lose – especially in embarrassing fashion. Just admit it, you’ve got one too!
For me as a Kings’ fan, the answer has always been pretty easy. As a kid watching in the late 80s and early 90s when the Kings were part of the Smythe Division, I hated the Flames and Oilers. They were division rivals and in those days, you had actual divisional playoffs (I miss that!) that had the top 4 teams from each division (there were but 2 in each conference) facing each other for two rounds for the right to get to the Conference Finals. The Oilers were a powerhouse and it seemed like the Kings and Oilers played in the first round for a consecutive decade, and it seemed like the Oilers always killed us. That was part of what made the Miracle On Manchester such a big deal. When the Kings traded for Gretzky in 1988, they promptly beat the Oilers in round one of the 89 playoffs, then got trounced by the Flames in the Division Final. The following year the Kings upset the defending champion Flames in round one on Mike Krushelnyski’s triple-OT goal, one of the most memorable goals in Kings’ history, then went on to lose, again, to the Oilers.
With expansion and re-alignment of the NHL’s division, come new enemies and in the Fall of 1993, Disney gave Kings’ fans a plenty to feast on. Riding the coattails of the Gretzky era in Los Angeles and named for Disney’s series of awful children’s hockey movies, the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim were almost too easy to pick on. Gaudy, silly looking uniforms, cheesy in game entertainment and a mascot who accidentally set himself on fire – and those fans…oh my. The Ducks attracted a special breed of spectator – one who’s breadth of hockey knowledge came mostly from the aforementioned Disney movies, whose experience with hockey might have culminated in arcade table hockey. For the first couple of seasons, this was annoying but acceptable, but beyond that point you’d expect them to understand concepts like icing and offsides without having to ask “why’d they stop the game?”. The worst thing to ever happen to the game of hockey was the Ducks winning the Cup in 2007. All of the sudden hockey’s worst informed, least knowledgeable and possibly worst mannered fan base running around in stinky diapers celebrating. It was a solid year of facepalm-fest after that. Fortunately, the team has come back to earth after that season and most of the OC’s hockey fans – those who weren’t Kings’ fans to begin with anyway – have gone back to watching Jersey Shore and likely have forgotten they even have a professional hockey team. Still, the few that stuck around, along with the number of guys on the team that are so easy to hate: Getzlaf, Perry, Ryan, Parros (seriously, how can anyone possibly like THOSE guys) and a coach that espouses dirty hockey – have made the Ducks the sworn enemy of Kings’ fans for 18 years now. I thought that the Ducks would remain on top of my list of hated teams eternally, barring a relocation to Quebec City or something of the like. Turns out, I was wrong!
Enter the past couple of seasons. I always thought of San Jose almost as allies. I have a handful of good friends who support the team and it seemed as if there was a mutual respect between fan bases not often seen with teams that share a divisional alignment. I’ve attended games in both teams’ barns and seen groups of friends with a spattering of both teams jerseys contained within hanging out sans hostility. We liked them, they liked us. All was well. Until…all of the sudden the Kings became a competitive team. As soon as the divisional stakes changed, so did the fans attitudes. It’s bad enough that they plagiarize the annoying “Beat LA” chant that was invented by Boston Celtics fans in 1980, but the rivalry has turned into a chance for Northern Californians of all stripes to showcase their inferiority complex off on stride by taking pot shots at Southern California culture as well. Their general attitude of entitlement when a challenger to their division crown emerged resembled that of bratty pre-teens who’s parents had just confiscated their favorite toy. The San Jose fans I encountered during the 2011 playoffs – most of them clad in some type of San Francisco Giants attire (uhh, wrong sport buddy?) were the absolute most obnoxious, worst behaved arena patrons I’ve ever witnessed. They made Duck fans, who I would normally advocate being barred from all road arenas just to spare the home fans from having to deal with them, look classy by comparison. The gloating towards Kings fans after they beat a team without it’s best player whom by all rights should’ve defeated them was downright juvenile. And don’t get me started on the team – and fans reaction to Kings’ coach Terry Murray declining to shake their hands at the end of the series. It highlighted an attitude of entitlement that starts in the Sharks’ locker room and permeates clear down to the fans. Right then and there, I experienced a change of heart in regards to whom I most hated. And then come the offseason polls. While the Kings have undoubtedly gotten much stronger, and are (and should be) most hockey journalists pick to win the Pacific Division in 2011-2012; San Jose gave up tremendous offensive punch for a puck moving defenseman in Brent Burns who has always been a bit of a trainwreck in his own end, and a minimal upgrade in speed in oft-injured Martin Havlat. The addition of Colin White yesterday gives the Sharks’ the largest collection of 3rd pair defensemen in the known universe. A survey of comments throughout the blogosphere and comments on polls on sports sites like ESPN, TSN and The Hockey News reveal a San Jose fanbase that seems to think that an overall team downgrade has made them Cup favorites. Really? I mean, really? Your Southbound neighbors have perhaps the conferences best depth at Center, a top 6 who all have 30 goal potential, a defense corps that is unmatched in the division and a goaltending duo that ranks among the entire league’s best, and the Pacific is somehow San Jose’s by right? Really? That attitude of entitlement is hard to stomach.
So, with the opening puck drop of 2011-12 still weeks away; my dartboards that were once home to images of Perry, Getzlaf, Parros, Ryan, Beauchemin and Carlyle are now home to the faces of Couture, Thornton, Murray, Marleau and McLellan. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve hardly forgiven the Ducks for their past atrocities, and I still don’t like them. It’s just that there’s someone else I like even less these days.
Of course, regardless of how much I dislike certain teams, friends are always friends. I always try to make a point of distinguishing the people I love from the rotten apples that spoil the rest of the bunch, just as most rational human beings do. Those of us fans who go “all-in” with our teams experience the roller coaster of emotions that goes along with it but friends will always be friends regardless of what jersey they wear on game day.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s time to put some war scars on those dartboards.
Who do you love to hate?