As noted earlier, Helene Elliott of the Los Angeles Times and I had a chance to talk today with Kings governor Tim Leiweke on a wide variety of topics. Here’s how it went…
Question: You’re excited about getting to the second round but that’s something, at the beginning of the season, that was viewed as the bare minimum, so how do you view that?
LEIWEKE: “The one thing I like right now is the way the team is. They’re pretty focused on the second round. I don’t think there’s a lot of joy right now. I don’t think we feel like we’ve done what we had to do this year, and now everything is gravy. I think we came into the year with a different attitude this year, and I think the team is demonstrating that, and I think a lot of the credit for that maturity goes to Darryl and the impact he has had, making them understand we haven’t done anything yet. So, previous years, maybe this would have been a stepping stone, but we believe the organization now is past getting satisfaction or joy out of just getting out of the first round. We want to win the Cup. I think taking one step…it’s 16 games, not four.”
Question: When Darryl came in and Terry was dismissed, what was your sense of what was going on?
LEIWEKE: “I think Dean handled it as well as it could be handled. I think it was unfortunate, because I think Terry is a good man. It’s never easy to go through those sort of things, and it certainly wasn’t for us. We were trying to find a new philosophy of consistency, and change is not a good thing when you’re trying to become an organization, like Detroit, where you have consistency year after year. That said, i think it was the right decision. I think bringing Darryl in was 100-percent Dean’s decision, and I think he did a good job. Ownership was involved in the decision, as to a change, because we believed, like Dean did, that we were not living up to expectations. But Dean really made the decision as to when to go and where to go, and I think he did a very good job. I think the team responded well, and I think Darryl has been exactly what we needed.”
Question: When you say ownership was involved, did you go to Dean and say, `We’re not getting results. What are you going to do?”
LEIWEKE: “No. I think Dean came to the realization that we were not getting results. But Dean and I do talk a lot, and so he understood the expectations that we had for this team, this year. He understood that we were not living up to those expectations. There was no lack of communication between Dean and I. We were disappointed with where we were at. The only thing that we communicated to Dean is that not making the playoffs was not an option.”
Question: Had you not made the playoffs, might there have been some other changes?
LEIWEKE: “You know what? I don’t ever worry about what could have been or what should have been or what didn’t happen. We did make the playoffs. That clearly was not only a goal that we had, but an expectation our fans have. It’s good, where we’re at, because what it means is I think our players are living up to their potential. I think there’s a realization, on this team, that they are capable of great things. Getting to the playoffs was not good enough. Getting past the first round is something I think our players understand is a growth. It’s part of the path of where we want to get to, but I think they understand that, for our organization, we need to compete for the Cup. This team is pretty good, as are the other teams that we’re playing. Certainly we were disappointed that, halfway through the year, it looked like we weren’t even going to make the playoffs.”
Question: Because you spent a lot of money, on Doughty, taking on Richards’ contract, and it impacts you on a personal level watching the team…
LEIWEKE: “It’s two-fold. As a business, ownership has done a lot, especially this year. This is as large a commitment as we’ve ever made. We’ve been near, or at, the cap (ceiling) for a while now. Certainly we were big and bold with the Mike Richards trade. We did not take a back seat on the commitment to Drew Doughty. We clearly were committed and stepped up there. Obviously, as a business, we felt like we had made the right decisions to create an environment for this team to succeed. As a fan, I was probably like every other fan of the Kings. We were excited about the year. We had high expectations. So, that said, you had to be patient. Although it was tough with Terry, because we were very respectful of everything that Terry did for this organization. If you look at the success that we’re having today, a lot of that is the system and the defensive mentality that Terry built into our organization. So getting rid of Terry was tough on all of us. That said, I think what this team has achieved is not only what we expected out of them, but I think they have room for growth and you know it.”
Question: Is this a Stanley Cup-caliber team?
LEIWEKE: “Well, the good news is, that’s up for them to decide, not me. I’m like every other fan. I get to sit back at this point and watch them grow. But I’m proud. Beating Vancouver is something not many people expected, outside of L.A. and the two of you. [laughs] I think that was a good first step, but what I’m most proud of is the attitude that Darryl has with this team. I get no sense of euphoria here. These guys got right to work. When Darryl kids about the fact that he, within two minutes, was thinking about St. Louis, we’re still the eighth seed, last time I checked.”
Question: Did you go to the games in Vancouver?
LEIWEKE: “I did go for the second game. We’ve learned to quietly sneak in and sneak out of the visiting market, especially Vancouver. I think they probably would have kicked us out of our room if they had known. I had my brother come in from Seattle. It’s always interesting when you go there, because it’s a religion there. It’s a way of life. It’s the very fiber of that community, and so you go from L.A., where you have a dozen teams competing for the marketplace — and, to a large extent, during the regular season hockey is almost an afterthought — to Vancouver, where there was almost an expectation they were going to compete for the Stanley Cup again this year. Clearly, they probably didn’t give the Kings as much of a chance as we felt we had. It was interesting to watch our team grow in that environment, because that is a tough environment to play in. The expectations are high, and I think they’re still struggling to comprehend the fact that they just got knocked out in the first round.”
Question: You mentioned the other teams competing in the market. AEG also owns the arena that other teams (the Lakers and Clippers) are competing in. Three playoff teams in one arena…
LEIWEKE: “It’s as good a run as we’ve ever had in the building. For me, personally, I’m excited and happy for all of the fans just as much as you want to do well for the Kings fans. They deserve it. They’ve earned it. They have put in a lot of time and energy, and we have served up probably more disappointment than overachieving, and we understand that. So it’s great that we’re finally giving them the run that they’ve always hoped for. But to see it come when the Lakers are going to be in the playoffs, and now the Clippers are in the playoffs, we’ve never had all three teams in. So it’s great for the city, it’s great for the building, it’s great for the district and this is the vision we always had. We’re that unique beast in professional sports in North America, where we have three teams in one building. So this is a great time. The Dodgers are playing well. The Galaxy are coming off an MLS Cup. USC is going to have one of the top-rated football teams in the country. The Angels have Albert Pujols. So this is a great time to be a sports fan in L.A., and I’m glad that the Kings are in the mix now. Normally, they wouldn’t have been part of the conversation in May. It’s nice to be playing hockey in May.”
Question: Can you update that situation with Montreal, or maybe other teams who might be interested in talking to your guys (Robitaile and Hextall)?
LEIWEKE: “I haven’t had any conversations with them, nor is it really our place to comment on their process. What I do know is what Luc has told me, which is I think Luc is happy being a part of the Kings organization, and I don’t expect that to change. I think, from Luc’s standpoint, he, like I, we’re excited about the future, we’re committed to the future here, and so I’m not speaking on behalf of Luc, but my understanding is that Luc is pretty committed and focused on the future here. I’m not going to comment on any other thing going on in Montreal. That’s not our business, nor have I had any other conversations with them.”
Question: When the season-ticket price increases were announced, a lot of fans were unhappy. Do you know what the renewal rate was, and what do you say to fans who did get a substantial hike?
LEIWEKE: “It was a very hotly debated, and a very intense topic within our organization. I know, occasionally, our fans don’t think that we care, or that we don’t listen. That’s not true. We do. As you know, I’m at the games. I pay for season tickets. I have a whole group of people around me who let me know how they feel about life, which is a good thing. So it affected all of us, in a way, to have people come back and think that we were putting it to them. It was disappointing for a couple reasons, and that was our fault. I’ll take the blame on maybe that the communication wasn’t as good as we should have, and could have, communicated. There was a perception that we were already at the high end of tickets in the NHL. That’s not true. We’re not even at the medium. We are below the average. I saw other people talking about how much more expensive we are than the Ducks. Not true. So we have been good on pricing. We have been trying to maintain a reasonable ticket price here. I also believe you have to be accountable for your results on the ice. There were many years we didn’t deserve a raise, and many years we didn’t ask for one. We made a bit of an assumption here, that we were in a position to ask for a raise. At the time we announced the prices, two things happened. Number one, we weren’t in a position to earn a raise at that time. And two, there were some people that went through a restructuring that had a much more significant increase, and they were vocal. And I don’t blame them, and I understand it. The good news, today, is our renewal rate is the highest it’s been in 10 years. We are in the high 90 percentile. People now feel good about the raise, because we earned it, and that’s to the credit or Darryl and the team and Dean, by the way. For the adjustments, I understand there are still some people that are disappointed. We’re just trying to pull everyone into line, so that we have a uniform pricing concept that is shared by everyone. I’m happy that the team is playing well. It makes the fans more focused on the team and less on the pricing. We don’t run this team to make a profit, and the good news is, we haven’t. This is a team that, ultimately, we are passionate about because it helped build AEG. This is not about, `How much money can we make on the Kings?’ We’ve never made a penny on the Kings. This is about getting to a point where they can be a stand-alone, break-even proposition, and trying to get ticket prices back to the middle of where the league is.”
Question: People are wondering what’s going to happen at the end of this collective-bargaining agreement at the end of the season. Is that something you’re thinking about now?
LEIWEKE: “The good news is, I’m in a position today where I’m probably the happiest I’ve ever been since I’ve been involved with the Kings. On behalf of Mr. Anschutz, we have a team here that I’m really proud of. I love the run. I love the fact that (No.) 8 beat (No. 1) and I love Darryl and Dean and the tone that they’re setting for the rest of the playoffs. I’m not worried about anything else at this point, and I’m not going to get into where we’re headed, as a league, on other stuff. I’ll worry about that another day. Right now, this is a great time to be a Kings fan.”
Question: Do you have any thoughts about the bad hits and suspensions around the league, and have you communicated anything to Gary (Bettman) about what the league needs to do?
LEIWEKE: “I am on the executive committee and I am on the board of governors. This is a subject that makes its way all the way to that group. I think what the league is doing, and the crackdowns they are now establishing, is important. I support Gary and Mike and the team that Shanny has dealing with this issue, including Blakey. This is a game that ultimately, our best players need to be our best players. That is an element of the game I don’t think any of us want to see. I’m glad that the league is dealing with it in a stern way. If you look at the series that we just had with Vancouver, I think, for the most part, it was about hockey. That’s a good thing. That’s what our fans want. That’s what the players should demand. I know the league is trying to protect the players here. I think that’s important, going forward, that we can’t be going through some of the exercises and suffering some of the damage to the game that we suffer when players go out of their way to add an element to the game that shouldn’t be a part of the game. So, what I like about our team is, I think Dustin (Brown) put it very well. He takes great pride in the way he plays the game. He’s a physical player, but he plays within the boundaries. As proud as he is of his game, I’m more proud of the way he plays and how he represents our organization. When he puts that sweater on, Dustin lives within the guidelines and respects the integrity of the game. That, to me, is the most important part. So I’m glad our players have tried to do the right thing here, and again, I think Dustin put it the right way.”