Next Stop – Melbourne, Australia!
The LA Kings are about to depart for Melbourne in advance of the 2023 NHL Global Series: Melbourne. The Kings will spend the coming week Down Under before they take on the Arizona Coyotes this in about. week’s time to kick off their exhibition season. The games will be the first NHL Games ever played in the Southern Hemisphere, let alone Australia, another first for an organization with a history of exploring new markets. Whether it was Beijing a few years prior or an exhibition game in Vegas each year until an expansion franchise was awarded there, the Kings are again at the forefront of expansion and exploration into new markets around the globe. Personally, I’m just excited to be a part of this one.
The mission from a larger perspective is simple – growing the game.
Now, that’s the 10,000-foot overview. There’s obviously more at stake here. As unique of a setting as it is, Melbourne will be the home to the first few days of Kings training camp for their veteran group. With the bulk of their NHL vets on this trip, the Kings certainly have the exploratory, growth aspects to their trip but there is also business to attend to from a hockey perspective. Both will be covered and both will be addressed throughout the course of the week.
Kings Head Coach Todd McLellan understands that balance. His job is to coach a hockey club and it’s a hockey club with grander expectations than they’ve had in some time. It’s a club that has now reached the playoffs in consecutive seasons, with the hopes of continuing to grow and exceed what was accomplished in seasons past. With that being said, it’s also September 16 here in Los Angeles and you can’t win the Stanley Cup in September.
The Kings will be a part of a special experience here in Australia to begin training camp and while McLellan knows about the focus necessary entering a huge season, he also knows how unique and special this opportunity is for the organization.
“We’re trying to promote the game, I think we all have a responsibility to do that,” McLellan said. “Whether we’re an organization, a group of coaches, players we’ve got to promote the game and we’ve got to do it worldwide. There’s a benefit to our organization, to our players, to getting out and doing this. It does come with some risk and we’re obviously well aware of those, the travel, the toll that it takes on the body but we’re trying to look at it from the other perspective, because there’s a lot of positives that can come out of it.”
McLellan has been around this game for a long time and he understands the need to be a part of events like this to leave the game in a better place than he found it. Still though, it certainly wasn’t McLellan making the executive decision to open the season in Australia. His job, first and foremost, is to coach a team.
That decision fell more on the plate of Kings President Luc Robitaille, who largely echoed similar thoughts to his head coach.
“The biggest thing is that I think it’s good for the game,” Robitaille said. “It’s good for the NHL to go there, to expand. Talking to some people from Australia [yesterday], the NFL has been there, they say the Rams are really relevant there, the NBA has been there but the NHL has never been there. As an organization, we feel if we have an opportunity to go and it’s good for our brand, but there’s a lot of things that we’re trying to do and we’re always trying to grow the game. We do it a lot in Southern California, we’ve worked really hard over the last 20 years. The league and the union work really hard to make sure these trips are well done.”
Robitaille and the Kings have always taken that focus as an organization that plays in what many on the outside would still consider to be a less-traditional hockey market. Those who live here might be inclined to disagree, considering how far hockey has come in California, but a large part of that change in perception comes from the efforts put forth to grow the game on the West Coast.
It’s certainly not likely we’ll see an expansion franchise in Australia any time soon, but the concept of “growing the game” comes in a variety of different forms. While his time spent in Australia has been minimal, Kings defenseman Jordan Spence was born in Australia to a Japanese mother and a Canadian father. He lived in the country for the first year or so of his life before moving to Japan and eventually Canada. Spence has spent the bulk of his hockey-playing life in Canada, but that doesn’t mean a trip back to Australia doesn’t have at least a bit of a special feeling.
For Spence, this will be his first-ever trip back to Australia since he left before turning two years old.
“I was born there, so going back and taking everything in when I get there, I think is pretty special,” Spence said of returning to his country of birth. “We’re going there for training camp and I need to be focused, but at the same time, we’ll have some free time and it will be cool to take everything in and enjoy the moment.”
With all due respect to Spence though – and also to St. Louis forward Nathan Walker, who was born in Wales but grew up in Australia – we still haven’t seen the Australian-born Anze Kopitar, if you will. Kopitar is a future Hall of Famer from Slovenia, a country with just three NHL players to its name. Could games like this help to inspire that level of athlete in the future? Obviously, no way of knowing for sure, but it could certainly be a step along the way.
There’s also the uniqueness of this experience, being the first club ever – alongside Arizona – to play a hockey game in Australia. Rod Laver Arena has been the host of several historic sporting events throughout its history and the Kings and Coyotes will add one more item to that list next weekend.
“As a player, 20 years from now when you retire, you’ll say ‘hey, I got to go to Australia and play a hockey game, pretty cool. I do think it’s a great thing for our game,” Robitaille addded.
Perhaps the best part about the experience is that it won’t just be one guy saying that in 20 years, but rather it will be 27. Tomorrow evening, on what will be the eve of training camp, we’ll look at the team-building and bonding elements to this trip, with several players highlighting that aspect of the week in Australia as the thing they’re looking forward to the most. Training camps have changed over the years, as Robitaille mentioned, and trips like this early in a season are few and far between in today’s NHL. One of several exciting storylines we’ll cover throughout the course of an exciting week to come!