“Once you get here, it’s an outstanding experience. The people of Melbourne, the organizing people, the life in the city, the energy, the AFL game, the fans, I would say it’s an unreal experience.”
That was Kings Head Coach Todd McLellan, on what he would tell another coach who asked him what it was like coming to Australia for NHL games. While he admitted that the travel presented problems, both on the front and back ends, his reception to his time here was incredible.
If you visit the standings page on any major sports website, you’d find that the LA Kings leave Australia with a win and a loss. What they really left with is substantially more.
For Kings players, coaches and staff, the experience is one that they won’t soon forget.
For many, they didn’t really know what to expect. The Kings were certainly in that boat.
“When you come to a new country, you don’t really know how the game is going to be received, if they know all the rules and all that kind of stuff,” Kings goaltender Cam Talbot said. “At the AFL game, when we just went and cheered on, you never really know, but give the fans in the city a lot of credit and respect for the way that they treated us and the way that they came showed up for us. It’s been a great experience.”
Australia isn’t exactly known for its professional hockey around the world. As Jordan Spence, whose parents lived in Australia for a few years, told us, Australian sports fans were passionate and we should expect a good atmosphere at the game. I’m not sure that even he knew how right he actually was.
For preseason hockey, the crowds, the energy, the excitement and the atmosphere were second to none. Preseason hockey games are typically ones you look to get through as painlessly as possible. But these games were different. I’d pay good money to never see a preseason game stateside go into overtime, but there was a small part of I think everyone in the building who wanted to see just a little bit more on either of the two nights, just to see how that crowd would have reacted to an overtime game-winning goal for either team.
The results in these games were meaningless at the end of the day. As Todd McLellan said, there are a lot more ways than the score that the LA Kings could win in Australia. What they took away from these games was substantially more, something that will come back with those lucky enough to experience it.
“The atmosphere here is unbelievable,” Talbot added. “To have to sold-out games, on back to back afternoons, it was pretty incredible and they were into it the whole time.”
Talbot’s teammates were generally inclined to agree, even if they got a bit of a taste of what might be awaiting them from their experience watching AFL football the night before their first game.
Everyone who spoke about their time in Australia was complimentary, sensing the passion and fervor that Australian sports fans had for the game. The building was buzzing on both nights, from the pre-game warmups straight through the post-game salutes. So passionate was the support that when AFL player Mason Cox, who met with Pierre-Luc Dubois earlier in the week, went to drop the puck, he was booed by a lot of the crowd at Rod Laver Arena. GWS Giants fans, no doubt.
For the Kings and Coyotes though, there was no such reception. There were countless fans of both sides, but you also saw NHL apparel from each of the other 30 teams in the league, as well as countless teams in the AIHL and local clubs and adult league teams on top of that. Support that was seen and appreciated from the players, from the open practice straight through the buzzer in Game 2.
“I hope we grow most of the Australian people into Kings fans, that would be great,” defenseman Drew Doughty said. “I was actually pretty pleasantly surprised with how many people are out here and how many Kings jerseys you saw, and you saw some other teams’ jerseys too. The support right off the bat is great.”
That support Doughty referenced sold out both games, without an empty seat between the two nights.
Crowds of more than 13,000 fans packed into a tennis stadium to watch NHL hockey, without a point in the standings up for grabs. Pretty special to see.
“It’s been awesome to be here, promoting the league and being in a completely new city, new country, the fans have been awesome ever since we came here,” Kings forward Adrian Kempe added. “You can definitely tell that there are big hockey fans out there, I think everybody on both teams enjoyed the week and hopefully we come back one day.”
On the side of special was the reception for Kings defenseman Jordan Spence, who earned perhaps the most thunderous ovation of the weekend when he was announced as a starter in Game 2. The crowd took immediately to Spence, who was born here in Australia, even if this trip marked the first memories of his birth country. A special moment, with his parents in the building, no matter how you slice it.
“It’s an unreal feeling and I’ll never forget this moment,” Spence said. “There were a ton of fans who came to watch us play and it’s an unreal feeling for me, but all of the guys are excited to be here.”
Spence was named as the first star of the Kings victory in Game 2. For Australian hockey, he is a bit of a unique example, because he didn’t grow up in Australia, but there’s certainly some hope that games and events like this can inspire younger players to learn the game and grow the game, perhaps to a point where a player who is born in Australia could come through the Australian ranks and reach the NHL.
“[Hockey] is a contagious sport, it only takes a few people to be playing it and suddenly everyone is playing it,” McLellan added. “I see that happening here, I see banners, I see women’s teams, I think it’s got a good base. Hopefully it continues to grow and hopefully we’re a part of that.”
An experience that won’t soon be forgotten, even as the games now transition back to the United States.
Insiders, the Kings returned home to Los Angeles earlier this morning, with a couple of off days ahead for the group that traveled. The Australia group will return to practice on Thursday, 9/28, at Toyota Sports Performance Center. The group that didn’t travel practiced earlier today and will have an off day tomorrow, before game-day preparations on Wednesday for Vegas.