When Wayne Gretzky, the greatest hockey player of all time, was traded from the Edmonton Oilers to the Los Angeles Kings in 1988, it had an immediate impact that would change the course of sports in California. Not just Los Angeles, but across the entire state as the ripple effect caused by Gretzy’s move was widespread. Suddenly, California could not get enough of the sport that had traditionally belonged north of the border and in several of the United States’ large northern cities. Youth leagues became popular. Inline roller hockey flourished and a network of semi-professional and later professional minor league ice hockey teams and leagues began to sprinkle the state.
Bakersfield got into the act in 1994, the year after Gretzky led the Kings to the Stanley Cup Finals (they were defeated by the Montreal Canadiens) with the formation of the Bakersfield Oilers, a semi-professional team that would play in the old convention center, on a rink not even remotely equipped to support hockey. That team would morph into a newer, higher level team called the Bakersfield Fog, and that in turn would lead to Bakersfield’s current professional team, the Bakersfield Condors. It’s been 20 years, and hockey isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. That’s saying a lot for a town like Bakersfield, where pro sports traditionally don’t fare well.
I don’t know if the above picture is from the Oilers’ first game, but I’m certain it was from the first hockey game I ever photographed. I came away with this shot on my first try and thought, damn, this is going to be easy! The picture won a National Press Photographers’ Association regional and national award, and I envisioned many more shots just like this one. And I’ve never come close again. Twenty years of shooting, not even close. What’s the old saying, sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good?
Bakersfield’s current team, the Bakersfield Condors, is a far cry from that rag-tag bunch of characters that made up the Oilers in 1994. It is essentially a minor league team of the Edmonton Oilers, the same team that sent the great Gretzky to California. And the team’s strength is its flair for marketing, promotion and community involvement, often times generating national headlines. It is easily one of the most popular, if not the most popular, non-NHL teams in the sport. It’s promotions are sometimes outlandish but they keep the crowds – and the headlines – coming. The newspaper covers the team extensively, and even sent me to Anchorage, Alaska to chronicle a road trip with the Fog. The town also took to hockey as a participant sport, with youth and adult leagues springing up, first on local tennis courts and then on full-fledged, NHL-caliber rinks for both inline and ice leagues.
The Bakersfield Condors are masters at using social media and marketing, which easily makes them the most successful professional sport in Bakersfield. Some of their wackier promotions include a recent tombstone giveaway, a Seinfeld night where the team wore puffy shirts made famous in an episode of that sitcom, and a stunt where the team tried to lure Justin Bieber to a game. It failed, but it didn’t matter. The publicity was insane. That’s marketing, baby. But nothing can top the out of control live condor that escaped its handler and flew amok in 2013. I won’t even try to describe it, other than to say it went viral, made just about every news program in the world and well, check it out.
I continue to hunt for that elusive shot that will top that very first one, from my first game 20 years ago. It hasn’t happened yet, but I’m pretty sure the next one will be the one. Or the one after that. Or maybe the one after that.