BY MANOUK AKOPYAN
Special to Asbarez
Lifelong hockey fan Daron Malakian of System of a Down has been a Los Angeles Kings season ticket holder ever since the franchise first started playing games at Staples Center, in 1999.
On Thursday, Staples Center celebrated its 20th anniversary of opening its arena doors when the Kings took on the Buffalo Sabres.
Then, suddenly, Harout Pamboukjian’s “Hey Jan Ghapama” started blaring over the stadium’s speakers.
“That doesn’t happen every night,” said Malakian with a proud smile. “That’s actually a good feeling. It’s better than the crap they usually play here. I come to every game, and it’s cool that they are recognizing the Armenian fan base.”
Minutes later, System of a Down’s classic hit “Toxicity” was played, followed by Super Sako’s “Mi Gna,” and Aram Asatryan’s “Hye Es Du” as Bailey, the Kings’ mascot, proudly displayed the Armenian tricolor in his paws.
The tunes and proceedings only meant one thing — it was Armenian Heritage Night.
The Kings honored the Armenian community as over 700 Armenians across Los Angeles showed up to revel on a night of which Staples Center also marked two decades in the southland.
The franchise scheduled the honorary evening around Sabres defenseman Zach Bogosian, who is the only known Armenian player in the NHL. However, the 29-year-old man of the hour was not in attendance, because he’s currently back home and on injured reserve recovering from hip surgery.
Bogosian’s absence, or the Kings’ 3 – 0 loss, did not dampen the mood for the Armenian faithful, as the occasion marked yet another night in which a Los Angeles sports franchise has thrown the Armenian community its personal party.
Fans who purchased tickets through the team received a mashup scarf of the Armenian flag on one side, and the Kings’ logo and “Go Kings Go” chant on the other. The Kings partnered with the Armenian American Museum and offered portions of each ticket sale back to the non-profit organization, which is set to break ground in Glendale for its monumental building in mid-2020. The museum also had a table outside section 102 to educate interested fans about the forthcoming project.
“This is a very important project happening by the community, for the community, and a worthwhile cause to support,” said Shant Sahakian, Executive Director of the Armenian American Museum. “We’re grateful to be the beneficiary from the Kings and having them step up because it shows other organizations how they can help make the project a reality. It was a very successful night in raising funds and awareness.”
The game was a special one for Sahakian, who grew up playing hockey in Glendale.
“Hearing Armenian music and seeing the rainbow of flags on the jumbotron made it a special evening, and the first time I’ve ever experienced anything like it at Staples Center,” he said. “Hopefully there will be more opportunities in the future.”
Before the game began, the Zvartnots Dance Ensemble performed a two-song set to Armenian folk music at Star Plaza, just outside Staples Center. A throng of fans reveled in the 10-minute performance.
“It’s really special the way the Kings have reached out to the Armenian community to grow the sport of hockey. It’s great to see how we impact them, and the way they support our team,” said Daryl Evans, a former Kings player and current broadcaster for the team.
“The Armenian community is a very festive culture, and we will see it for years to come as we continue to build on this relationship. It’s been great to see them come together and collectively experience the game and their culture as a group.”
Evans is involved with the Kings’ efforts in growing the game of hockey around local communities as an ambassador. He believes that exhibiting hockey to the Armenian community will help develop the next Bogosian and a future pipeline of Armenian players in the NHL.
Earlier in the week, Evans joined Armenian author Stepan Partamian on Horizon TV to raise awareness around the event and the hockey offerings that are available for the youth.
“It’s important for every local community to be involved with sports franchises,” said Partamian. “Armenians have been in Los Angeles for over 120 years, and once we leave our own kitchens and become incorporated into nights like this, the general public will realize that we are more than just a group who survived a genocide.”
This was not the first time the Kings have held Armenian Heritage Night. During Bogosian’s rookie season in 2009, they honored the former 2008 third-overall pick as he went on to tally three assists, and have done so countless times thereafter throughout the years any time Bogosian’s team has visited town.
The Kings were the first major team in Los Angeles to hold the honorary night back then, and have since set the blueprint for the Clippers, Dodgers, and Galaxy, and the former MLS franchise Chivas USA, to hold their own variation of the event.
Evan Flagg, Senior Director of Membership Service and Group Sales for the Kings, labeled this year’s version of the night as a success, because they let the community take ownership of the evening en route to selling out the allocation of 500 tickets.
“It made it much more inclusive, and it was beyond sports,” said Flagg. “What’s really fascinating about the Armenian community is that they have a keen interest in our youth hockey programs at a grassroots level. It’s great to partner with the community and amplify it.”
Creating a partnership with the museum was an entirely new angle for the franchise, as they blew past the ticket marker they’d originally planned for. In fact, fans who purchased tickets through various other methods were scrambling around the concourse trying to get their hands on a scarf. The keepsake, however, was an exclusive offer that could have only been attained buying a ticket for as low as $45 through the promotion.
Vick One, who is Armenian, has been the Kings’ in-arena DJ for the last five years and was proudly responsible for getting the party started as fans danced with the commemorative scarf adorned around the shoulders.
“Everyone came out to support tonight, and it felt great to play those songs. It’s a beautiful thing. It feels really good,” said Vick One, who also deejays for the Chargers, Galaxy, and REAL 92.3 FM radio.
“It felt pretty amazing to be honored as a country and culture tonight,” said Petros Boyadzhyan, a music teacher for Glendale Unified School District. “The Kings pulled out all the stops and it was done right on a grand scale. It did not feel like a regular season game. It felt more special and meaningful.”
By the end of the evening, the Kings remained stuck on 1,000 home wins in franchise history, but the Armenian fans who still remained gathered by the rink for a post-game photo op as a group.
The Kings also leveraged the night to set a new Guinness Book of World Record for the “largest laser show” using 642 lasers to achieve the mark during the first intermission.
They may have set a new bar in laser entertainment, but more importantly, the Kings set an even higher bar in how a sports franchise should go about producing Armenian Heritage Night and honoring the community.
Manouk Akopyan is a journalist who’s written for the likes of the Guardian, Al Jazeera, USA Today, Philadelphia Inquirer, Men’s Health, NFL.com, Yerevan Magazine, Armenian Weekly and currently does TV commentary for combat sports programming that airs on Fox Sports. He can be reached on Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn and YouTube at @ManoukAkopyan or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.