California: The Golden State of hockey, Part 1

By DJ Powers

It is a state that is far off of the beaten hockey path, but California has become one of the fastest growing hockey regions in the country. Since the late 1990s, the state has produced and sent many players on to leagues such as the NCAA, the Canadian Major Juniors as well as to the professional ranks, including the NHL.

And there are many more on the way.

According to figures provided by the Northern California Junior Hockey Association (NORCAL) and the Southern California Amateur Hockey Association (SCAHA), there are approximately 4,300 registered boys 18-and-under playing organized youth hockey in the state of California this season. NORCAL, which has 14 affiliates extending from Santa Rosa to Fresno, has 1,394 players on 82 teams playing at 15 different levels (Mites to Midget 18AAA). SCAHA, which has 23 affiliates that stretches from Bakersfield down to the U.S.-Mexico border, has 2,907 players on 162 teams playing at 19 different levels. NORCAL and SCAHA are the regional arms of the California Amateur Hockey Association (CAHA), which is the governing body for youth hockey in the state.

While these numbers may seem small in comparison to those in traditional hockey regions, the figures have either continually climbed or held steady in just the last five years alone. What is perhaps the most underestimated part of the growth of youth hockey in California is the fact that it isn’t just growing in the areas where the state’s three NHL franchises reside. It is growing in all around the state.  Furthermore, the numbers of former California players graduating to the top developmental leagues are rising as well.

There are currently 41 players playing NCAA Division I college hockey that reside in and/or played all or part of their youth hockey in California. That is up from 37 last year. The 41 players represent 26 schools across the league.

Up in the Western Hockey League, there are currently 22 players that played all or part of their youth hockey in California. That is up from 13 last year. The 22 players represent 12 teams across the league.

In addition, there are currently 23 California players in the United States Hockey League, 21 in the North American Hockey League, five on the National Team Development Program’s (NTDP) U-17 roster, and approximately a dozen playing in the British Columbia Junior “A” league (BCHL).

Among the aforementioned leagues, there are ten players that reside in and/or played all or part of their youth hockey in California that are also NHL draft selections.

History

The growth and popularity of ice hockey in California can be traced back to the 1960’s. The USA Men’s Ice Hockey team that captured the gold medal at the 1960 Winter Olympics at Squaw Valley led to the initial popularization of the sport, particularly in the northern half of the state. During that era, rinks began opening in cities such as Oakland and Berkeley.

But it would be a historic NHL deal 28 years later that would change the California hockey landscape forever.

It was dubbed “The Trade That Shook the Hockey World.” On Aug. 9, 1988, the Edmonton Oilers traded the legendary Wayne Gretzky to the Los Angeles Kings. Its impact was felt immediately, especially in Southern California where hockey’s popularity soared. Gretzky’s arrival also planted the seed of the youth hockey movement in the state. But what few, if anyone, could’ve imagined at the time was the tremendous crop that it would yield in the years to come.

The movement’s growth would be further accelerated by the arrival of the San Jose Sharks in 1991 and the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim (now Anaheim Ducks) in 1993 into the NHL, as well as arrival of the Stockton Thunder into the ECHL in 2005. And with this fall’s debut of the ECHL’s Ontario Reign, the growth process looks to be continuing out in San Bernardino County as well.

Today, there are seven professional hockey teams in California. In addition to the three NHL franchises, there are four ECHL franchises in Bakersfield, Fresno, Ontario and Stockton. Bakersfield and Ontario are the current ECHL affiliates of the Anaheim Ducks and the Los Angeles Kings, respectively, while Stockton has continued a strong affiliation with the Edmonton Oilers. Fresno used to be affiliated with the San Jose Sharks, but is now with the Chicago Blackhawks.

Building the sport

The Anaheim Ducks have been involved on two fronts of the Southern California youth hockey movement. The first is the relationship with their junior namesake. When the Ducks won the Stanley Cup in 2007, the Junior Ducks program saw a sudden boom in its popularity. And as Junior Ducks president Art Trottier explained, the number of youngsters trying out for the team skyrocketed.

“We saw a pretty big increase. Tryouts for the Junior Ducks increased quite a bit. We saw a lot more kids trying out than in the past, and where we really saw the increase was in our in-house program. We saw about a 30 percent increase in kids trying out there.”

Former and current Ducks players such as Todd Marchant, Chris Pronger, and Teemu Selanne have also lent a hand in such areas as running camps, clinics and the occasional practice sessions of some of the Junior Ducks teams. In addition, those players also have (or had) children playing on a Junior Ducks roster as well.

The second area where the Ducks organization has been heavily involved is at the high school level, specifically with J. Serra High School in San Juan Capistrano. Back In July, Pronger and Ducks GM Brian Burke kicked off the campaign by formally introducing the J. Serra Ice Lions team. The Ducks provide the team with both financial and promotional support. As Anaheim Ducks Director of Fan Development Matt Savant explained, the goal is to ultimately have a 10 to 12 team Southern California High School League in place.

“The way that we’re structuring it this year is that they’re actually going to skate under the Junior Ducks, and will be the equivalent to a SCAHA team for the first year, and will play an independent schedule. Right now, we’re working with three other schools in the same high school CIF (California Interscholastic Federation) division as J. Serra. So our goal for next year is to have four teams, and those four teams will play against each other in the first kind of small division of high school hockey in Southern California. Our goal for the third year, which will coincide with the development of a new ice rink that the Ducks ownership group are working on, is to expand to ten or 12 teams. That will then form the first high school hockey league, where they will play solely against each other and run through the length of the season. The Championship games will be held here at the Honda Center.”

Like the Ducks, the Los Angeles Kings are also heavily involved in the growth of youth hockey in Southern California. One area where the Kings have focused their attention on has been on their junior namesake and more recently, their partnership with the Los Angeles Hockey Club (LAHC), whose top Tier (AAA) team is better known as the Selects.

While the Kings have had many of their current and former players involved in areas such as helping to run camps and clinics throughout Southern California, no one has had as much of an impact in Southern California youth hockey as Luc Robitaille. Robitaille, who currently serves as the Kings’ President of Business Operations, has been actively involved in educating and developing Southern California kids at virtual all levels. He’s been involved in running clinics put on by the Kings Alumni Association and was instrumental in forging the Kings’ alliance with the LAHC/Selects. As James Gasseau, the President of the LAHC/Selects explained, Robitaille is a big part of the reason why his program has been able to establish such close ties with the Kings.

“I came to Los Angeles in 1995 and right away I got involved in the program at the Iceoplex with Luc Robitaille and Pat Brisson. I think our relationship with the Kings is much closer now than it was back in 1995. They’re much more involved. I played hockey with Luc back in the QMJHL and in Midgets, so I’m in touch with him regularly. I think the Kings have provided more opportunities through various programs for the kids to get involved in hockey. I’ve seen a consistent effort by them in the last few years, and I believe that the relationship is here to stay.”

In addition to their relationship with two of Southern California’s premiere youth hockey programs, the Kings have also established special programs for children as young as two years old and have continually reached out to communities as far away as Riverside and Valencia to introduce and educate their children on the sport as well. As Kings radio color analyst Darryl Evans noted those are essential to keeping hockey and its popularity growing.

“We put together the “Little Kings” program, where it’s an introduction of hockey to the youngest kids that are anywhere from two and a half years old to six years old. They’re kind of like that first group. That’s been a real good program and it’s been a great way to get the kids out on the ice. We also try and reach out as far as we possibly can. We get out to schools through the course of the year and put a street hockey clinic on. It’s an introduction to hockey, where we get sticks into the kids’ hands and give them a feel for it. We usually do a little presentation and discussion with them, to make them aware of what the game is about.”

While the Ducks and the Kings have greatly helped the youth hockey movement in Southern California, the San Jose Sharks have done the same up in Northern California. Although much of their focus has been on the development of the junior namesake, the Sharks have actually established ties with many youth programs throughout Northern California.

Another area where the Sharks have been heavily involved has been in rink management, under the Sharks Ice umbrella. There are currently three Sharks Ice facilities in San Jose, Fremont and Oakland. The organization also has plans to add more facilities in the future.

As Jon Gustafson, the General Manager of Sharks Ice and the NHL Sharks youth hockey liaison explained, the organization is deeply committed to the growth and development of youth hockey in not only the South Bay region, but throughout Northern California as well.

“I think first and foremost is they’re kind of putting their money where their mouth is. We’ve been spending money to build ice rinks, taking over failing ice rinks and jumping in to help out those ice rinks because we know that it’s that important to be a part of the grassroots movement and to facilitate growth in amateur hockey. Obviously, we wanted to get the brand out there and offer a great program so that kids can feel really good about themselves being part of a club and have some sort of linkage to an NHL club.”

“A big thing for me is that Junior Sharks are a part of the NHL Sharks family,” said Junior Sharks Director of Coaches Tony Zasowski. “We are rink-run, and our program is run a little differently than most youth hockey organizations. One of the reasons why the Sharks got involved with us is to develop a true love of hockey in Northern California kids, so that they can get hooked as a six-year-old and then develop into adult players and then become Sharks fans. It’s not the same trend here as it is elsewhere because we try to keep it more Northern California. That’s part of our mission statement.”

The Sharks players and coaching staff are also very much involved in aiding the development of youth players through clinics and camps such as the Sharks Hockey School. Current and former Sharks players such as Patrick Marleau, Devin Setoguchi and Matt Carle have also taken part in helping to run clinics, camps, and even some practices with the Junior Sharks as well.

Another way that the Sharks are trying to get more people interested and involved in the sport is through the “Give Hockey or Give Skating a Try” program.

“We have the program four times a year,” said Gustafson. “You can come and play hockey for free for four weeks. We provide the equipment and the coaches. All you have to do is show up for those four weeks and give it a try. The retention rate has been very, very good. It’s a program that lets people know that hockey is out there and if you really want to give it a try, you can come out and try it.”

The professional organizations’ involvement with the growth of youth hockey in the state isn’t limited to just the NHL franchises either. The ECHL franchises are also very much involved.

In the city of Bakersfield, the ECHL’s Condors and the Dragons youth hockey program have established an almost inseparable bond. And as Scott Hay, the Condors goaltending coach as well as the Dragons’ Director of Coaches explained that has tremendously benefited both teams.

“Well it’s really gone hand-in-hand with us, and there is that inherent connection. The ten-year anniversary has just passed for the Condors, so we’ve just gotten up the first generation of kids that have had hockey their whole lives. I think the entire scope of the game from the casual fan to the hardcore hockey fans has really grown. What we’re working on right now is the second generation of fans and potential players. In virtually every age group that the Dragons have, there are coaches with pro experience with the majority of them having had some affiliation with the Condors in the past. So it’s been a great relationship.”

Further up Highway 99, the Fresno Falcons and their junior namesake have kept things going despite their struggles of late. Unlike in many other areas of California, Fresno doesn’t have the vast local interest in their hockey teams. While both the pro and Junior Falcons do maintain a strong relationship, it is more out of survival than anything else. But the Junior Falcons are perhaps the most resilient of any California-based team, pro or otherwise. And as head coach Brandy Semchuk noted, most of the credit goes to grassroots efforts of the parents and volunteers.

“I think that has a lot to do with the people that are involved. Hockey people are the most dedicated sports people there is. We are two and a half hours away from our nearest opponent, so it’s a huge commitment. The people that are involved are doing what is necessary to keep this program going. The Falcons allow us to set up a booth at the rink to enable us to hand out information about our club, and they do let us have our little guys, the little Mites, go out and play between periods, which really seems to help. We have had a lot of kids over the years say that going to a Falcons game, seeing this little kids out between the periods is what got them interested in wanting to try hockey. So it’s a good relationship and it helps keep the program going. But I think it’s that grassroots effort of the volunteers and the parents that really helps to make it work.”

While the community interest in the sport in Fresno may be low, the opposite has been the case for the Stockton Thunder. Since their debut in 2005, the Thunder has been one of the highest drawing teams in the ECHL. Last season, Stockton led the league in attendance, averaging nearly 6,650 fans per game. That has also helped to grow the sport in the San Joaquin Valley, specifically with the Stockton Colts youth program. One connection between the two is current Thunder defenseman Mark Adamek. The former Junior Shark and Lake Superior State Laker works extensively with youth hockey programs. And for Adamek being a part of growing the youth hockey movement is something that he takes great pride in.

“I can tell you that the Thunder being here in town has definitely helped. So many of the kids that play youth hockey here are from families that are Thunder season-ticket holders. So I definitely think that it has helped grow the sport a lot. With help from the Thunder and everything that we do here in the Valley area, I think the Colts can move upwards really quickly. I’d like to think that the little bit that I do does help out. Here in Stockton I do some skating lessons with kids. Once a week I run an hour and a half long practice with the Colts every Thursday night. It’s actually been a pretty good turnout. The kids are so happy to be working with me and they’re really excited about it. I thought that this area was still lacking a little bit where youth hockey was concerned, so I wanted to help out as much as I could and basically volunteer as much time as I can to helping out.”

One way that the Thunder plans to further increase their involvement in youth hockey is with a camp. And as head coach Chris Cichocki explained, plans are in the works for 2009.

“We’re hoping to have a Thunder Summer Camp next summer. I think that’s something that’s been on our minds and on our agenda for the first three years that we’ve been here. So I think we will bring it to fruition in the summer of ’09. Our players have been real supportive of the Colts program and we do get quite a few of our players that do attend practices, run clinics and so forth. The biggest thing that we have to do as an organization is to lend a hand and promote hockey in general. We want to be active and involved any way we can. That’s something that we’ve been doing since day one and will continue to do.”

The Ontario Reign already has a relationship in place with the Kings due to being their ECHL affiliate. But another organization trying to establish ties with the Reign is the California Stars youth hockey program that is also located in Ontario.

“We’re really excited in Ontario because the Reign have just arrived,” said Stars President Rob Freeman. “Center Ice Ontario, which is our home rink, is also the official practice facility of the Reign, so we’re now at a beginning point of a partnership with the Reign and we look forward to some fund-raising activities and some ways that our kids and teams can be a part of the things that are going to be going on here.”

Aside from the professional teams, the increasing number of rinks available has also had a big impact in growing hockey in California as well. Today, there are over 50 indoor ice facilities in the state, although not all of them house a professional or youth hockey team. And even with those many facilities, availability of ice sheets continues to be problem in many areas of the state.

Sharks Ice San Jose (formerly Logitech Ice) is one of the largest facilities of its kind in the United States. Sharks Ice, which is home to the San Jose Junior Sharks as well as serving as the practice facility for the NHL Sharks, features four ice sheets housed in a nearly 170,000 square foot building. But as vast as the facility is, ice time is at a premium, even for its resident youth hockey teams.

“The building is booked 360 days of the year," said Junior Sharks Director and Midget 18AAA head coach Tony Zasowski. “This year, we actually had to fight for extra ice. With 130 teams in the men’s league, plus 300 kids in-house and 26 high school teams, it’s just a battle for ice. San Jose State also plays out of here too. So we fought for extra ice this year. We’re doing shared ice stuff to make sure that we’re keeping the practice-to-game ratio up as well.”

“Ice time in our building (Anaheim Ice) is a huge problem. So that’s why we limit the number of Junior Ducks teams, but we try not to limit the number of in-house teams,” said Junior Ducks president Art Trottier. “We’re in the process right now of hopefully adding a third ice sheet here. And because we’re owned by the Ducks, they’ll be heavily involved in the expansion.”

The quality of coaches joining (or in some cases starting up) programs has had the greatest impact on the youth hockey movement around the state. That in turn has produced high quality young players in greater numbers.

Though many current youth hockey coaches in California spent all or most of their professional careers at the minor pro level, a few have actually had successful NHL careers, including Mel Bridgman (SoCal Junior Ice Dogs), Brandon Convery (Junior Kings) and Tom Pederson (Junior Sharks). In addition to their experiences at the pro level, many coaches also bring their experience and expertise from the top developmental leagues that they played in as well.

Coaches such as Ventura’s Luc Beausoleil (Laval), the Selects’ James Gasseau (Drummondville), the North Stars’ Ernie Hicke (Regina), the Junior Falcons’ Brandy Semchuk (Lethbridge) and the Junior Kings’ Jack Bowkus (Toronto), and Jeff Turcotte (Saskatoon) have all brought Canadian Major Junior playing experience to California youth hockey.

Coaches such as the Selects’ Sandy Gasseau (St. Cloud State), Santa Rosa’s Tim Hanlon (Boston College), Tri Valley’s Mike Holmes (Northeastern), the Wave’s Mike Lewis (Holy Cross), Santa Clara’s Hal Nunn (Cornell) and the Junior Sharks’ Tony Zasowski (Notre Dame) all bring collegiate playing experience to California youth hockey.

“I think there’s very good coaching and skill development in California now,” said University of Denver junior Rhett Rakhshani. “I don’t think that it’s as much of a secret now than it used to be. There are some very good coaches such as Jeff Turcotte, Jack Bowkus, Mike Lewis, and the Gasseau Brothers that are all developers of skill.”

“The first thing I noticed coming back out here was just how many new faces there were around the rink,” said current Iowa Chops (Anaheim’s AHL affiliate) and former Owen Sound Attack (OHL) forward Bobby Ryan. “It has really caught on and the coaching is more readily available that wasn’t here before. There are coaches migrating here to this area, not only for the nice weather but they also want to be inside a rink and helping kids.”

Roller hockey to ice hockey

For a number of former California players that have moved on to the next levels, roller hockey provided a great introduction to or an extension of playing the sport. And moving from the roller rink to the ice was relatively easy for virtually of them. Some even continue to play roller hockey during the off-season. Among those that have jumped from roller hockey to ice hockey (or vice versa) include the Vancouver Giants’ Jonathon Blum, the Chicago Steel’s Max Nicastro and the Atlanta ThrashersBrett Sterling.

“I did play roller hockey growing up. That’s kind of how I got started,” said Blum. “I played in leagues around my house and then I went to a birthday party and made the switch. But I still played roller hockey growing up, and that really helped out on my skills. There was a little bit of a transition, but a lot of it is the same. The tactics that you have to use being on ‘rollers’ and in stopping are different, but pretty much the game’s the same.”

"When I was about five years old, I started to play roller hockey down at the Roller Dome, which was just down the street from my house,” added Nicastro, who is also a Boston University recruit. “I started playing ice hockey when I was about 11 or 12. To be honest with you, it wasn’t that bad of a transition for me. I think it has helped a lot as far as helping me to develop things like my puck skills.”

“I actually started playing ice hockey when I was 4,” said Sterling. “I didn’t even put on any roller skates and start playing roller hockey until I was probably 10 or 11. It was just something fun to do and a lot of guys I knew were playing roller hockey. I was able to work on some of my skills, and one of the things that it allows you to work on is your hands.”

The challenges

The two greatest challenges that face all California youth hockey players and their families are the steep costs and the extensive travel. The various costs incurred to be able to play the sport require an enormous financial commitment by the players’ families. On average, parents in California pay anywhere from $10,000 to $20,000 per year for their sons to play organized youth hockey at the highest levels.

Much of the cost is in travel. But the financial demands are only part of the travel challenges that California youth players and their families face each season. Because most of the top youth tournaments are held in places such as the Midwest and Canada, air travel is far more the norm for California players than for many in other regions across North America.

Traveling within such a large state is also a challenge for many California players and their families, especially for those who reside and/or play in Northern California. While players in states such as Minnesota have many rinks in relatively close proximity to one another, for a number of players in Northern California that isn’t the case. Players and their parents often travel distances of an hour or more each way three to four times a week for practices and games.

Corbin McPherson, Hudson Stremmel and Tyler Parker are examples of players that played on Northern California teams that have endured such travel.

McPherson is currently a freshman defenseman at Colgate University. The Folsom native played his California youth hockey with the California North Stars, the California Gold Rush and most recently with the Junior Sharks. As McPherson explained, when he was playing for the Junior Sharks, carpooling with teammates near his home just outside of Sacramento made the extended trips a little more bearable.

“There were four of us kids from the Sacramento area. Well actually there were three of us and one kid was from Fairfield. So we just carpooled three days a week for practice. My parents had to drive only once a week.”

Hudson Stremmel, who currently plays with the Chicago Steel (USHL) and is a 2009 NHL draft eligible player, is a rather unique case. Although he is from Reno, Nevada, Stremmel played his entire youth hockey career in California with the Capital Thunder, the Gold Rush and the North Stars. For Stremmel, playing in California was more out of necessity simply because at the time he got started, the only rink in Reno had shut down. As the young netminder explained, the grueling demands of traveling three to four hours each way several days a week to games and practices was something he and his parents willingly went through together.

“The biggest challenge for me was the travel, but my parents were great about it. They made so many sacrifices for me. I was really committed to playing and it was really something else. They’ve been really great through it all. We didn’t carpool because nobody from my area played on my team until my last year.”

Then there is the case of current Everett Silvertips forward Tyler Parker. Prior to his arrival in Everett, WA, he played for the Selects. Parker noted that commuting from his home in Livermore to Los Angeles every weekend was not as bad as one might think.

“It was actually fun going down there. I flew down every Thursday and flew back home on Sunday to make it to school on Monday. While I was down there, I stayed with Marcus McCrea, who was one of the guys on my team.”

The lengths to which these players, their parents and others like them in California will go, as well as their willingness to make whatever sacrifices necessary to participate in this sport is really quite extraordinary. But for these players and their parents, it is simply a part of what is important to achieve the dream of one day moving on to a top developmental league and eventually making hockey a career.

“One thing that has really impressed me with hockey in California is the dedication of some of these parents and families,” said former Capital Thunder head coach Sebastien Laplante, who is now an assistant coach at his alma mater, Northeastern University. “If their kid is passionate about the sport, then some of these parents are willing to do whatever they can to support their kid’s passion for hockey and that has led to a lot of kids to being developed. Without the support of their parents, these kids would never develop. So those parents are really crucial to those kids developing.”

Another great challenge that many California players have faced, and to a large extent continue to face today, is the prejudice that is often associated with being from the Golden State. The “lazy, surfer guy” perception and the belief that California boys cannot play ice hockey nor compete at the highest levels have continually been shattered. And as those who’ve been subjected to such ridicule will tell you, nothing feels quite as good as being able to silence your critics with what you can do on the ice.

“When we traveled, we would get all of the comments from all the parents and the teams like go back to California, big surfer boys,” said Spokane Chiefs centerman Mitch Wahl. “They would see a team like the California Wave on their schedule and they would just kind of laugh at us. But once they saw us play, they had a whole different perception about us. It was fun to prove people wrong and to prove to them that we could actually play. We would be in a hockey environment and we’d prove that not only were we from California but we could also play hockey too.”

“People would ask me where I was from and I’d tell them that I was from California,” said Gabe Gauthier, a member of the Los Angeles Kings organization who is currently playing in Manchester. “Then they’d say ‘why are you playing hockey? Shouldn’t you be surfing or skateboarding?’ Then I would tell them ‘to be honest with you, I’ve never touched a surfboard and I’ve never touched a skateboard. I’ve been on the ice my whole life.’ So I kind of let my play do my talking for me because once you’re on the ice and you start playing well, then it’s all over and they shut their mouths pretty quickly.”

The ridiculing that many California players endured have come from opposing players, but for former Junior Sharks and Lake Superior State Lakers forward Mike Adamek, the ridiculing came not only from opposing players but it also came from a former coach as well.

“When I was in Michigan, people were expecting me to be this laid-back, surfer guy because I was from California. If I missed a class or missed a practice, they would say ‘oh, he’s from California.’ That got pretty old after four or five years. Then I had a coach that would say lose the ‘California attitude’. I’m thinking ‘what does that even mean?’ so I did have to deal with it a little bit.”