If the 2013 CCM/USA Hockey All-American Prospects Game is any indication, the state of California will be well represented at the 2014 NHL Draft. Four California-born players participated in the September 26th exhibition game, led by forward Chase De Leo and goaltender Thatcher Demko, both of whom head into the 2013-14 season with an 'A' ranking from NHL Central Scouting.
Demko and De Leo represent a growing base of elite hockey talent from California, a state that has seen hockey enrollments grow 18.38 percent in the last five years. In 2012-13, USA Hockey reported 24,126 registered players in the state, which makes it the seventh-highest hockey-playing population in the United States.
"I don't like to admit it, because I'm a Kings fan, [but] the [Anaheim] Ducks winning the Cup [in 2007] definitely helped the growth [of hockey] in California," said Demko, who is in his freshman year at Boston College. "I haven't lived at home for a couple years now, but every time I go back I am always amazed to see the number of kids playing, the number of triple-A teams we have, It's just great to see."
Though their burgeoning hockey careers have frequently intersected over the years, including a mostly one-sided rivalry between the Los Angeles Selects and the San Diego Junior Gulls, the two players have taken distinctly different paths in hopes of achieving the same dream – playing in the NHL.
Demko is beginning his freshman season with Boston College after two seasons in the USHL. De Leo, meanwhile, has spent the last two seasons in the WHL playing for the Portland Winterhawks. Both are playing for elite programs in their respective developmental paths, but the game and approach could not be more different.
For De Leo, who is a gifted offensive talent, the choice was easy.
"[Playing in the CHL] worked out in my favor because of my late birthday,” said De Leo, who turns 18 on October 25th. “I look at it [this] way, I could be going into my third year in Portland or my freshman year in college."
The decision to play in major junior has so far paid off for De Leo, who put himself on a lot of teams' radars after a strong 2012-13 season, where he managed 56 points in 71 regular season games, 17 points in the playoffs, and two goals and an assist in five Memorial Cup games.
For Demko, however, playing Canadian junior hockey was not really an option.
"They say major junior is a quicker path to the NHL. Yeah, it's quicker but I saw myself as kind of a late bloomer," said Demko. "I have a lot of developing to do, physically and mentally. So I felt like an extra four years…in the NCAA would really help my game."
"Growing up there wasn't a lot of hockey or hockey-centric training," he added. "It was a little bit of a hindrance."
Probably the greatest hindrance to a young hockey player's development in a non-traditional market is access to ice. California does not naturally get very cold, and with rink time at a premium, the vast majority of players start out in roller hockey. Demko and De Leo were no exceptions and both played a considerable amount of roller hockey in their youth.
De Leo, however, does not view his extensive roller hockey experience as a hindrance to his development. Perhaps it is because he plays a different position, where the emphasis is on putting pucks in the net rather than stopping them, but he is certain roller hockey helped his game.
"It's definitely more offensive," De Leo said. "I don't think you're really allowed to hit, maybe a little rub off here or there, but it's mostly skill and just working on the hands."
But the 17-year-old forward is cognizant of the major adjustments a player must make from the inline rink to one made of ice, and the potential pratfalls that could come along with that.
"Ice hockey is more of a grind, skating wise," said De Leo. "It's a different stride, pushing off with wheels instead of skates. You have to use your whole foot on the ice, in roller you just push off."
De Leo draws inspiration from friend and current NHL forward Beau Bennett (PIT), who is the highest drafted California-trained player in NHL history.
"Just skating with him, hanging out in the summers, going to the beach and stuff, then seeing him [in the NHL], it's crazy to see what he's doing," said De Leo. "Turning on the NHL Network and seeing his face up there is kind of surreal."
De Leo and Demko hope to follow in Bennett's footsteps, and be part of an ever-growing group of California-born and trained NHL players.
"When you look at the draft the past few years, and what USA hockey has done…it's just growing everywhere in the United States," said De Leo. "It's definitely exciting to see, with Thatcher and a couple other California heads."
Follow Ian Altenbaugh on Twitter: @IanAltenbaugh