California: The Golden State of hockey, Part 2

By DJ Powers

Where they are coming from

When it comes to players moving on to the top developmental leagues as well being taken in the NHL Draft, no programs have been more successful than the California Wave and the Los Angeles Junior Kings. The two programs have sent a plethora of top talent, a number of whom have played for both programs, to the NCAA, WHL as well as to the NTDP and the USHL.

The Wave is a program based in the city of Artesia, and is the top Tier (AAA) program of the California Hockey Club, which also includes the Artesia Avalanche. Among their many successful former players are Thousand Oaks’ Max Nicastro, who is also a 2008 NHL Draft selection of the Detroit Red Wings (Chicago Steel – USHL), as well as current collegians such as New Jersey Devils draft pick and Placentia native T.J. Miller (Northern Michigan University), Irvine’s Kevin Crane (Princeton University), and Burbank’s Brian Volpei and Lake Forest‘s Ryan Lasch (St. Cloud State).  Among those currently playing in the WHL that have donned the Wave jersey include Montreal Canadiens draft pick and Huntington Beach native Cameron Cepek (Prince George Cougars), Newport Beach’s Ryan Letts (Spokane Chiefs) and Canyon Lake’s Marcus McCrea (Everett Silvertips).

So what has been the key to the Wave’s success?

“It’s always been about emphasizing skill development,” said head coach Mike Lewis. “When we first started, we thought well, let’s get the kids and give them what we thought would be necessary to get them to a higher level. So we work on skill development first and foremost. We work with the kids on things like skating and stick handling. That was our bread and butter over the years and we kind of stuck to it. So the kids that we have coming into our club would always be given that year after year. I think that has really helped them to move on to the next level. And we’ve pretty much done it with just Southern California kids too.”

While the Junior Kings have benefited considerably from their association with their NHL namesake, the program has done a tremendous job of cultivating players on its own. Like the Wave, the Junior Kings also have an extensive list of players that have graduated to the various top developmental leagues. Among those currently playing in the WHL are Valencia’s Shane Harper (Everett Silvertips), Covina’s Todd Matthews (Moose Jaw Warriors), and Irvine’s C.J. Stretch (Kamloops Blazers). Among the former Junior Kings that are currently play in the NCAA include Long Beach’s Mike Beck (University of New Hampshire), Woodland Hills’ Josh Rabbani (RPI) and Los Angeles’ Andreas Vlassopoulos (Colorado College).

As Midget 16AAA head coach Frank Salcido explained, one of the keys to the Junior Kings’ success has been the programs ability to develop from within the Southern California community.

“Our goal here in the Junior Kings is to try and develop from within, but it’s going to take us a few years because this our first year with AAA Pee Wee and AAA Bantam teams. If you look at Jack Bowkus’ team (18AAA), he has a lot of returning players. But the problem is we don’t have a lot of kids that grew up in our program. So what you see is a lot of kids coming over from other programs that want to take advantage of the coaching and the reputation that we have, and have the ability to get scouted and seen. I’m a big proponent of limiting out of state kids. We have enough great California kids to develop, so why would we want to limit that? If your team is 30, 40 or 50 percent Canadian or Midwestern, then I think it is defeating the purpose of developing kids from within.”

One move that the Junior Kings’ Midget 18AAA team recently made that has caused some controversy within the California youth hockey community, particularly in Southern California, has been their entry into the newly formed Midwest Elite Hockey League (MWEHL). The league, the first of its kind in the United States, is made up of many of the country’s top youth programs including Detroit Honeybaked and Victory Honda. As 18AAA head coach Jack Bowkus noted, there are many benefits to playing in such a league.

“One of our goals here was to be able to play against the top teams in the nation and to have them come here to LA as well as us traveling to play them. I think it’s a fantastic idea and a great concept because it features the top 20 teams in the country and that pretty much guarantees a very competitive environment that I think is good for the kids. It’s also an opportunity for the kids to have more exposure and it provides the opportunity for recruiters to see these kids more often. The scheduling is more structured too. I think this league is as close to playing Junior Hockey (at the Major Midget level) as you’re going to get because it’s as competitive as it gets. We want to develop a great reputation and represent the Kings organization well, along with giving those ’92 to ’95-born kids an opportunity to establish themselves against the other elite teams in the country.”

One Southern California program that has had a meteoric rise to prominence in recent years is the LA Selects. While the program has already had a few former players taken in the NHL Draft, their most dominant ones might be those eligible for upcoming drafts. Among the top former Selects players eligible for the 2009 NHL Draft include Colorado College recruit and Anaheim native Dakota Eveland, current Everett Silvertips centerman and Manhattan Beach native Tyler Maxwell, and University of Denver recruit William Wrenn, who was a Selects import player from Anchorage.

As program president James Gasseau explained, the Selects’ primary objective is to develop players, and educate them about and exposing them to the next levels of play, regardless of which league’s route a player decides to ultimately take.

“The skill development of our kids here in LA is so important. If the kids are closer to aging out that need some exposure and have not secured a place where they could be playing in the future, then we look for those avenues that will give us a head start on placing kids and getting them to continue on the right path to the next level. At the younger levels, it’s really just all about development and having fun. We try to get kids to go the college route as well as the WHL route, and getting colleges to notice us has been a big plus. Also, the kids can still play good hockey in college and can go pro after that. So we encourage that, but some people prefer the WHL route for different reasons. They can go to school there as well, but it’s just a choice. So we offer guidance within our club of both routes and try to support the families with their decisions. We try to explain a little bit of what both are like and what the pros and cons are of each route.”

While Southern California has gotten the lion’s share of the hockey community’s attention, Northern California has begun getting noticed too. Programs in the northern half of the state have made great strides in growing their teams and developing top quality players in greater numbers.

“This year, we have seen an increase in Tier-II teams from outlying programs,” said NORCAL president Lance Burrows. “Teams such as Tri-Valley, the Jets up in Vacaville, and the Oakland Bears are developing teams that we haven’t had in a long time in Northern California, so that’s an indication that there is some growth going on. The smaller teams are either maintaining themselves or actually growing as well.”

Northern California’s two most prominent teams are the San Jose Junior Sharks and the Santa Clara Blackhawks.

The Junior Sharks is Northern California’s largest youth program with about 380 kids playing this season. Many of the program’s former players have successfully moved on to the NCAA, WHL as well as the Junior “A” leagues. Among those currently playing in these leagues include New Jersey Devils draft pick and Folsom native Corbin McPherson (Colgate University-NCAA), Redwood City’s Bryon Paulazzo (Topeka Roadrunners-NAHL), Pleasanton’s Matt Tennyson (Cedar Rapids Roughriders-USHL), San Jose’s Marcus Watson (Prince George Cougars-WHL), and Brentwood’s Casey Wellman (University of Massachusetts -NCAA). The program currently features a pair of outstanding defensemen in Los Gatos’ Ben Paulides and Fremont’s Dan Senkbeil that are two of only three Midget 18AAA players from appearing on Central Scouting’s recently released “Players to Watch” list for the 2009 NHL Draft.

While Derek Eisler, who is currently in Asia running the China Sharks program, was the Junior Sharks’ original architect, new Director of Coaches Tony Zasowski has continued to build on what Eisler has started. But as Zasowski explained, part of that process is implementing more detailed instruction in all facets of player development at every level, especially of those players that are about to move up to the top developmental leagues.

“In the Junior Sharks program, we’ve made that commitment to just the development of skill, and it rolls out from there. We want to grow our players’ love for the sport as well as see them achieve their ultimate goal of playing hockey at a higher level. We’ve taken some strides to do that, by pushing the developmental side and giving our coaches baselines to that regard. One of the things that I try to harp on players about, especially with the older players in our program is how much their going to be challenged the further up they go in their hockey careers. We have to keep telling them that they have to push themselves everyday and be the best player here everyday if they want to make it to the next level. So we try and create that internal competition within them in a healthy way with our players.”

Just a short distance away (geographically) from the Junior Sharks are the Santa Clara Blackhawks. While Santa Clara’s program doesn’t have as many teams as the Junior Sharks do, they have had some high profile players that have put them squarely on the hockey map, most notably Viktor Tikhonov.

This past June, Tikhonov became the very first player from a Northern California-based team to be taken in the first round of the NHL Draft when the Phoenix Coyotes selected him with the 28th overall pick. Tikhonov, who played his entire California youth hockey career with Santa Clara and still makes his off-season home with his family in Los Gatos, now plays for the Coyotes. As Tikhonov explained, when it came to being drafted, the third time was indeed the charm.

“Oh, it was great. Just the whole experience of being at the draft was a blast. I was actually passed over twice for the draft. So I was drafted in my third year (of eligibility). I had a good tournament at the World Junior Championship and got noticed. Being in Phoenix, I’ve learned a lot. The veterans here have so much talent and skill, so I just kind of watch them in practice and use their moves to try and improve myself. It’s a whole different system of practicing. It’s a lot faster pace, but it’s a great learning experience.”

“It does feel great that Viktor was drafted and I wish I could take all the credit for developing him, but maybe I at least played some small part in it,” said Hal Nunn, the Blackhawks Director of Coaches, who also coached Tikhonov. “It is a feather in our cap, and I think that scouts and recruiters will be looking at us more closely now because of Viktor.”

But Tikhonov was neither the first former Blackhawk to be taken in the NHL Draft nor the first to make it to the NHL. Former Michigan State Spartans and current Buffalo Sabres goaltender Ryan Miller played part of his youth hockey with Santa Clara. The Sabres drafted Miller back in 1999. Former Miami University (OH) defenseman Alec Martinez, a 2007 draft selection of the Kings that is currently playing for their AHL affiliate in Manchester, had also played part of his youth hockey with Santa Clara. Both players’ families briefly resided in Silicon Valley.

The Tri Valley Blue Devils has quietly become one of Northern California’s fastest growing programs. The Tri Valley region of the San Francisco Bay Area is comprised of the cities of Dublin, Pleasanton and San Ramon, and it has seen an explosion of youth hockey growth just in the last three years.

While Tri Valley has graduated few players to the top developmental leagues thus far, more are certain to be headed that way in the coming years. There are currently three former Blue Devils playing in the various developmental leagues. They are: Livermore’s Tyler Parker (Everett Silvertips – WHL), San Jose’s Dalton Speelman (Green Bay Gamblers – USHL) and Alamo’s Johnny Van Siclen (Prince George Spruce Kings – BCHL, which coincidentally is also the team that Tri Valley’s Director of Coaches Mike Holmes also scouts for).

One problem that many teams would love to have that Holmes has had to contend with in recent years is having more players than there is room for in his program.

“I guess in about the last three years, our in-house program has just gone gangbusters,” said Holmes. “We used to have maybe 70 to 90 maximum in that part of our program, and last year we had like 135 kids that played in our in-house. And actually, we’re turning away kids now. We can’t take everybody because we’re constrained. So that side of our hockey is just booming. In our Mites in-house program, which is made up of 7 and 8-year olds, is where I’ve really seen it starting to take off. So there seems to really be a grassroots sort of interest in hockey at these young ages. And that bodes really well as hockey goes forward from this area. I absolutely see the program continuing to build and it could potentially double within the next few years.”

A number of the so-called “small market” programs in California are also flourishing. Two such examples are the California Stars and the Santa Rosa Flyers. While these two programs are not as recognizable as the more prominent ones, they are two programs that are growing and just beginning to make their marks in the top developmental leagues, particularly in college hockey.

The Stars program is based in the Inland Empire city of Ontario and was actually founded by former NHLer Anatoli “Tony” Semenov, who is also its owner. While the program has gone through a number of organizational changes, including that of its team name, over the last few years, it has still been able to grow thanks in large part to Semenov. The Stars’ dedication to player development, even through difficult times, has recently begun to pay off. This season, the program saw for the first time two of its former players reach the Division I level when Corona’s Alex Hudson and Arcadia’s John Kemp made their debuts with the University of Nebraska-Omaha Mavericks.

As Stars President Rob Freeman noted, the philosophy of development put forth by Semenov has been the program’s road map to success.

“Tony’s commitment has always been to instruction, player development and building character as well as great hockey players so that these young men are given the tools that they need to succeed in life and that they’re maturing in the programs that we have here. Tony comes from the European model. It’s very focused on practice as far as the basics, fundamentals and in learning the game go. Whereas back here, I think there’s a huge focus on playing games and winning games, and maybe not enough focus on the practice and the development, so it’s a balancing act. We believe that our players need to be fundamentally strong, as well as the fact that they need to develop and mature. I think that’s going to put them in a position to succeed in life.”

The Santa Rosa Flyers is the northern-most youth program in the state, residing about an hour north of San Francisco. The Flyers play their home games at the Redwood Empire Ice Arena, better known as Snoopy’s Home Ice. The rink’s claim to fame is hosting the annual Snoopy’s Senior World Hockey Tournament. While the Flyers program itself has no direct affiliation with the tournament, several members of their coaching staff have participated in the Snoopy Tournament in the past.

Like the Stars, the Flyers dedication to player development has also begun to pay off. In 2006, Santa Rosa saw its first player graduate to the NCAA ranks when defenseman Matt Jimenez made his debut with Division III Utica College. Next fall, the Flyers will send their very first player to Division I when defenseman Adam McKenzie arrives at the Air Force Academy. McKenzie, who hails from Petaluma, played for the Flyers before moving on to the Junior Sharks.

As Director of Coaches Tim Hanlon explained, one of the challenges that his program has had to contend with is getting his top players exposed to recruiters, particularly those from the collegiate and Junior “A” leagues.

“We have some great players playing hockey in Santa Rosa. I think for us the key is visibility, and there is definitely some more visibility now, but it is coming very slowly. Sometimes we have to be able to find and get into those tournaments that might be able to give us that exposure. Right now, our link to (college) teams back east as far as tournaments go is the Silver Stick regional tournament that takes place over the Thanksgiving weekend. So I’m not sure how much interest we’re getting from the colleges or the Junior “A” teams.”

The attention and the respect

With the growth of the sport’s popularity and more importantly, the increasing numbers of top-flight players coming out of the state, California has certainly gotten the attention of scouts and recruiters. In addition to the many out-of-state tournaments that many of the programs participate in annually, in-state tournaments such as the San Jose Junior Sharks Labor Day Kickoff, and the Junior Kings Thanksgiving Extravaganza are also attracting more and more members of the scouting and recruiting communities each year.

But it wasn’t always that way.

It wasn’t until a number of California’s teams had won state and national championships as well as some of the more prestigious out-of-state tournaments that people began to look at California and its players in a different light.

Within the last seven years, California has won more national titles (16) than any other non-traditional hockey hotbed state. Furthermore, the state’s 16 titles are tied for sixth overall in the country. Among the national championships that California youth teams have won include The Junior Kings (Tier I U-14 in 2002, and Tier I U-16 in 2003), The Selects (Tier 1 U-14 in 2006), and The Wave (Tier I U-14 in 2003, and Tier I U-16 in 2006).

One entity that has taken particular notice of California’s top players is the Western Hockey League (WHL). The league has had a number of top flight Californians formerly or currently playing in the league including Rancho Santa Margarita’s Jonathon Blum (Vancouver Giants), Santa Ana’s Colin Long (Kelowna Rockets), Livermore’s Tyler Parker (Everett Silvertips), and Seal Beach’s Mitch Wahl (Spokane Chiefs).

Blum holds the distinction of being the first ever California-born player to be taken in the first round of the NHL draft, when the Nashville Predators selected him 23rd overall in 2007. He played his entire youth hockey career in California with the Wave. As Blum explained, to be the very first Californian to be taken in the first round of the NHL Draft was both exciting and humbling.

“It felt good to know that I was the first Californian drafted in the first round because there aren’t a lot of players coming out of the state. So it’s good to have California on the (NHL draft) map because there are a lot of good hockey players that are coming out of there now. For me, it took a lot of hard work. I certainly owe a lot to my parents for going through it with me, and for helping me out.”

Colin Long, who currently serves as the Rockets team captain, joins Viktor Tikhonov and Manhattan Beach’s Brett Hextall as the three California-based players taken by the Phoenix Coyotes in the 2008 draft. Long played his California youth hockey with the Costa Mesa Blue Sharks, the Costa Mesa Comets and the Wave.

Parker is a player already on the NHL Draft radar for 2010, which is his first year of draft eligibility. He played his California youth hockey with the Tri Valley Blue Devils, the Junior Sharks and the Selects.

Wahl is a 2007 draft selection of the Calgary Flames. He played his California youth hockey with the Huntington Beach Lightning, the Junior Ducks, the Junior Kings and the Wave.

Every April, the WHL holds their annual U.S. Prospects Camp in Anaheim where roughly 80 of the state’s top 15 and 16 year olds are invited to participate. The camp leads up to the league’s annual Bantam Draft, which is held in May. As WHL Vice President of Hockey Richard Doerksen explained, the camp has become a vital pathway to reaching out to potential future players coming out of the state.

“Well, we’ve held the camp in the U.S. for three years with the cooperation of the Anaheim Ducks. So it’s been a real ideal situation for us. I think for the elite player, he’s certainly going to get opportunities to further his hockey career. I look at Jonathon Blum and Colin Long as probably two of the more successful players coming out of California playing in our league. We just want to make sure that the players are aware of what we have to offer and we want to educate them on that. If a player wants to develop, we feel that we’re the best opportunity for him to do that and to further his hockey career.”

One of the WHL’s biggest selling points to potential players is their educational package. Provided that the player does not sign a professional contract, for each year he has played in the WHL, he gets one year of books and tuition paid for by the league at the college or university of his choice, regardless of where it is located. The educational packages are also applicable to vocational schools as well. As Everett Silvertips Vice President and GM Doug Soetaert explained, educating potential players and their families on what the WHL offers, including the educational packages, is often times quite difficult.

“I think that’s one of the misconceptions that people have. If their sons play four years up here in our league, then they have their college degree paid for. The biggest thing that we find is that parents are uneducated on what we have to offer, education-wise and what our organizations are all about. What our organization does is we go out, sell our program and tell them what we have to offer. We feel that it’s up to the individual to make their decision on which route is best for them. We lay it out for the parents that we talk to so that they can make an informative decision.”

So would the WHL consider expanding to California one day? That question was posed to WHL Commissioner Rob Robison and Kelowna Rockets Assistant GM Lorne Frey.

“It would not be feasible to expand our existing league to California due to travel distance,” commented Robison.

“Well, believe it or not, this was actually on the table about 10 or 15 years ago,” said Frey. “Fresno, Bakersfield and San Diego had all showed some interest in joining the league. So I wouldn’t rule it out because that’s a distinct possibility. If we can increase the quality and quantity of our talent pool significantly by being in California, then I think it could happen down the road.”

While California has become a gold mine of talent for the WHL, it has also become a growing concern among several of the state’s youth hockey coaches that are losing an increasing number of their top 15, 16, and even 17-year-old players to the league. Two coaches that have witnessed the increasing migration first hand are Wave head coach Mike Lewis and Junior Kings Midget 16AAA head coach Frank Salcido.

“I just had a player who was supposed to be here that is now up in Kamloops named Uriah Machuga,” said Lewis. “We had a situation where he went up there, and I knew that they were going to sign him. It’s just gotten to the point where it’s becoming more common and at a younger age. I mean these kids are getting drafted by the WHL when they’re 15 or 16 and then they start to go over there. With money, and especially travel that is associated with being in California, as opposed to what the Major Juniors are offering, it’s kind of a becoming a losing battle for us.”

“I believe that kids have to be careful in making decisions like that in hockey,” said Salcido. “My philosophy in teaching these kids is to teach them life lessons in addition to being hockey players because in the long run they also have to be responsible citizens. I think that the players that take the Major Junior route are selling themselves short because they’re putting all of their eggs in one basket. I think some of it is also a case of keeping up with the Joneses. They see kids like Mitch Wahl, Colin Long or Jon Blum that get drafted and are very successful. Then they say ‘well if they can get drafted, then I can get drafted. I’m as good as they are.’ So he packs up and goes to the Dub at either 15 or 16. Now if he’s not a very good student and/or just knows that college isn’t his thing, then probably Major Junior is a good route to take.”

Another entity taking great interest in California’s rising hockey talent pool is the NCAA. Two WCHA schools that have enjoyed great success in recruiting California players are Colorado College and the University of Denver. Both schools also rank among the very best programs in the country.

The extensive list of Californians that have donned the black and gold jersey of Colorado College include La Verne’s Noah Clarke, Hermosa Beach’s Brian Salcido and Pasadena’s Brett Sterling.

Clarke is a 1999 draft selection of the Kings that is currently playing with HC Ambri-Piotta of the Swiss League. He helped lead the Tigers to three consecutive NCAA Quarterfinals appearances from 2001-03.

Salcido, a 2005 draft selection of the Anaheim Ducks, is currently playing for Anaheim’s AHL affiliate, the Iowa Chops. In 2005 he, along with Brett Sterling, helped guide Colorado College to an NCAA Frozen Four appearance. Salcido played his California youth hockey with the Norwalk Condors, the West Valley Wolves as well as the Junior Kings, where he played for his father, Frank Salcido.

Sterling is a 2003 draft selection of and currently playing with the Atlanta Thrashers. In 2005, he became the first California native ever to be named a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award. Sterling played his California youth hockey with the Pasadena Maple Leafs, the Wave and the Junior Kings.
Head coach Scott Owens noted that Colorado College’s love of California teams and its players have to do with not only quality, but also a similarity in the style of play.

“I think the thing that has been attractive to us is the fact that we try to play an up-tempo, skill game and I think that a lot of the Californians, whether it’s because of roller hockey or just their mentality in general, are very skilled, and we have found it to be a tremendous fit for California kids at our school. We also think that not only do they play a skill game, but also their potential to get better is such because they just haven’t reached their potential by the time that we get them. There’s just a lot of variation in their backgrounds. It seems like not only are they skilled and creative, but they also have the potential to get better and better.”

The University of Denver has had two prominent Californians donning the crimson and gold jersey in Buena Park’s Gabe Gauthier and Huntington Beach’s Rhett RakhshaniRakhshani is also a 2006 draft pick of the New York Islanders. 

Gauthier was a key cog on Denver’s back-to-back National Championship teams in 2004 and 2005. He played his California youth hockey with the Norwalk Condors, the South Coast Sabres, the Junior Ducks and the Junior Kings.

Rakhshani, who currently serves as one of Denver’s assistant captains, helped guide the Pioneers to their 15th Broadmoor Cup as the WCHA’s Playoff Champions this past season. He played his California youth hockey with the Junior Kings and the Wave.

“California is one of those states where I think a lot of people already realize that it’s just a great, well-kept secret as far as hockey is concerned,” commented head coach George Gwozdecky on California’s growing talent pool. “And it’s not only ice hockey, but roller hockey as well. I think that’s where a lot of these young guys develop their skating and hand skills. Then they transition that from roller hockey to ice hockey. So we’re very fortunate to be able to have a connection and sort of a pipeline established, and to have these great players come in from that state. There’s no question that California is a big, big state of untapped hockey talent and we want to be able to take advantage of that as much as we possibly can.”

One trophy that is synonymous with NCAA D-I hockey is the prestigious Hobey Baker Award. Dubbed “the Heisman Trophy of college hockey”, it is annually given to the league’s top player. To date, no California-born player has ever won the award, but two have come close. Last season, St. Cloud State’s Ryan Lasch was named one of the ten finalists for the award. He was just the second California native to achieve such an honor.  Brett Sterling first accomplished the feat in 2005 while at Colorado College. In addition to being one of the ten finalists, Sterling was also named to the “Hobey Hat Trick”, the top three finalists for the award.

While California has sent a number of players to Colorado College and the University of Denver, the two schools also have alumni playing prominent roles in the development of youth hockey in the Golden State as well. Sharks Ice GM Jon Gustafson played his collegiate hockey at Colorado College. Two former University of Denver players have made their marks in the coaching ranks. Pete Godfrey currently serves as head coach for the Santa Clara Blackhawks’ Midget 16 team, while Vic Venasky is the current Director of Coaches for the Bay Harbor Red Wings.

With Colorado College, Denver and other D-I schools such as Northern Michigan and Western Michigan increasingly attracting more and more California players to their campuses, and the demise of programs such as those at Iona College, the University of Findlay and most recently, Wayne State University, could NCAA ice hockey possibly expand to California at some point in the future? If the league were to seriously consider the idea, three California universities would make excellent potential candidates – UCLA, USC and San Jose State. All three have thriving men’s programs as members of the American Collegiate Hockey Association (ACHA). The USC Trojans have established themselves as the Pac-8’s most dominant team, having claimed seven conference titles in the last ten years.

The idea also has many supporters among those connected to California and/or college hockey.

“I would love to see NCAA college hockey come to California, that’d be unreal if that happens,” said St. Cloud State junior Ryan Lasch. “I don’t know if that’ll happen anytime soon though, but that would be something really cool.”

“I think it would be great,” added the Kings’ Darryl Evans. “But I think it has to start with USC and UCLA because of the way those names are familiar. I think that would be a great introduction for the Southern California fans to see what college hockey is all about. I remember when the Frozen Four was out here and the excitement that it generated. So I think it would be good, and you’ve got to start with baby steps because it’s not going to happen overnight.”

“I would love to see UCLA or USC or any other California school for that matter start D-I college hockey,” said former University of Denver assistant coach and current RPI head coach Seth Appert. “I think it would be very beneficial for college hockey, but I also think that they would be able to establish winning programs very quickly with the amount of talent that’s coming out of their home state.”

The Future

While the future looks bright for California youth hockey, there is also some cautious optimism among all of California’s programs, including its professional teams. The current economic crisis and the uncertainty that lies in the immediate future have youth hockey coaches in particular concerned about the possibility of seeing their programs diminish or even worse, fold.

The vast numbers of California’s players that have moved on have become trailblazers of sorts to the current and future generations of youth players in the state. To them, having played hockey in California is a badge of honor that they all take great pride in wearing.  And that is particularly true of players such as Mark Adamek, Gabe Gauthier, Bobby Ryan and Brian Salcido, who have come full circle having played youth hockey in California and returning to the state as a member of one its professional franchises.

So what kind of advice would former California youth players give to the current generation of kids playing hockey?

“It’s obviously just really fun to play and you’re able to develop through it too,” said Colin Long. “I think it helps you. Even being at the youngest levels, you can develop as a person being in a team atmosphere. I really feel that hockey makes you a better person.”

“I would tell kids that with anything else, if you fall in love with hockey, then just immerse yourself into it and just enjoy it,” said Brian Salcido. “I feel very fortunate to have fallen in love with the game that I can now make a living on. It’s a game and it’s meant to be fun, so have fun with it.”

Many, many former California youth players echo the sentiments of Long and Salcido. But Brett Sterling may have provided the best answer of all.

“Hockey really is the most exciting sport there is hands down.”