Welcome to SHJ Community Spotlight. This space will be used to highlight local hockey scenes throughout the southern U.S. as a part of our initiative to give the game the coverage it deserves in the Sunbelt. Today’s post comes from Collin Insley of California.
Graphed out, hockey’s popularity in Southern California over the last 45 years would appear as if peaks and valleys, albeit at a steady incline over the last 20-or-so years, and with certain spikes in 1988, 1993, 2007, and 2012. Those years of course represent Wayne Gretzky’s arrival in Los Angeles, the birth of the Anaheim Ducks (née Mighty Ducks of Anaheim), the Ducks’ Stanley Cup Championship and most recently the Kings’ Stanley Cup Championship.
As a 20-something lifelong Southern California resident, and a dedicated Ducks fan circa 1996, I’m fortunate to have been a firsthand witness to the steady growth and sudden explosion in popularity that hockey has experienced, as both a fan and a player– and an undeniably huge component to said growth is the work that the Ducks organization in particular has done to develop the local youth and adult, ice and roller hockey scene.
I was born in 1987 – perhaps the perfect year to be able to fully appreciate hockey’s growth in the Southland. I believe I was exactly the right age, in the right place, and at the right time, to ride SoCal’s hockey wave. Even though Gretzky was traded to Los Angeles in 1988, and the sport saw a decided uptick in popularity, it wasn’t until the 1992-93 season that the sport reached, at the time, its zenith in popularity with the Kings reaching the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in their history. I was six. (Or, right around the age most kids start to play organized sports.) The next year the Ducks arrived on the scene and my life would never be the same.
I can’t speak to the popularity of playing the sport before I started, but to me it seems that from the second I picked up a hockey stick, there was a definite presence in the community – not a large one, but definitely noticeable. There were both ice and roller hockey leagues (though not great ones) ready and waiting for me when I first started to play. However, the lifeblood of the game is away from the rink. Southern California may not have frozen ponds upon which to play shinny, but one thing we do have in abundance is paved asphalt, and for my friends and me, the streets in front of our houses became our ponds. Roller blades became our ice skates. Balls became our pucks (the asphalt wasn’t smooth enough for pucks).
It may not have been on ice, and it certainly wasn’t the dead of winter, but we were playing hockey – and regularly. Some of my fondest memories of growing up consist of long summer nights with the sun seemingly refusing to set, playing a pick-up game with the other kids in the neighborhood, out in front of our houses, for hours and hours. Eventually we graduated to better leagues and better facilities (Wayne Gretzky opened up a massive roller hockey facility in Irvine in 1997 – this is where I played for most of my childhood through teenage years), but the handful of us that stuck with the sport would always came back to the street for those late summer night pick-up games.
None of that would have happened were it not for first the Kings’ success and then, eventually, the Ducks’.
Due to the Kings’ playoff run, the local presence of the biggest superstar in the game, and the sudden access to a team in Anaheim, hockey became a popular ticket for Southern California families, and this resulted in a marked increase in interest in youth hockey. The importance of youth hockey in particular cannot be understated here. Hockey fandom and hockey playing are very much a Symbiant circle – especially in non-traditional markets like Los Angeles and Orange counties.
As a professional hockey franchise, if you create a hockey fan at a young enough age, chances are you’ve also created a hockey player, and if a hockey player keeps on playing hockey into adulthood, then you’ve got that hockey player/fan hooked and you’ve created for yourself a ticket and merchandise buyer. This may seem somewhat jaded, perhaps even crass, but it’s a fact.
The Ducks do this brilliantly with their THE RINKS program.
Today they own and operate six hockey facilities spread out through Orange and Riverside counties – three ice hockey rinks (Anaheim, Westminster, and Yorba Linda) and three roller hockey rinks (Irvine, Huntington Beach, and Corona). These rinks are home to thousands of players, hundreds of teams, and probably close to, if not over a hundred different leagues for players from Mini Mite-level to 35-and-over.
Southern California has also become a bit of a hotbed for elite-level travel ice and roller hockey teams (excellently documented in the wonderful “In The Crease” – the story of the California Wave on the road to the U16 National Championships), as well as a breeding ground for some of the most exciting up and coming American-born professional players.
Emerson Etem is from Long Beach, scored 61 goals for the Medicine Hat Tigers of the WHL last season and is one of the most dynamic prospects in the Ducks system. Nicolas Kerdiles is an Irvine native who was drafted by his hometown Ducks in the 2nd round of this year’s entry draft. He projects as a tenacious, skilled power forward and will suit up for the University of Wisconsin this year. Beau Bennett is from Gardena, CA and is, to this point, the highest drafted California-born and trained player in the history of the NHL, going 20th overall to the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2010. Just recently, the Ducks signed 25-year-old Lake Forest, CA native Ryan Lasch, who lit up the Finnish Elite League for the Lahti Pelicans last season. This is just the tip of the iceberg.
Hockey is hockey, and if you’ve got skill, you’ve got skill. It doesn’t matter where you were born – all that matters is that you’re given the right environment to develop those skills, and the Ducks and Kings are playing a tremendous role in providing those environments.
As California continues to develop as a hockey state, fans everywhere will begin to see California hockey players dominate play at the highest levels. I, for one, can’t wait to bear witness to that natural step of evolution.
If you would like to have your team, league, rink or community featured on SHJ Community Spotlight, send an email to SunbeltHockey@gmail.com.