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The Arrival Of California Hockey: A Look At The History And The Future Of The Game In The Golden State

In the late 80s early-to-mid 90s, Wayne Gretzky's presence in Los Angeles jump started the creation of a hockey culture in California. 20 years later, the sport has finally carved out a meaningful spot for itself in the state. How did that happen, and where's the ceiling for hockey in the Golden State?

There are currently 77 Southern California-born players and 12 Northern California-born players playing in the NCAA, the USHL and the CHL. Two California-born kids were drafted in the first round of the 2010 NHL Entry Draft.  Three California-born prospects will be taken very early in the 2011 draft. California midgets, bantams, U16 and U18 teams dominate the national scene.

Wayne Gretzky's prediction has come true: California has transformed from the hockey hotbed of the future to the driving force behind growth in the sport at a national level.

To get a better understanding of California hockey, the team, the kids and the culture, I sat down with writer Chris Bayee. Bayee, a long-time sports journalist, has become the foremost expert in the world when it comes to both the history of and the future of California hockey.

Bayee is in the process of writing Palm Trees and Frozen Ponds, a book centered around California's place in North American hockey. I spoke with Bayee about the past, present and future of the sport in California.

SB Nation: Professional hockey was around for many years prior to Wayne Gretzky arriving in Los Angeles, yet he receives nearly 100% of the credit for starting the youth hockey movement in California. Is that warranted?

Chris Bayee, Palm Trees And Frozen Ponds: Wayne Gretzky and the Los Angeles Kings teams of the late 80s and early 90s certainly deserve a lot of credit for the growth of youth hockey in Southern California. The participation numbers, which exploded during that time, bear that out. However, the expansion Sharks and Ducks also deserve some credit as their creation heightened interest in two affluent markets in the state. I believe both of those franchises would not have been possible without Gretzky’s impact. He had that type of the cross-over appeal.

It’s true that organized youth hockey existed in California long before Gretzky arrived. It produced some professional players (a mix of transplants and some natives), and it also produced the goaltender for the 1976 U.S. Olympic team, Jim Warden, whom I believe does not get nearly the recognition he deserves.

SB Nation: How large is youth hockey in California at the moment?

Bayee: It has a solid niche. The California market differs from any other because of a couple of dynamics. There is a huge population base to draw from -- the state’s population is roughly the same as all of Canada’s, if not larger now -- so even though the overall number of participants is decent, it’s a small percentage.

Second, it’s an athletic population, so there is a good amount of natural ability in California to be developed. The weather is good so much of the time that we have an active population.

Third, there are a lot of very affluent pockets, and unfortunately, one has to have quite a bit of money to play hockey competitively at the youth levels these days, regardless of where you live. In terms of raw numbers, from California Amateur Hockey Association, the state’s governing body, for the 2009-10 season there were 84 associations with 18,054 players and 1,068 coaches.

SB Nation: There's a sentiment in the more hockey-centric parts of the continent that hockey players in California are just kids from transplanted families. How prevalent are native California kids in the programs?

Bayee: At this point, I’d say native Californians comprise 95 percent of the youth teams in the state. Yes, there are some high-end transplants, but a vast, vast majority of the best players were born and trained in the state. The transplants might speak more to the quality of programs and coaching in those programs than anything.

SB Nation: What about ice time? Is it at a premium right now or is there capacity?

Bayee: Ice time is a big problem for many programs right now. The costs associated with operating a rink in California these days are staggering because of real estate costs and the climate, which requires far more electricity to run an ice plant than it would in the Northeast, Upper Midwest or Canada. Over the past five years, I think the state has lost a net of 4-5 rinks. The facilities that have opened or have been renovated all have at least two rinks, and several rink operators have told me that going forward it would be fiscally impossible for someone to build a single-sheet facility in the state.

SB Nation: There are a couple of midget teams that have begun to make themselves known in Canada as being top-flight competition. Are you aware of them?

Bayee: Yes, but it’s not just the Midget programs. The LA Selects had a group of Bantam 95s that played for a third consecutive National Championship in April. The Selects and the LA Jr. Kings are members of the Tier I Elite Hockey League. The California Titans won the North American Prospects League 18U title last season, and Orange County Hockey Club has won the Nike Bauer tournament in Chicago and won a 16U National Championship in April. Go back a few years, and the California Wave, captured in the film In the Crease, enjoyed tremendous success.

Many of the top NHL prospects from the state played together on that team, including 3-4 who could reach the NHL this year.

SB Nation: There were two California kids taken in the first round of the NHL draft and one in the third. More than thirty kids playing in the USHL. Eight kids were taken in the WHL Bantam Draft. Nine kids are playing in the WCHA in the NCAA. How heavily is California scouted today?

Bayee: Relative to the number of programs that are here, I’d say quite heavily. At Tier I State Championships there are always one to two dozen scouts from the WHL, USHL and NAHL. The WHL holds a Western U.S. camp in Anaheim.

Anaheim Ducks assistant coach Newell Brown holds a college prospects camp in Anaheim every June that is attended by schools from the WCHA, Hockey East and CCHA. Plus the Jr. Kings and LA Selects programs play in the heavily scouted Tier I Elite Hockey League. So there aren’t a lot of good players from California that fly under the radar now.

SB Nation: Who has the potential to be the first real star player born in California, not just a depth player?

Bayee: The Anaheim Ducks’ Bobby Ryan, who played four seasons of Pee Wee, Bantam and Midget hockey in Southern California, was on LA Jr. Kings National Championship teams in the early 2000s, and Bobby has told me that James Gasseau of LA Hockey Club is the best coach he’s ever had. Clearly his time in California had a tremendous impact on his development even though he is originally from New Jersey.

As for others, any list of prospects of potential above average NHL players has to include:

1. Nashville prospect Jonathon Blum – our first born/trained first-round pick in 2007. He was the WHL’s Defenseman of the Year in 2009. He was very solid in his first AHL season a year ago. He has fantastic puck skills, good stick skills in all three zones, and is a power-play quarterback – he fits the profile of what NHL teams prize in defensemen now. If he fills out, I think he can have a long career.

2.  Anaheim prospect Emerson Etem – a first-round pick this year. He was the top goal-scorer among WHL rookies last season and was one of the fastest players in the league. He is the only teen that Chris Chelios’ trainer, TR Goodman, ever accepted into his program, and he has a Chelios-like work ethic.

3.  Pittsburgh prospect Beau Bennett – another first-round pick this year and the highest one ever from California. Several coaches have told me he has a Bobby Ryan-like skill set, and once he fills out after a few years at DU, he could be an impact offensive player, especially with the skill the Penguins boast down the middle.

4.  Calgary prospect Mitch Wahl – he won a Memorial Cup with Spokane in 2009 and after he completed his Junior season this past spring, he played well for the Flames’ AHL affiliate in the playoffs. He had a two-assist game in the preseason. Very good two-way player with a terrific work ethic and deceptive offensive skills. He scored more this past season, which can only help him. There are three Californians who are top 2011 draft prospects – BU forward Matt Nieto, Kelowna (WHL) forward Shane McColgan and USNTDP forward Rocco Grimaldi (who played here until he was 12, also profiled in Sports Illustrated this past summer). All could be very high first-round picks.

In addition, the Minnesota Wild signed high-scoring forward Casey Wellman after two seasons at UMass. He and another Californian, Islanders prospect Rhett Rakhshani, were two of the top scorers in NCAA hockey this past season.

I also think a handful of players from the LA Selects’ 95 group could break through, although it’s awfully early to project that.

SB Nation: When I talked to Paul Kelly of College Hockey Inc., he said "Frankly, the first college or university that decides to add Division I hockey in California will have just an absolute bounty in front of it. They will have their pick of some of the most talented kids in the country and they've got some great young kids coming up. If we could ever convince USC or UCLA or Stanford or California to add a program, they would have such an immediate impact." Is Division I hockey in California a near-term possibility? Who could realistically add a program?

Bayee:  I think Mr. Kelly is correct, whichever school or schools added Division I hockey would have a fertile recruiting ground in their backyard. However, I don’t see how it is a realistic possibility any time soon. First there is the cost of starting up a program, one that would have to budget for massive travel costs.

Second, there is NCAA Title IX compliance, so you’d have to add a women’s program concurrently or beef up other women’s sports beyond their current levels.

Third, I don’t think there are appropriate venues here for college hockey. Not sure NHL rinks or ECHL rinks would work. … Given the state’s fiscal woes, I don’t think a state school like UCLA or Cal could or would do it. So I guess USC and Stanford would be possibilities, but they’d need a huge benefactor to get it rolling. I’d love to see it, but I don’t see how it’s possible without someone or a group stepping up with very deep pockets.

SB Nation: What impact would a Division I program have on California Youth Hockey?

Bayee: Absolutely huge. It would expose so many more people to the sport, particularly those who are in the process of becoming well-educated. It would give more young players something to aspire to – you can play for your school, closer to home, in front of friends and family at one of the highest levels. The trickle-down effect probably would mean the NAHL adds more Junior teams in the state -- they launch one in Fresno this season -- and that only would broaden the base of youth hockey. Eventually the talent pool would get deeper.

SB Nation: What about higher levels? What value does it have to get a local kid playing well in the NHL in a California market?

Bayee: It would help. How much, I’m not sure. Given that California, particularly Southern California, is so star-driven, it would most likely take a player from here who was a star to have a real impact.

To this point, Bobby Ryan has had the most success at the NHL level, and he gives of his time to clinics and camps, both through the Ducks and his former youth coaches. Emerson Etem has the potential to have enormous appeal because he’s from Long Beach, not far from Anaheim, and he’s bi-racial. The other natives who have played in the NHL in California largely have been depth players.

SB Nation: Is the NHL helping to grow the game in California?

Bayee: In general, I don’t know how much the league does directly with the grassroots part of the game in the state. USA Hockey’s excellent ADM program (headed by California native Ken Martel) is funded by the league, but that has yet to really take hold. The Sharks and Ducks have purchased and renovated a number of rinks in their respective areas, and that has helped trigger grass-roots growth.

The Ducks also are quite involved in roller hockey, which is brilliant because that’s much more cost effective for operators and for families. I think the Ducks, Kings and Sharks all work extremely hard to promote the game beyond just selling their product to fans and potential fans.

The Ducks’ Stanley Cup triumph gave the youth game in Orange County a bounce, and I have no doubt a Sharks Cup would do likewise, but the Sharks already are wildly popular in the Bay Area. Frankly, I think a Kings Stanley Cup would do more to grow the game than anything because they occupy the second-largest market in the U.S. and they have the most history in the game out here.

SB Nation: Gretzky often talked about the time when California would produce a high number of quality hockey players. How close are we to that vision becoming a reality?

Bayee:  You noted the numbers of Californians in the WHL, the USHL and NCAA Division I colleges. The AHL will have a dozen or so legit prospects from the state, and a handful could reach the NHL this season. So I think it’s real close if it’s not there. Having two first-round picks in one year plus defenseman Taylor Aronson drafted in the third round is a pretty strong statement as well. I do think it will take a player or two reaching All-Star status to really put it on the map in the hockey world.

Follow California hockey at Chris Bayee's blog, Icing On The Pond and watch for his upcoming book, Palm Trees and Frozen Ponds.