SANTA CRUZ, March 29, 2014 — When the Edmonton Oilers agreed to trade franchise player and Canadian icon Wayne Gretzky to the Los Angeles Kings in 1988, little could anyone have foreseen the impact the move would have with regards to interest in hockey in the southwestern U.S. For years, the Kings were on a hockey island, far removed from the rest of their NHL brethren, rarely icing a high end roster or achieving any organizational success. Southern California had a few decrepit ice rinks but most kids were playing other sports. Everything changed when Gretzky arrived.
Interest in the Kings, and the NHL by proxy, skyrocketed. Their games at The Great Western Forum became the place to be and be seen. Hollywood stars began showing up regularly and it was nearly impossible to get tickets to watch a team which had previously been unable to fill their arena.
Aside from the instant respectability and popularity of the game that Gretsky’s arrival produced, new rinks began popping up all over southern California, and hockey quickly became the cool thing to be doing. Before long, athletic kids were starting to play, youth hockey programs flourished, and high end coaches from throughout North America were gravitating to the southland. It was inevitable that, some 25 years after the Gretzky trade, California, along with Arizona, Texas, and Colorado, would be producing elite hockey players.
The last several U.S. world junior teams, including gold medal winners in 2010 and 2012, have featured players from California, and surrounding states. These players are making their mark in the Western Hockey League (WHL) as well as division one hockey programs in the NCAA. Californian Chase De Leo, of the WHL’s Portland Winterhawks, is currently 26th in the NHL central scouting’s rankings for the 2014 draft, and two of central scouting’s top three North American goalies are Californians. The WHL currently boasts 45 U.S. born players, most of which are Californians.
Do not be surprised if some of these players are selected for the U.S. Olympic team in 2018. Current NHL players like Matthew Nieto (San Jose Sharks), Seth Jones (Nashville Predators), Jonathon Blum (Minnesota Wild), Emerson Etem (Anaheim Ducks), and Beau Bennett (Pittsburgh Penguins) will get long looks from USA Hockey, as well as NHL prospects like De Leo, Nic Kerdiles (University of Wisonsin), Thatcher Demko (Boston College), and Blake Weyrick (Shattuck St. Marys).
America’s national teams will always draw heavily from traditional hockey strongholds like Minnesota, Michigan, and New England, but California, and the entire southwestern U.S., is coming. The NHL youngsters mentioned above will be established pros in 2018, and it is highly probable that some of them will be pulling on USA sweaters in Korea.
Russ Rankin writes about hockey, music & politics. You can find him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter. He also sings for Good Riddance and Only Crime. Find out what he’s up to by checking out his website.