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California Dreamin' Big: Thirty years after Gretzky arrived, hockey is booming on the West Coast

Youth hockey in the Golden State continues to mature like a fine Napa Valley wine thanks to grassroots investments by California’s three NHL clubs.

When Wayne Gretzky landed in Los Angeles more than 30 years ago, the West was still considered the Great Frontier for the NHL. For two decades, the Kings had struggled to make an impact in a virgin hockey landscape that seemed rife with potential. The Great One’s arrival immediately changed that, clearing a path that led to today’s thriving state of California hockey.

After Gretzky’s arrival, California quickly become fertile ground for the grassroots game. From 1970 to 1990, two years after The Trade, the number of registered players in the state hadn’t even doubled, going from 2,780 to 4,830 (according to USA Hockey). But just three years later, in 1993, when Gretzky and the Kings reached the first Stanley Cup final in franchise history, that number had swelled to 9,316. By 1996, the year Los Angeles dealt Gretzky to the St. Louis Blues, it had hit 15,537.

Nearly a quarter-century later, enrollment has now more than doubled, to 31,690, and the initial boon from Gretzky’s arrival has already generated the first ripple of native Californians to reach the NHL – Kevan Miller, Matt Nieto and Beau Bennett, to name a few. And there’s a wave of Cali-born players on the horizon, including 2014 draft pick Thatcher Demko (Vancouver); 2017 picks Jason Robertson (Dallas), Cole Guttman (Tampa Bay), Jake McGrew (San Jose) and Ivan Lodnia (Minnesota); and, 2018 draftees Slava Demin (Vegas) and Jack St. Ivany (Philadelphia), along with potential 2019 first-rounder Cam York.

The Gretzky era in California is long gone, but the Kings continue their efforts to grow the game across the state, and they aren’t alone. Archrivals San Jose and Anaheim, who entered the NHL in 1991 and 1993 have also been active at the grassroots level.

With help from grants by the NHL and NHLPA, all three teams have programs that attract new players at early ages and work to keep them in the sport. In the past five years, the Kings, Ducks and Sharks have all started learn-to-play programs for children as young as four or five. These programs offer packages that give players equipment, ice time and coaching at a steep discount. And they’ve had a major impact. In the three seasons leading up to 2014-15 – the first year all three teams featured these programs – participation in hockey for kids aged 12 and under in California grew 23 percent. In the three seasons afterward, that rate more than doubled, to 55 percent.

Each team has also set up a high school league, and all three have seen remarkable growth. The Ducks were the first to start their own high school circuit, in 2008, with the Anaheim Ducks High School League, and L.A. jumped on board in 2015 when it formed the Los Angeles Kings High School League. The Sharks have been involved in high school hockey since the early 2000s, but it wasn’t until 2016 that the Sharks High School League started a varsity loop that played during the fall and winter. “Our ownership group was 100 percent behind it,” said Art Trottier, who coordinates the ADHSHL, as well as women’s and youth hockey, for the Ducks. “To this day, they still sponsor teams in the program.”

Each league differs in its development, but all of them have exploded in popularity. In 10 seasons, the ADHSHL has grown to a whopping 49 teams with more than 720 players, and it recently had its first alum selected by an NHL team when Vegas drafted Demin last June. (It also features the only national champion from the three leagues, the Santa Margarita Eagles.) The SHSHL has grown from five to eight “pure” high school teams (teams with players exclusively from one high school rather than a combination of schools) and features about 300 players on 17 teams, while the LAKHSHL has grown from eight to 17 teams and from about 100 to more than 300 players in four seasons. “We have a very high skill level, and there is a very committed group of players that put a lot of time into their game,” said Jay Trotta, who coaches the El Segundo Strikers of the LAKHSHL. “It’s become much more competitive, and if you are from this area nowadays, people take you serious around the country. You’re not a novelty anymore, like you used to be.”

Neither is the women’s game, which continues to grow steadily across the state. There are now multiple girls-only programs, including those set up by the Ducks, Kings and Sharks. The Lady Ducks began in 1999 with just two teams and are now at 14 teams with more than 150 players across a range of age groups and skill levels. The L.A. Lions, started by the Kings, began playing in 2015, and in four seasons the program has grown from one to eight teams, with more than 100 players. The San Jose Junior Sharks also ice eight girls teams, from eight-and-under to high school, with more than 100 players, up from three teams when they started in 2002-03.

Amanda Long, coordinator of high school, girls and women’s hockey for the Sharks, and who coaches a girls team herself, said their players often come from the Sharks’ learn-to-play program, which now has enough players to hold girls-only sessions twice a year. Those players had an opportunity in December 2017, when the U.S. women’s team played Canada in an exhibition game at SAP Center. “One of the teams I coach got to stand in the tunnel that they were walking out of,” Long said. “It’s just amazing that they got the opportunity to even see these women, let alone fist bump them. While the NHL is neat and it’s great for any hockey fan, it’s obviously a really different experience when they are face-to-face with the best women’s players in the world.”

American defender Cayla Barnes, who won gold with the U.S. at the 2018 Olympics, played in that game. Barnes played boys hockey for the Junior Kings Bantam AAA team and the Junior Ducks before joining the Lady Ducks. She now plays women’s hockey for Boston College. “A lot of girls came out and watched that game,” said Barnes, who grew up watching Hall of Famer Angela Ruggiero, a Los Angeles native. “We need to continue doing stuff like that in order to give little girls the opportunity to see us play and grow the game there.”

On top of subsidizing learn-to-play and high school programs, the Kings, Sharks and Ducks all continue to do their part to grow the game in California, including building rinks. The Great Park Ice & Sports Complex, which opened in December, is a $108-million, four-sheet facility that has been funded privately by a foundation run by the owners of the Ducks, Henry and Susan Samueli. And at the beginning of October, the Kings announced they were partnering with the city of Los Angeles to build the Reseda Ice Rink, with the Kings contributing $26 million. The Sharks are in discussions to expand their practice arena, Solar4America Ice, by adding another ice sheet, though nothing has been made official yet.

More than anything, however, hockey in California could use another superstar catalyst, like Gretzky 30-plus years ago. With the increasing number of players coming from California, it’s only a matter of time.

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