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Feather flock big and strong: The Ducks' high school league flourishing in Southern California

Not only has the Ducks’ high-school league grown by 50 teams, some of those squads have become powerhouses.

Hoo boy, that rivalry between JSerra Catholic and Santa Margarita must have been something back in the day. “Yeah, and it still is,” said Art Trottier, who runs the Anaheim Ducks High School Hockey League.

There was a time not long ago that they were the only two teams in the league, which doubled in size from its first year when JSerra Catholic was the only team. We’re going to assume they finished in first place.

It’s a testament to the growth of the game in California that the league has grown from one team in 2008-09 to 51 teams in varsity Div. I, II and III and junior varsity. (Actually, the 2019-20 season marks something of a milestone for the league in that it’s the first year it has carried in excess of 50 teams.) It’s also a testament to the power of the greatest player who ever played the game that the league can trace its roots back to the Wayne Gretzky trade, though it’s not the trade you think. When Gretzky was dealt from the Los Angeles Kings to the St. Louis Blues in 1996, one of the players coming the other way was Craig Johnson, who spent the next eight seasons playing for the Kings and Ducks, then settled in Irvine to raise his family after his career in Europe ended in 2008. Johnson has been involved with the league since the beginning and has coached the Santa Margarita Eagles for years. In fact, his son Ryan became the ADHSHL’s second alumnus to be picked in the NHL draft and the first to go in the first round when he was taken 31st overall by the Buffalo Sabres in June. He’s playing this season at the University of Minnesota. He followed Slava Demin, who was drafted in the fourth round by the Vegas Golden Knights in 2018 and is playing at the University of Denver.

Not only that, but the league is also picking up some serious hardware at the state and national levels. Johnson’s Eagles are the back-to-back defending USA Hockey high-school champions, were national champs in 2013 and lost in the national final in 2015 and 2017. “They’ve had some strong teams,” said Trottier, who runs the Ducks’ practice rink where the league plays, along with the five other arenas operated by the team. “They’ve recruited some strong kids. And they’ve had some very strong coaching.”

The Ducks have been huge supporters of the league since they established it. A couple years after Henry and Susan Samueli completed their purchase of the Ducks in 2005, they noticed that many kids who played hockey in the area were beginning to drop out and play other sports once they hit high school. The profile that came with winning the Stanley Cup in 2007 certainly helped their efforts to get kids involved in the game and retain the ones who were already playing. All told, the Ducks oversee eight facilities, six ice arenas and two for in-line hockey. The Ducks recently opened Great Park ICE, a 280,000-square foot, four-sheet arena in Irvine.

Teams in the high-school league play at the Duck-owned facilities, and the NHL sponsors teams for each of their first four seasons, providing seed money and coaches. And part of what makes the league work and how it’s able to retain players is the way it is structured. Most of the games are on weekends, and teams play only one game a week. Each team has two practices per week, usually right after school, which provides the players with a positive practice-to-game ratio and allows them to further develop their skills. That makes it much more affordable and less hectic for players who might want to play other sports or pursue other hobbies, all the while still staying involved in the game. And the Ducks are well aware that the longer they can provide young people with the passion for the game and give them a tactile, personal experience with it, the more likely they’re going to remain hockey fans when they become adults and have more discretional income. When the league began, many of the players played both high school and club hockey, but Trottier said that is starting to change. “Some still are, but those numbers have dwindled a little bit,” Trottier said. “When we started the league up, a lot of them were doing that, but most of them are playing high-school hockey now. As the league has gotten more competitive, it’s grown, and better kids are starting to play in the league now. Winning a couple of national championships doesn’t hurt, either. We’re not just all about surfboards and skateboards anymore.”

MORE ICE IN THE HEAT

While the other two NHL teams in California might not have either the volume or accolades the Anaheim Ducks have when it comes to high-school hockey, both the Los Angeles Kings and San Jose Sharks are making inroads when it comes to keeping teenaged players involved in the game.

Both teams have their own hockey leagues – the Sharks with 37 varsity Div. I and II and junior varsity teams and the Kings with 17 varsity and junior varsity clubs. “Our Division 1 would probably be the equivalent of a low AA,” said Shane Galaviz, the coordinator of the Sharks High School Hockey League. “We’ve got some AAA players and AA players mixed in there. We have kids who played travel hockey who want to play until they’re 18, and in a lot of cases, this is where they end up playing because it’s not as expensive.”

This season, the former Kings player turned radio analyst Daryl Evans was named commissioner of the LA Kings High School Hockey League with the mandate to continue to grow the league in the area. “We’d like to eventually see it become part of the (physical education) curriculum,” Evans said. “The same as football, basketball and baseball.”

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