LOS ANGELES, Calif. – Jason Zucker’s first skates had wheels. The three-year-old kid learned the fundamentals of hockey not on a pastoral Canadian pond, but inside a roller rink in the stifling heat of Las Vegas.
Zucker didn’t touch ice until he was six, following his older brothers onto an air-conditioned hotel sheet.
Twelve years later, he pulled on a Minnesota Wild jersey Saturday as a second-round NHL draft selection—the first player ever drafted from Las Vegas, the sprawling desert gambling mecca that had exactly three ice rinks at his last count.
“I might be the first, but I won’t be the last,” Zucker said.
Although the NHL’s expansion into the Sun Belt over the past quarter-century has been partially blamed for the league’s financial woes and talent depletion, the first fruits of that move might have ripened during the two-day draft at Staples Center.
Americans were in remarkable demand during the weekend, starting with a record 11 U.S. citizens chosen in the first round. The 30 teams drafted 59 Americans, according to the NHL’s measures of nationality, just shy of the 62 U.S. players chosen in 2007.
And these young Americans aren’t just from Minnesota and Massachusetts, either.
“Hockey has really started changing,” said forward Andrew Yogan, the NHL’s first Florida born-and-trained draftee, chosen early in the fourth round by the New York Rangers. “I’m just excited to be the first one, and hopefully I’ll open up a couple of doors for the guys after me. There’s a lot of hockey talent in South Florida, and people don’t know it yet.”
The momentum from the impressive U.S. victory at the world junior hockey championships in January extended into the draft, with a record-tying 21 Americans chosen in the first two rounds alone. They’re from New England and the Upper Midwest, but also from places like Scottsdale, Ariz., where Colorado seventh-rounder Luke Moffatt got his hockey start.
And fittingly for the first draft in Los Angeles, the first-round American choices at Staples Center included Pittsburgh Penguins selection Beau Bennett—the highest-drafted Californian in NHL history at No. 20—and Long Beach’s Emerson Etem, chosen by his near-hometown Anaheim Ducks at No. 29.
“There are pockets where hockey has caught on and been introduced to a whole new group of athletes,” said Jay Heinbuck, the Penguins’ director of amateur scouting. “California is a great, growing base, and you even see players from New Jersey or Maryland these days, from places that aren’t normally hockey pockets.”
Both of California’s blue-chip prospects surfed when they weren’t skating, yet Bennett and Etem still developed into elite teenage talents. Every NHL team has taken notice of the evolving game down south—particularly the clubs whose junior programs fostered this talent.
“When we started out here, we would only see players coming up in inline hockey,” said Kings Hall of Famer Luc Robitaille, who moved to Los Angeles in 1986. “Now, kids are on skates from a very young age, and they’re facing good competition from a very young age. In L.A., in San Jose and everywhere, they have almost everything in place to play hockey through their whole lives.”
Indeed, Yogan skated for the Florida Junior Panthers and had a Pavel Bure poster on his wall while growing up in Boca Raton before moving north as a teenager to play in the OHL. Defenceman R.J. Boyd, who was born in Sarasota and played in Fort Myers, was chosen by the Panthers in the seventh round.
Zucker was a stick boy for the IHL’s Las Vegas Thunder during that league’s heyday in the 1990s, and he spent the last few years with the Los Angeles Hockey Club and the U.S. national team. He’ll head to Denver University in the fall.
“West Coast hockey is getting on the map here,” Zucker said. “Not just the West Coast, but everywhere in the U.S. is on the rise.”
USA Hockey said 11 Americans had been selected in the first round, while the NHL only gave credit for 10, tying the number of Americans chosen in the first round in 2006 and 2007. Defenceman Cam Fowler, the Ducks’ pick at No. 12, was born in Windsor, Ont., but was raised and trained in the Detroit suburbs.
Semantics aside, the American first-round choices included an impressive number of high-calibre NHL prospects, including Jack Campbell to Dallas at No. 11 as the draft’s first goalie; defenceman Derek Forbort to Los Angeles at No. 15; left wing Austin Watson to Nashville at No. 18; and rugged defenceman Jarred Tinordi to Montreal at No. 22.
And then there’s Bennett, the Gardena native who attended high school in Cerritos, Calif., before playing junior in Penticton, B.C. The speedy, skilled forward has a 20-year-old brother playing for Penticton’s rivals in the same league.
“I come from not the most well-known league, too, so it’s even more rewarding that people noticed me,” Bennett said. “Being in L.A. for the draft, being with my friends and family, it’s an amazing experience.”
Etem played for Medicine Hat in the bigger WHL, but grew up in Los Angeles’ inline hockey culture. He spends the off-seasons making a daily trek by bus, train and skates from Long Beach to Venice to train with NHL fitness guru T.R. Goodman, whose workouts are credited with extending Chris Chelios’ career into his late 40s.
Bennett wasn’t expected to go ahead of Etem, who fell all the way to the bottom of the first round, where the Ducks grabbed him. Although he grew up 20 miles from the Honda Center, Etem has never attended a Ducks game.
“There’s a new wave of California skill,” Etem said. “I think it’s about the coaching being done here. There are big things going on. I’m just grateful to be a part of it.”