LOS ANGELES, Calif. - Joe Thornton and Teemu Selanne have spent the best years of their careers playing their wintry sport on the sunny West Coast, so they were both thrilled to learn California has more teams in the upcoming NHL post-season than Canada.
It's no knock on the Great White North. From Silicon Valley to Hollywood to Orange County, hockey in the Golden State has just never been better.
The San Jose Sharks, Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim Ducks are headed to the playoffs together for the first time, raising this long-simmering three-way rivalry to a boil.
"This is the first time ever, so it's good for hockey out here, and it's growing," said Thornton, the 2006 NHL MVP who joined the Sharks in 2005. "It's becoming an exciting sport to watch out here."
And it's only going to get more entertaining. After the three clubs played each other four times in the final week of the regular season, second-seeded San Jose will meet seventh-seeded Los Angeles in just the third playoff series between California teams—the second since 1969.
"I realized it hadn't happened before, so I was excited to see it when we got in," said Selanne, who played in San Jose between his two stints in Anaheim. "I'm proud of the teams. We need this. Obviously for hockey here in Southern California, this is going to be a huge boost for both franchises, so I'm very happy about this situation."
Each team brings unique qualities to the post-season: The Kings have the lengthiest history, but the Sharks have the most consistent recent success—and the Ducks, who face Nashville in the first round, have the only Stanley Cup title. Remarkably, all three California clubs have won 11 playoff series apiece heading into this spring.
"As much as what Wayne Gretzky did to develop hockey out here, I think this will create even a greater interest," said Jack Ferreira, the Ducks' original general manager and a current assistant to Kings GM Dean Lombardi. "There's a rivalry, but I think there's a lot of respect, too. I mean, some of the people that are still (with Anaheim), I hired."
Big-time hockey in California began when the Kings joined the NHL in the Second Six expansion in 1967 along with the then-California Seals, renamed the Oakland Seals a month into their first season. The Seals moved to Cleveland in 1976, but the Sharks joined the NHL in 1991 in the first wave of the NHL's Sun Belt expansion, and the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim followed in 1993.
Gretzky's Kings reached the Stanley Cup finals once during his revitalizing tenure in L.A., and the Sharks have become one of the NHL's most consistent winners since Thornton arrived, albeit still without a finals appearance. Anaheim built upon its surprise 2003 finals berth to become a consistent winner with star defencemen Chris Pronger and Scott Niedermayer, claiming the 2007 Stanley Cup title.
"We've been competitive out here in California for a while, but this really shows everybody how good it is," said Anaheim's Corey Perry, who earned the Richard Trophy and strong MVP consideration during his 50-goal season. "What's special is that it's great for the fans. It's a pretty great achievement."
Southern California's two teams had never even made the same post-season in their 17 seasons of coexistence along the I-5 freeway, but the excitement for this playoff push was obvious in a bruising, season-ending, home-and-home series over the past two days.
Anaheim won both games, clinching a playoff spot with the first victory before rocketing past the Kings and all the way to the No. 4 seed in the crowded West on Saturday night.
Oddly enough, most everybody agrees the Kings-Ducks matchup has long been the weak link in this three-way chain: While both teams have significant histories with the Sharks, Los Angeles and Anaheim hadn't built a serious mutual dislike because both clubs had rarely been good in the same season.
That won't be a problem after their violence-filled weekend series, capped by Selanne's first fighting major of his 18-year NHL career for a late scrap with Los Angeles' Brad Richardson on Saturday night.
"We're only 45 minutes apart, so it'll be interesting if we ever got into a series against one other," Anaheim coach Randy Carlyle said. "And there's a third team (350) miles north of here that plays a pretty high brand of hockey, too. So to have three California teams in, I think that's special in itself."
San Jose met the Ducks in the first round two years ago, and eighth-seeded Anaheim ran the Presidents' Trophy-winning Sharks out of the first round in a memorably chippy series that included Ryan Getzlaf and Thornton dropping the gloves at the opening faceoff of Game 6.
There's no reason to think the Sharks-Kings series won't be just as pugnacious, with Los Angeles forced to rely on defence and toughness with top scorers Anze Kopitar and Justin Williams sidelined by injuries.
"It's going to be a real competitive series," Thornton said. "We know them well. They play hard each and every night, and they're very stingy defensively, so it's going to be a really great series for California hockey."
The first generation of California youngsters who grew up with Gretzky's eye-catching presence, widespread NHL-backed youth hockey, and television games is just coming of age, and it's starting to show in the NHL draft. Last summer at Staples Center, two California-trained teens were chosen in the first round: Beau Bennett (No. 20 to Pittsburgh) and Emerson Etem (No. 29 to Anaheim).
"It's nice to see the three California teams in the playoffs," said Sharks coach Todd McLellan, whose son, Tyson, played PeeWee hockey with the San Jose Jr. Sharks. "That's exciting not just for the National Hockey League but also the minor hockey programs in all three of the cities. We're excited for that."