Wading through data

During my “down time” I’ve taken to re-reading chapters I’ve written for Palm Trees and Frozen Ponds and scanning the interviews I’ve conducted over the past 5-6 years, and I’ve concluded many of you I’ve spoken to are right — that is A LOT of information.

So I’ve reached the conclusion that the first book needs to focus on youth hockey and the influences for its growth. So yeah, the pros will be covered to some extent, but not in the comprehensive manner I’d originally thought. That is a different dragon to slay.

So while I’m sure Stanley Cup-winning coaches Darryl Sutter and Randy Carlyle have compelling stories to tell. I KNOW men such as Buddy McKinnon, Ludi Graf, Jeff Turcotte and James Gasseau (among hundreds of others) do.

And that’s really the point — honoring the players, coaches AND PARENTS who made the growing youth hockey trend what it is today.

So we press on! Thank you for your patience and have a Happy Thanksgiving!

A side note: Graf, now 82, recently retired and U-T San Diego ran a nice story on his career.

California’s Cup similarities

Should the LA Kings win the Stanley Cup tonight they would complete a historically dominant playoff run. Their 16-2 record would tie the 1988 Edmonton Oilers for the best playoff mark since the league shifted to four seven-game series.

As I pondered this in light of  the book this morning a few things stood out to me.

That amazing Oilers team, and the city of Edmonton, province of Alberta and even nation of Canada never were the same two months later … when Wayne Gretzky and Marty McSorley were traded to the Kings. For that matter, neither was hockey in Los Angeles or California.

Even if the Kings don’t win tonight — and they’ve dropped two of three Game 4s while holding 3-0 series leads thus far in the playoffs — the odds are stacked in their favor to win the Cup.

I also wondered how this Kings team stacks up against one of the more dominant Cup winners in recent times — their neighbors to the south, the Anaheim Ducks, whose birth was a byproduct of Gretzky’s change of address and the Kings’ run to the 1993 Stanley Cup Finals.

The Ducks’ 2007 Stanley Cup Playoffs record was 16-5. The did not sweep a series (as the King have twice), and they faced a much tougher foe in the Western Conference finals, the Detroit Red Wings, whom they knocked off 4-2. The Wings went on to win the Cup the next season and returned to the Final in 2009 only to lose to the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Anaheim was very dominant during the 2006-07 regular season, amassing a league-best 110 points, while the Kings made it as an eighth seed. Anaheim had 48 wins, and with 14 overtime or shootout losses, the Ducks came very close to cracking the vaunted 50-win barrier. Those Ducks were a balanced bunch, with eight players scoring 44 or more points, including current King Dustin Penner with 45. Scoring was the Kings’ Achilles’ heel this season as only four players had 44 or more points during the regular season, Penner with just 18.

Penner, the connection between the two teams, added eight more points (including three goals) in the 2007 playoffs. He has surpassed that already in fewer games this spring with 11 points, including three goals.

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This is a good time to mention a quintet of men associated with the Kings who have been immensely helpful in my efforts to research the book during the past four years — broadcasters Bob Miller, Jim Fox and Darryl Evans, as well as media relations personnel Jeff Moeller and Mike Kalinowski. All are dedicated to the Kings and to the sport and don’t get the recognition they deserve.

 

California’s first trip to Nationals

The nearly two dozen teams from California playing in the USA Hockey Nationals this week have arrived at their various sites and no doubt are resting up for Wednesday’s opening games.

But did you know California first sent a youth hockey team to Nationals (then the Amateur Hockey Association of the United States or AHAUS) in 1962? A Bantam team playing out of Van Nuys Iceland represented the state.

What’s notable was that the team included the late Ken Vogel, who would go on to play for Jack Riley (coach of the 1960 Squaw Valley gold-medal winners) at West Point; Brian Bird, who would go on to captain Yale; and Cary Adams, who founded the PCHA, the circuit for college club teams in the Western United States.

The team was an all-star team of Southern California Junior Ice Hockey League players from the San Fernando Valley (north of downtown Los Angeles). Participants came from rinks in Van Nuys, North Hollywood and Tarzana. The SCJIHL disbanded shortly thereafter with GLAMHA (Greater Los Angeles Minor Hockey Association) absorbing the clubs.

The team was coached by the late Ronnie Van Gompel.

It also surprises many to discover that by the late 60s the state was sending players to some of the top college hockey programs in the country, a topic I am tackling in depth in the hockey book.
So while we celebrate all the hard work of the boys and girls who are at Nationals this year, take a minute to consider this is the 50th anniversary of California participating in the event.

Thanks to Cary for this rare photo.

California's first youth hockey team to reach Nationals went much earlier than most might think -- 1962. The squad was coached by the late Ronnie Van Gompel (kneeling in front row).

Book update and a few bits on 2011 California draft prospects

One question I’m asked from time to time about the hockey book is did you talk to (fill in the blank)?

Sometimes the answer is yes. Sometimes it’s I plan to. And other times it’s no.

As I’ve worked on the history of the state’s pro teams (Kings, Seals, Sharks and Ducks) and the beginnings of youth hockey, there have been people I’ve tried to contact who for whatever reason would not respond or when when reached declined to comment. Given that the book encompasses the history of the game in California and the whole idea is to promote what’s been done, what’s being done and what possibly could be done, it can be frustrating.

However, there have been more than 350 people associated with the game at all levels who have talked with me — many at length and many multiple times. So my approach has been to focus on what I’ve discovered and press on in those other areas. Regardless, this will be an exhaustive and informative work.

Nice story on NHL.com today about Shane McColgan of Manhattan Beach. McColgan, who played for LA Hockey Club and the LA Jr. Kings, is one of three very highly ranked 21011 draft prospects from California. He was runner-up in voting for the WHL’s Rookie of the Year a season ago and one of the Kelowna Rockets’ leading scorers. It’s likely he will hear his name called during Round 1 of the NHL entry draft in June.

And he could be joined by fellow forwards Matt Nieto of Long Beach and Rocco Grimaldi of Rossmoor. Nieto, also a former LA Hockey player, is playing his freshman season at Boston University after two years in the U.S. National Team Development Program. Grimaldi, who committed to North Dakota over the summer, is playing his second season in the USNTDP program. He played for the California Wave until his family relocated to Detroit when he was 12. He helped Detroit Little Caesars win multiple USA Hockey Youth National Championships during that four-year period.

 

Etem tops California’s 2010 NHL Entry Draft prospects

In the May issue of California Rubber Hockey Magazine I identify 11 prospects who have good to reasonable chances of being selected during the 2010 NHL Entry Draft in late June.

As you likely know, this year’s draft will be the first one held in California (at Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles), and it’s quite likely one of the state’s native sons will be picked in the top half of the first round, Long Beach’s Emerson Etem.

Various mock drafts have the powerful skater who scored a WHL-rookie-best 37 goals this season going anywhere from 8th to 15th. One intriguing prediction has the Anaheim Ducks selecting him with their first pick.

Etem is a solid 6-foot, 200 pounds and he was the first teen-ager allowed to train at TR Goodman‘s prestigious training center (popularized by star student Chris Chelios and now host to dozens of pro players). I spoke with Etem there last summer (click here to listen), and I came away impressed with his even-keeled and mature personality. I was equally impressed with what I observed during his workout – he has a non-stop motor and oozes athletic ability.

What it boils down to is an intense drive to succeed, and that’s why I think any team who selects Etem will not regret it for a minute. He has the drive and physical and personal maturity to thrive in the NHL much sooner than later.

How does this tie in with the hockey book? If Etem is selected in the first round (he’s NHL Central Scouting’s 8th-ranked North American skater), he’d be just the second Californian to be so honored. Rancho Santa Margarita’s Jonathon Blum, who recently finished a very good first pro season with Milwaukee in the AHL, was the first – going late in the first round to the Nashville Predators in 2007.

More progress reports on the book and on 2010 California prospects are on their way in the coming days.

Plenty on deck

I have been immersed in writing the book and traveling for some other work this summer, so the updates have been far more infrequent.

What I can tell you is the book is starting to take shape. After months of writing bits and pieces of various chapters, I believe the project is becoming more cohesive. As I type, I’m taking a break from writing about some of California’s Olympic hockey players. There have been four of them so far – any guesses who they are? (Hint – two men, two women and three of them all played the same position)

On the local hockey front, there are going be at least a dozen Californians in NHL rookie and main camps in early September. I will detail them in my next post. All three California teams will have prospects from the state in their rookie camps – Tyler Maxwell and Brandon Kozun with the Kings, CJ Stretch with the Sharks and Matthew Konan with the Ducks. A common thread? All four played in the WHL this past season.

The old WHL

A man with a deep background in hockey in Southern California told me recently that very few people remember the old Western Hockey League or the Los Angeles Blades, but it was very, very good hockey.

After spending a good amount of time researching that topic for the book, including reading an excellent book by Jon Stott called “Ice Warriors”, I am convinced he’s right on.

Think about it, when the old WHL was a thriving minor-league on the West Coast there were only six NHL teams. There were a lot more than 120 elite hockey players at the time, and many of them, especially the Western Canadians, played in the WHL.

It has been fascinating to learn about the Los Angeles Blades, San Francisco Seals and San Diego Gulls.

The Blades, for example, started Willie O’Ree’s 13-year career in the WHL. He played more games for California WHL teams than anyone. … The Seals won back-to-back hockey championships, the second over the Blades in 1964! Can you imagine the Sharks and Kings or Sharks and Ducks playing for the Stanley Cup Finals. … And the Gulls not only outdrew the NBA’s San Diego Rockets by nearly 3,000 fans per game, but they actually outdrew the San Diego Padres (on average per game) during one season. Such was the love affair the Gulls and their hockey fans had in the 60s and 70s.

The history of the sport here never ceases to amaze me!

A secret about Chris Pronger

I wanted to let you in on a little secret about one of the NHL’s biggest, and some would say meanest, players – former Anaheim Ducks and current Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Chris Pronger.

Pronger is a really nice individual. He’s also a very smart one.

Those statements are bound to gall fans of the Kings, Sharks and especially the Oilers, but I believe it’s true. People who follow the Ducks on a daily basis have told me this year after year. And I experienced it myself when I interviewed him for the book.

It’s difficult to find hockey players, even pros, who won’t make a few minutes to talk when I tell them the subject of Palm Trees and Frozen Ponds – the game’s history in California. Most politely answer questions, and a few will expand ideas.

Pronger was different. After our introduction (and after he put down the Wall Street Journal he had been reading), he asked me questions about the project. Once he had a grasp of it, he offered stories – including a fun one about his first visit to Anaheim before the 1993 draft.

Another thing stood out – his sense of humor. He is a really funny guy.

It’s no surprise to me that he wears a letter wherever he plays. Leadership is a lot about enfolding people, welcoming them and helping them succeed, as well as the occasional kick in the pants (which I, thankfully, didn’t get).

In my book, Pronger is very good at all of those things. Anaheim’s loss certainly is Philly’s gain.

How old is hockey in California?

As I research the history of the game of hockey in California for my upcoming book, I have discovered that ice rinks existed in Los Angeles as far back as 1917. I now can document it. Whether or not those were used for ice hockey is another matter.

However, I did find some record of hockey being played in the Los Angeles area during the early 1920s. So it’s not a stretch to say the game is at least 85 years old in California.

I also have uncovered concrete evidence of organized youth hockey beginning around 1960, meaning we are approaching nearly 50 years of youth hockey in the state. This predates several sources I’ve spoken to for the book.

I keep plugging away, one shift at a time.

Book update

One of the reasons blog postings have been more scarce of late is I’ve had a bit more time to spend writing the book, and so I have.

Researching and writing the historical portion is far from an exact science because there really is no definitive authority the history of California hockey. I’m pulling information from books, records and dozens of interviews with players and coaches who have been involved in the game out here for the past 40-plus years.

Incidentally, one could make a case that this is the 50th year of youth hockey in California. GLAMHA (the old Greater Los Angeles Minor Hockey Association) was formed in 1959 from what I can tell.

Until next time,

Chris