Culver rink closing ending an era

News of the Culver City Ice Arena’s pending closing next month hit many of us who have played hockey at the facility over the years hard.

For all of its quirks (I once had a stick blade break off in the boards, which I  swear also swallowed up pucks from time to time), the rink is one of the few remaining links to the early days of hockey in Southern California.

Opened in 1962, it not only served as the LA Kings’ practice rink for many years, but it was part of GLAMHA (Greater Los Angeles Minor Hockey Association), a league that I write about in the upcoming hockey book, Palm Trees and Frozen Ponds. It surprises many to discover that organized youth hockey existed in the state more than 50 years ago, but it did. And though the community was small, it was strong and often thriving. It produced NHL players, college stars and even an Olympic hockey player.

CCIA also was home of the Marina City Sharks, among other youth hockey clubs, an organization that produced several hockey pros, including Anaheim Ducks draft pick Brian Salcido and Matt Ford.

And no one who has ever played there will forget its hockey shop owners, Hans and Barbara Matzel.

A former rink owner told me several years back that this day would come. Not specifically, but that in general single-sheet rinks couldn’t make in California because operating costs have gotten too high. Multi-sheet facilities would be the only way for the numbers to make sense. The San Jose Sharks and Anaheim Ducks have partially proven that theory wrong by taking over operation — and in some cases outright owning — several single-sheet rinks and running them from a centralized office.

I can’t count the number of games of pickup hockey I’ve played at lunchtime at Culver City over the years. I don’t remember the games specifically, though I remember dreading walking up the creaky stairs to the locker room in my gear some times. What I cherish are the long-lasting friendships I’ve made there.

I realize there are other newer rinks with better amenities around, and those are enjoyable to play at. But they can’t replace 52 years of history. At its highest levels, the game is nothing without its history — ever hear of the Stanley Cup? That tie to the history of the game is one reason the Winter Classic and Heritage Classic outdoor games are so popular.

The NHL is bringing the outdoor hockey experience to Dodger Stadium in less than two weeks; it’s unfortunate that one of the region’s indoor rinks will be readying to lock its doors at the same time.

I don’t know if I speak for any other hockey players, but it feels as if part of me is about to be lost.

Game 7: NorCal vs. SoCal … 1969

After tonight’s Game 7 at Staples Center we will know which team from California will represent the state in the Western Conference Finals against an Original Six team (Chicago or Detroit).

And while the Kings-Sharks matchup is the first Game 7 between the franchises (who also met in the first round of the 2011 playoffs), it’s not the first Game 7 between the Kings and a Northern California NHL team.

That happened in April of 1969, when the Kings rallied from a 3-2 series deficit to defeat the California/Oakland Seals, 5-3 in Oakland in Game 7.

The Kings won that series despite being cumulatively outscored, 25-23. The key to LA’s clinching victory probably was its ability to kill penalties, including a two-man advantage during the first period.

“Our inability to score on those first period power plays, especially the one where we had a two-man advantage hurt badly,” Seals coach Fred Glover told the Los Angeles Times.

Lowell McDonald stole the puck from Norm Ferguson to score what proved to be the winning goal at 7:37 of the third period. McDonald earlier had set up two first-period goals by Ted Irvine (father of professional wrestler Chris Jericho).

The victory sent the Kings into a series against the St. Louis Blues, who interestingly enough are the team the current Kings defeated in the first round this season in six games. Last season’s Cup winner knocked out the Blues in five games in the second round.

Note: The historical research is part of my upcoming book on the history of hockey in California, Palm Trees and Frozen Ponds.

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.

 

Kings’ Cup run paralells ’03 Ducks run

If the Los Angeles Kings’ run to the Stanley Cup Finals this season seems familiar to you, it should.

It is strangely similar to that of the 2003 Mighty Ducks of Anaheim. And while that comparison might make Kings fans cough up their Corn Flakes, there are several compelling reasons to draw this conclusion.

The 2003 Ducks rode the unreal goaltending of Jean-Sebastien Giguere to a 12-2 record through the first three rounds of the playoffs. The 2012 Kings have gotten stellar play in net from Jonathan Quick en route to a 12-2 record through three rounds.

The Ducks, the sixth seed that season, vanquished the defending Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings in four games in the first round. The Kings, the eighth seed, knocked off the defending Western Conference champion Vancouver Canucks in the first round (before taking seeds 2 and 3 in the West).

Both teams made key acquisitions before and during their respective seasons.

The Ducks signed Adam Oates and traded for Petr Sykora, two forwards who boosted the club’s offense. Anaheim then added defenseman Sandis Ozolinsh and forwards Steve Thomas and Rob Niedermayer at the trade deadline. All were huge contributors to the Ducks reaching the postseason and then rolling through it.

The Kings traded two elite young forwards to obtain center Mike Richards this past summer. Then at the deadline, they shipped defenseman Jack Johnson to Columbus to obtain Richards’ former Flyers running mate Jeff Carter.

Then there is the opponent in the Finals — the New Jersey Devils. Only Patrick Elias and goaltender Martin Brodeur remain from the 2003 Finals team.

Let’s hope history does not repeat itself because after a long layoff between rounds, the Ducks lost to the Devils in seven games.

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The Devils feature several familiar faces to California hockey fans, starting with their assistant coaches — Larry Robinson and Adam Oates. Robinson finished his Hall of Fame playing career with the Kings and later coached them to their only playoff appearance between the 1993 Cup Finals and 2001. Oates was a key member of that first Ducks Finals team.

Four players on the Devils have played for California NHL franchises, including the aforementioned Sykora (who returned to the NHL after playing in Europe) and former Duck Ryan Carter, as well as former King Peter Harrold and former Shark Steve Bernier.

Bennett signs, Etem to AHL, Lasch to Team USA

Just another routine day for hockey in California …

Many people believe Friday the 13th is somehow hexed, but you’d have a hard time convincing fans of hockey in the state of that. Two huge pieces of news broke today about prospects from the state to go with another newsworthy note from a few days ago.

  • The Pittsburgh Penguins signed forward Beau Bennett, who to this point is the highest-drafted California-born and -trained hockey player (20th overall in 2010). Bennett just finished his sophomore season at Denver University. His campaign was shortened by what turned out to be season-ending wrist surgery in December. His contract takes effect beginning next season (and hopefully there will be a next season given the collective bargaining agreement between the owners and players expires this summer). He is a former LA Jr. Kings and LA Selects players.
  • Anaheim Ducks prospect Emerson Etem, who was drafted nine spots behind Bennett in the 2010 Entry Draft at Staples Center, will make his AHL debut tonight for the Syracuse Crunch. Etem absolutely tore up the Western Hockey League this season, scoring a league-best 61 goals among his 107 points. Etem was a former Selects teammate of Bennett’s and also played for the Long Beach Jr. Ice Dogs.
  • And Ryan Lasch, who set St. Cloud State’s career scoring record two seasons ago before heading off to Europe to play professionally, was the only non-NHL player selected to represent Team USA at the upcoming World Championships. Lasch, who played for the SouthCoast Sabres, Westminster Wave and Long Beach Jr. Ice Dogs, had 62 points in 59 games in Finland’s top pro league this past season. It’s fair to ask if this might open doors for him to eventually play in the NHL given his strong track record of offensive production. … One of Lasch’s teammates on Team USA will be Ducks forward Bobby Ryan, who played for the Jr. Kings for a few seasons in the early 2000s.

And if that weren’t enough, the LA Kings try to take two in a row from the “beloved” Canucks in Vancouver tonight.

Straying from youth hockey to the NHL for a moment

I had the opportunity to watch all three of California’s NHL teams in person during a four-day span recently, and I came away with the following impressions.

The Anaheim Ducks will have long road back to the playoffs. Duh, they’ve lost 16 of 18 games and can’t hold a lead.

I watched them give up four goals in the first nine minutes of the third period to Chicago and snatch a 6-5 defeat from what once was a 4-1 lead. And I don’t blame Jonas Hiller for the Blackhawks’ outburst, though he could have stopped a few of the goals in the third-period blitz. The Ducks’ d-zone coverage was willy nilly (to put it mildly) all game, and particularly so in the third.

But the Ducks’ problems extend beyond a leaky defense, which clearly misses Lubomir Visnovsky. If the top two lines don’t score, the Ducks don’t score.  23 games into the season no forward not named Selanne-Perry-Getzlaf-Koivu-Ryan has more than nine points.

But the top line of Ryan Getzlaf-Corey Perry-Bobby Ryan is a combined minus-29, so for all the offense they provide (45 points, including 21 goals) they give up a lot more. One forward you can’t fault is Teemu Selanne, who not only leads the team in points (22), but is just minus-3, a Selke Trophy candidate compared to his top-line brethren.

Rumors of a Ryan trade are flooding the Internet, and he’s an easy target given he has just 11 points in 23 games and a minus-6. But do you really want to trade a player of Ryan’s ability so early in his career? If they could pry Shea Weber or Ryan Suter from Nashville, OK. But unless you’re talking a franchise defenseman, forget it.

Frankly, the Ducks take a lot of undisciplined penalties (they spend 14 and half minutes per game in the box, in the bottom six in the league) and seem to complain to the refs a lot … in addition to not always seeming prepared. Those factors point to the coach, but I remain convinced Randy Carlyle won’t be going anywhere. The ownership still remembers 2007.

Monday, I watched the Kings shut out the Sharks at Staples Center.

The Kings played aggressively from the start and it paid off with some gritty goals. They also built a fairly substantial shot advantage, which few teams do to the Sharks.

But then the Kings seemed to get conservative and back roared the puck-possessing Sharks. In the end, goaltender Jonathan Quick was the difference, and he had to be. Once the Sharks gained control of the puck, they started to get power plays, and Quick was brilliant, often stopping second and third chances.

I expect both to be playoff teams, and it wouldn’t surprise me if both won a round, but I also saw some warning signs for both teams.

The Sharks were a bit careless with the puck, particularly on the blue line. Dan Boyle and Brett Burns are extremely talented players, but both had multiple give-aways. But both demonstrated how their puck-moving abilities also can spark San Jose’s transition game.

The Kings seem deeper than in years past, but they’re still missing a creative offensive player or two. Yes, Mike Richards helps their offense (and defense), but I still saw Anze Kopitar getting ganged up on. Simon Gagne is still a very good player, but injuries clearly have robbed him of something over the years.

When the Kings play aggressively, but don’t warm the penalty box seat, they’re tough to deal with. Sustaining that appeared problematic.

The difference, the Kings’ lockdown style could work in the playoffs if they can manufacture timely goals and stay out of the penalty box. I had the sense watching the Sharks that I’ve seen this before, which means a very good regular season and who knows after that.

A sort of homecoming …

Just learned that two players from California and a third with a strong connection to the state will be in Anaheim and Los Angeles this week playing in NHL preseason games for the Phoenix Coyotes.

Center Colin Long (Santa Ana), a fourth-round pick of the Coyotes in 2008, will head back to the O.C. on Tuesday night and then head north to L.A. on Wednesday. Long finished his Western Hockey League career with stellar seasons of 100 and 91 points in 2007-08 and 08-09 before suffering through an injury-plagued rookie pro season in San Antonio (AHL). He had a respectable 37 points in 50 games for Las Vegas of the ECHL a season ago.

Forward Ryan Hollweg (Downey), a veteran of 228 NHL games who has spent much of the past two seasons in the AHL, also will dress for the Coyotes. Like Long, he played in the WHL.

The third is forward Brett Hextall, who is in camp with the Coyotes after three seasons at North Dakota. His father, Ron, is the Kings’ assistant general manager.

Nine California prospects on THN’s radar

The Hockey News’ annual Future Watch issue (which features Kings prospect Brayden Schenn on the cover this year) is a must-read for those wondering what their team’s future looks like.

I also enjoy scouting it for Californians viewed as up-and-coming players by the magazine’s panel of experts. Each of the 30 teams’ top 10 prospects are profiled, but the real selling point is who are the top 50 overall prospects.

There are nine players with ties to California listed among the 300 (1o for each of the 30 teams) in the publication, and one — Beau Bennett, a 2010 first-round pick of the Pittsburgh Penguins — in the top 50. I have not gone back and compared how those number stack up to years past, but it would make for an interesting study.

Bennett, who just finished a strong freshman season at Denver University, was ranked No. 46 overall and the Penguins’ top prospect. Fellow 2010 first-round pick Emerson Etem was rated No. 57 overall and was slotted as the Anaheim Ducks’ second-best prospect.

Other prospects “ranked” by their respective teams included:

Calgary Flames — C Mitch Wahl was No. 8. Wahl struggled through an injury-plagued season, but with the Flames up against the salary cap and needing an infusion of youth, the former California Wave and LA Jr. Kings prospect should go into camp with some sort of shot at a roster spot next fall.

Colorado Avalanche — C Mark Olver was No. 8. A one-time Wave player, Olver had 40 points as a rookie in the AHL and also scored during a brief call-up to the Avs.

Nashville Predators — D Jonathon Blum was No. 2 (I did not count him in the overall totals because he is in the NHL to stay at this point).

New York Islanders — RW Rhett Rakhshani was No. 5. He tied for the rookie scoring lead in the AHL with 62 points, had four points in the AHL All-Star Game and made a two-game NHL appearance.

Minnesota Wild — C Casey Wellman was No. 4 and LW Jason Zucker was No. 6. Wellman also battled injuries but posted 35 points in 42 AHL games and played in 15 games for the Wild. He’s considered a strong bet to stick in Minnesota next season. Zucker might have been Denver University’s best player as a freshman, posting 45 points in 40 games, and he again shone at World Juniors.

Phoenix Coyotes — LW Viktor Tikhonov was No. 5. The former San Jose Jr. Shark seemed to find his game in the AHL this season, getting 33 points in 60 games. The Coyotes have said they rushed him to the NHL after being a first-round pick in 2008.

I’ll take a look at other players from California whose rights are owned by NHL teams in the next post.

A closing note: inclusion is no guarantee of anything. And the turnover of prospects is quite high year-to-year. Just a few years ago, one would have seen Brett Sterling, Brian Salcido and Gabe Gauthier among the Thrashers’, Ducks’ and Kings’ top prospects. Sterling signed with the Penguins last summer and has played some in Pittsburgh, Salcido played in Europe this past season and Gauthier suffered a season-ending shoulder injury and only played a few few ECHL and AHL games.

Opportunity knocks, Blum, Martinez and Sterling answer

I wondered if this might be the season that a bunch of players with ties to California youth hockey finally broke through into the NHL. There were more than a dozen such players in the American Hockey League at the start of the season, and lo and behold, several have received call-ups, and a trio have made the most of it.

Defenseman Jonathon Blum made his NHL debut for the Nashville Predators in late February and has been so good the Predators traded away another defense prospect to make room for him in the lineup.

Through Sunday, Blum had played in 10 consecutive games, got his first NHL goal and was a respectable plus-1 for a team vying for a Western Conference playoff spot. You can read much more about Blum in a profile I wrote about him for California Rubber Magazine.

Blum, who was the No. 2 scorer for the Milwaukee Admirals, was the first California-born and -trained hockey player to be drafted in the first round of the NHL Entry Draft (in 2007). Rest assured, the former California Wave ’89 player’s compelling story is part of the hockey book, Palm Trees and Frozen Ponds, that I continue to work on.

Another player who made the most of an opportunity, though he currently is back in the AHL, is forward  Brett Sterling. A prolific scorer at the collegiate and AHL levels (he was the A’s rookie of the year after a 97-point outburst in 2006-07), Sterling had five points — including three goals — in a seven-game call-up when the Penguins were decimated by injuries earlier this year. He played for the Pasadena Maple Leafs and the LA Jr. Kings before going into the U.S. National Team Development Program in 2000.

Those point totals exceeded Sterling’s output in 19 games with the Atlanta Thrashers over two seasons (07-08 and 08-09) and served notice to the NHL that his ability to score translates well on any level.

The third player, and the one who has demonstrated the most staying power is LA Kings defenseman Alec Martinez, who after a four-game audition last season, has played in 46 games and has 12 points (4 goals-8 assists). He consistently gets power-play time but he also boasts a plus-6 and at times has been paired with 2010 Norris Trophy finalist Drew Doughty.

Martinez played youth hockey in Northern California for three years — two seasons for the Santa Clara Blackhawks and another for the San Jose Jr. Sharks — before a job transfer brought his father back to the family’s Michigan home.

Three for the show … and more where they came from!

Well-deserved first NHL goal

Alec Martinez‘s first NHL goal drew scant notice outside of the Los Angeles Kings’ broadcast and a mention in the LA Times a couple days after the fact.

Martinez, who played three seasons of youth hockey in Northern California for the Santa Clara Blackhawks and San Jose Jr. Sharks, scored during a 4-1 Kings loss at Montreal.

While happy to get his first NHL marker, Martinez — as one would expect from a hockey player — chose to focus on how that was secondary to the Kings not winning.

I’ve spoken with Alec a couple of times, mainly for some work with California Rubber Magazine, and have come away impressed. He enjoyed his time playing in California, and his youth coach — Larry Cahn, now of the San Diego Jr. Gulls — told me Alec is an example to all young players to keep working hard because you never know how things will turn out.

(For more on that, click here for a story and audio interview with Martinez at calirubber.com)

With the Kings’ offense slumping (and it has too much talent to stay that way, so take heart Kings fans), Martinez’s abilities are a nice fit.

Here’s hoping he sticks. After all, he’s already accomplished one goal of everyone who ever laced up skates.