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.

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.

California’s three-headed AHL Monster

This is a follow-up to my post earlier this week on Californians who have made the most of their NHL call-ups. That wasn’t a comprehensive list, only a few of the notables. Several others have played NHL games this season, and even more are thriving in the American Hockey League this season.

Let’s take a closer look at three more players with California ties who are playing for the Lake Erie Monsters, the top farm team of the Colorado Avalanche, this season.

Defenseman Raymond Macias of Long Beach had 13 points through 38 games, and he has battled through a few injuries. Ray played six games for the Avs at the end of the 2008-09 season. He’s a steady two-way defenseman, and with the Avalanche rebuilding, perhaps he will get another shot. Ray also might be one of the few players whose mother is more well-known in California hockey circles than he is. Helen Alex is a longtime team manager for the LA Jr. Kings, and has had a huge impact on hundreds of players’ careers through her caring ways.

Rookie Mark Olver spent a season with the California Wave, and teamed with, among others, Huntington Beach’s Rhett Rakhshani, to help the 88 birth year win a Bantam AAA national title in 2003. Through 58 games, the forward led the team in goals with 23 and had 40 points.

The third Monster has what I consider one of the more compelling stories of a pro from California.

Forward Matt Ford of West Hills has worked his way into a steady gig in the AHL and has 32 points, including 20 goals, through 63 games. That’s good, but how he got there is the impressive part to me.

Matt — whose father still can be found tending goal at rinks throughout Southern California — and his good buddy Brian Salcido , a one-time Ducks prospect, attended Shattuck-St. Mary’s Prep in Minnesota, where they won a national title with a guy named Crosby on their team (as well as a King named Jack Johnson and a Sabre named Drew Stafford).

Matt then won a national championship in 2006 with the Wisconsin Badgers (which as a native Cheesehead I need to personally thank him for). In between he was drafted by the Chicago Blackhawks and never really given a look. He pressed on and stayed in school all four years (by the way, that’s a great idea kids).

Matt started his pro career with the Charlotte Checkers of the ECHL and played well enough to win All-Star Game MVP honors in 2009. He had a couple of cups of coffee with the AHL’s Hartford Wolfpack (a NY Rangers farm team) and a warmer with the Monsters later that season.

He got a camp invite from the Vancouver Canucks that summer, but found himself back in Charlotte however briefly before sticking with the Monsters last season, when he put up 27 points in 43 games.

His 20 goals this season are two off his pro high (21 of which were scored in the ECHL) in 2008-09. Matt is a study in perseverance and hard work, and he’s just one call away from the NHL.

Nine from California reach the NHL this season

Nine players with direct ties to California played in the NHL this season, and two – defensemen Brian Salcido (Anaheim) and Ray Macias (Colorado) – made their NHL debuts in 2009.

And there is an interesting connection between those two. Salcido’s father, Frank, has coached numerous youth hockey teams over the years in Southern California, and Macias’ mother, Helen, often served as his team manager with the LA Jr. Kings. The families are close, and both have plenty to celebrate this season.

Two other notable performances were by Anaheim rookie Bobby Ryan, who spent part of his early teen years in Southern California playing for the old El Segundo Regents and the Jr. Kings travel teams, and Islanders veteran Richard Park. Ryan led all NHL rookies in scoring (57) and goals (31) – both Ducks records – and is a favorite for the Calder Trophy, while Park scored a career-high 14 goals and wore an A most of the season on Long Island. Interestingly, both played major junior in the OHL.

Others in the league this season: Detroit defenseman Chris Chelios, who played Bantam and Midget hockey in San Diego; Toronto forward Ryan Hollweg, a product of the old Norwalk ice rink; Atlanta forward Brett Sterling, who played out of Pasadena; Dallas forward Landon Wilson, who played minor hockey in LA while his dad was a Kings assistant coach, and Dallas defenseman Garrett Stafford, who registered his first NHL points during his recall with the Stars. Stafford also played in LA against the Kings for the first time in early April.

For the complete rundown on the alumni’s seasons, visit calirubber.com

And thanks for making this month’s the highest yet for traffic (and we’re only half done!).

Macias makes NHL debut

One day after Garrett Stafford played his first NHL game in Los Angeles, another Southern California alumni is set to make his NHL debut tonight for the Colorado Avalanche – defenseman Raymond Macias.

Macias, who has played most of the season for the Avs’ AHL farm team, the Lake Erie Monsters, was recalled Tuesday to replace injured defenseman Brett Clark. Macias, a Long Beach native, has 18 points and is a plus-6 in 38 games with the Monsters this season.

He joins Hermosa Beach’s Brian Salcido as Californians making their NHL debuts this season.

Los Angeles native Stafford, meanwhile, played almost 19 minutes and had three shots in the Stars’ 3-2 victory over the Kings. Stafford had two assists – his first two NHL points – on Tuesday night in Phoenix.

Matt Ford is ECHL All-Star Game MVP

Congratulations to West Hills’ Matt Ford on being selected the MVP of the ECHL All-Star Game on Wednesday night after burying three goals and picking up an assist.

Ford, who recently earned his second call-up of the season to Hartford of the AHL, has been a big-time goal-scorer at the ECHL level, getting 16 in 21 games to go with his 15 assists.

Ford’s path through hockey included playing youth hockey in Southern California, prep school hockey at Shattuck St. Mary’s in Minnesota and college hockey at Wisconsin, where he was a member of the Badgers’ 2006 National Championship team. A 2004 draft pick of the Chicago Blackhawks, Ford and Anaheim Ducks prospect Brian Salcido played youth hockey together and also played three seasons together at Shattuck.

Californians in the NHL and AHL in 08-09

The NHL and AHL seasons get in full swing later this week, and here is a list of players either born, trained or some combination thereof in the top two North American pro leagues.

NHL:

Atlanta – Left wing Brett Sterling made the club out of camp for the second season in a row.

Detroit – Defenseman Chris Chelios is back at age 46, but he’ll start the season on the injured list with a broken shin bone.

New York Islanders – Right wing Richard Park is in his second decade in the league with no signs of slowing down.

Toronto – Forward Ryan Hollweg has a new address this season after his trade from the New York Rangers.

The AHL ranks have expanded a bit from a year ago, but it would not surprise me in the least to see several of these players getting games in the NHL.

Grand Rapids – Defenseman Garrett Stafford is back even though he’s in Dallas’ organization instead of Detroit’s. The Wings are the primary affiliate of the Griffins. Stafford played his first NHL game last season for Detroit. He could get some more games if the Stars’ blue line experiences another run of injuries.

Grand Rapids – Forward Landon Wilson has several years of NHL experience and while he’ll bring experience to the Griffins, he can step in and help the Stars should injuries strike.

Iowa – Wing Bobby Ryan is in the AHL because of the Anaheim Ducks’ cap crunch, which is too bad after he had an outstanding camp.

Iowa – Defenseman Brian Salcido has a shot at getting his first NHL game this season. The Ducks’ carousel of veteran defenseman has the rapidly improving puck-mover in the minors … for now.

Lake Erie – Defenseman Raymond Macias is a likely fixture on the Monsters’ blue line after a good camp in Colorado.

Lowell – Forward Ryan Murphy is back with the Devils’ top farm team after going to camp in New Jersey.

Manchester – Forward Gabe Gauthier will be one of the Monarchs’ centerpieces this season, and given the parent club LA Kings’ youth movement, it would not be a surprise to see him get another NHL look at some point.

Springfield – Right wing Hans Benson spend has worked his way up to the AHL after stints in the CHL and ECHL. The Menlo Park-native brings plenty of toughness to the Falcons lineup and he played some preseason games for the Edmonton Oilers this year.

Toronto – Forward Robbie Earl was one of the Maple Leafs’ final roster cuts, and it’s a good bet he’ll be back up with the parent club this season, particularly if his defensive game rounds into form. Defense is a prerequisite to playing for new Leafs coach Ron Wilson.

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You can find my weekly report on California Alumni in hockey each Tuesday at www.calirubber.com

Training camp winds down

Several updates for you about Californians still in NHL camps as the exhibition season reaches its final weekend, and there is an interesting subplot as to why one player might have been sent to the AHL despite having a very good camp.

In Atlanta, left wing Brett Sterling is one of 17 forwards remaining in Thrashers camp. The Thrashers play back-to-back games this weekend to wrap up their preseason, and if Sterling demonstrates the scoring touch he did earlier in camp, when he had a two-goal game vs. the St. Louis Blues, he has a good chance to stick. …

In Toronto, forwards Robbie Earl and Ryan Hollweg are among 15 remaining forwards in Leafs camp. …As of this morning, it appears defenseman Garrett Stafford and forward Landon Wilson remain in Dallas’ camp. Stafford is one of 12 blue liners on the Stars’ roster while Wilson is one of 17 forwards. … Forward Ryan Murphy remains on New Jersey’s camp roster. …

The Thrashers’ opponent this weekend, Nashville, returned defenseman Jonathon Blum (Rancho Santa Margarita) to his junior team, the Vancouver Giants this week. Blum, the Giants’ captain, got in his first NHL exhibitions during camp. …

The Kings also sent center Gabe Gauthier (Buena Park) to Manchester of the AHL this week. There is a decent chance Gauthier could be the Monarch’s captain this season. … Colorado returned defenseman Raymond Macias (Long Beach) to Lake Erie of the AHL. …

And the Ducks’ sticky salary cap situation might have factored into why defenseman Brian Salcido was assigned to Iowa of the AHL on Monday, and why forward Bobby Ryan, who was expected to be a top-six forward in Anaheim this season, might join him. Check out this story from the Orange County Register.

California hockey weekend update

Left wing Brett Sterling (Pasadena) scored two goals for Atlanta in the Thrashers’ 9-4 preseason loss to the St. Louis Blues on Friday night.

Weekend Notes

Defenseman Garrett Stafford (Los Angeles) assisted on Steve Ott’s third-period goal in the Dallas Stars’ 4-3 victory over St. Louis on Saturday. Stafford also played Sunday vs. the Chicago Blackhawks. … Defenseman Brian Salcido (Hermosa Beach) made his exhibition debut for the Anaheim Ducks on Friday in a 5-2 loss to the San Jose Sharks. Salcido also played in Saturday’s 3-1 victory at Phoenix. … Ryan Hollweg (Downey) played and fought in both of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ games over the weekend. Hollweg, incidentally, is featured in a story on the Maple Leafs Web site.

Camp’s around the corner

Most, if not all, of California’s junior prospects have headed back to camp and several of the college players are headed out of town, too, for another season.

Need a hockey fix? Check out the Midget tournament in San Jose this weekend. Most of the state’s top programs will be at Sharks Ice.

And the pros aren’t far behind, given the arrival of the Hockey News annual in my mailbox recently.

One notable feature is the inclusion of the top 10 prospects for each team. I thought it would be fun to see how many Californians are included in that.

Anaheim (2) – 1. RW Bobby Ryan; 3. D Brian Salcido

Atlanta (1) – 6. LW Brett Sterling

Calgary (1) – 4. C Mitch Wahl

Nashville (1) – 3. D Jonathon Blum

NY Islanders (1) – 10. RW Rhett Rakhshani

Toronto (1) – 5. F Robbie Earl

Others in teams’ systems and/or recent draft choices: Colorado’s Ray Macias, New Jersey’s Ryan Murphy, Dallas’ Garrett Stafford, Detroit’s Max Nicastro, Los Angeles’ Gabe Gauthier, Montreal’s Cameron Cepak, New Jersey’s Corbin McPherson and TJ Miller, Phoenix’s Colin Long