SANTA CRUZ, July 26, 2013 — When most people think of California, they think of palm trees, sandy beaches and warm weather. Asked which kinds of elite athletes the golden state produces, few people would guess hockey. This misconception is quickly disappearing.
For the last ten years, an increasing number of young hockey players, born, raised and trained in California, are making their way into the Western Hockey League (WHL) and NCAA Division I hockey. Players from west of the Mississippi are eligible for the WHL, but until recently, the league was made up almost entirely of players born in the western provinces of Canada.
For the powerhouse college hockey programs around the Great Lakes and New England, the recruiting was fiercely local as well. Californians might receive scholarships for football or basketball, but never for hockey.
As the level of coaching has elevated the player talent in California over the last decade, WHL teams and college recruiters have taken notice. The WHL had over 40 U.S. born players, the majority from California, sprinkled throughout the rosters of the league’s 22 teams, while players from the golden state are cracking the line ups of some of the nation’s elite college programs.
When USA hockey holds its Olympic try outs next month, one of the players invited will be Beau Bennett. The Gardena, California native just finished his first pro season with the Pittsburgh Penguins with a very respectable three goals and 14 points in 26 games.
The U.S. just captured gold for the second time in five years at the world junior hockey championship and Rossmoor native Rocco Grimaldi was a big part of that victory. Anaheim Ducks forward Emerson Etem, from Long Beach, has also represented the U.S. in international competition. California-born players like Scott Savage, Nicolas Kerdiles and Thatcher Demko are poised to represent the U.S. in future international tournaments.
The 2014 U.S. Olympic squad will most likely be made up of players from the traditional hockey regions. While Bennett is a long shot to make this team, there is a good chance he will not only make the next one, but be joined by several players from California and the western United States.
Russ Rankin writes about hockey, music & politics. You can find him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter. He also sings for Good Riddance and Only Crime. Find out what he’s up to by checking out his website.
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