High school hockey takes flight in SoCal

BY foxsports • September 20, 2012

Anthony DeMarco hasn’t even finished one month of high school, but the Los Alamitos freshman has already made history in a high school sports league that's looking to grow throughout the southland.

Last Saturday he scored the first goal in the history of the Los Alamitos High School hockey team.

“I was doing a center-lane drive and hit my stick a couple times. My friend Matt passed it to me, and I just redirected it in,” said the 14-year-old. “It just went right in.”

Though much of his elder sunbelt brethren grew up playing roller hockey before transitioning to ice, DeMarco began playing ice hockey when he was two years old and is part of a generation that only knows a surplus of rinks and youth hockey opportunities afforded by Southern California’s growing stature as a hockey breeding ground.

Los Alamitos – tucked in the northwest corner of Orange County, across the San Gabriel River from Long Beach – will never be confused with a Minneapolis or Detroit suburb in its ability to consistently churn out top-flight hockey prospects.

But through the efforts of the Anaheim Ducks High School Hockey League, younger players are afforded the ability to wear their school colors amongst their peers while continuing to play and grow the game at an accelerated pace.

“I don’t think we’re that far off, to be honest with you,” said Art Trottier, executive director of the Anaheim Ducks High School Hockey League. “The quality of players coming out of Southern California is growing every single year.”

Though Stanley Cups captured by the Ducks and Los Angeles Kings Kings have furthered the cause, Wayne Gretzky’s 1988 arrival in Los Angeles is universally credited for the proliferation of rinks throughout California and the explosion of interest that drove many younger players into skates. Many of those players are beginning to reach their primes, and waves of Southern Californians with birthdays in the late 80s and early 90s are now making an impact at the NHL Draft and in the professional ranks.

Following the lockout, the Ducks are almost certain to integrate Long Beach native and first round draft pick Emerson Etem into their lineup after the gifted skater led the Western Hockey League with 61 goals and appeared in a USA Hockey jersey at the World Junior Championships for the second consecutive year. Second-round NHL Draft picks Mitch Wahl of Seal Beach and Rocco Grimaldi of Rossmoor would also have been eligible to play for Los Alamitos before embarking on their junior and collegiate careers, had the league been operating at the time.

Outside of the ultra-competitive high school leagues in Minnesota and the prep teams throughout New England, teenage hockey players are generally more committed to their club teams, and are playing against competition that high school leagues aren’t necessarily able to provide.

Both Grimaldi and Etem played for the US National Development team while attending high school in Ann Arbor, Mich., while Wahl appeared on a Midget AAA California Wave team that in 2004-05 featured five players who signed NHL entry level contracts, including Jonathon Blum (Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif./Nashville Predators), Shane Harper (Valencia, Calif./Philadelphia Flyers), Colin Long (Santa Ana, Calif./Phoenix Coyotes) and Matthew Konan (Tustin, Calif./Philadelphia Flyers), before leaving to play for the WHL’s Spokane Chiefs.

While the goal of the Anaheim Ducks High School Hockey League isn’t necessarily to attract players with that caliber of skill, it’s to continue to grow the game in Southern California and establish a hockey permanence that affords younger players the same opportunities provided to those in more traditional hockey climates.

“That’s eventually a goal that high school hockey is going to be here – it’s going to be here to stay, that it’s going to maybe take over a little bit, with the older ages,” said Dave Karpa, Los Alamitos’ head coach and a veteran of 12 NHL seasons.

“The biggest thing is the kids, they can start playing in grade nine and play with their friends and go to school with them every day until grade 12. There’s nothing like the camaraderie that you see. Compared to a club team . . . the kids all know each other. They interact a lot different. It’s a pretty fun, exciting thing. And even going to the rinks on Saturday, when it’s set up for high school hockey, and just seeing the enthusiasm in the stands – parents and young kids. There are students, their peers in the stands wearing jerseys and supporting them. I think it really pumps the kids up.”

Karpa, who played four seasons with the then-Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, coached ADHSHL charter member JSerra Catholic High School before forming the coaching staff at Los Alamitos, which is competing in the league in its inaugural season as a junior varsity program.

Through the league, he enlisted the services of assistant coach Jeff Friesen, who two years ago retired from a playing career that saw him amass 516 points in 893 NHL games. The duo is a collection of several high-profile coaches serving the league, a list that includes Santa Margarita head coach Craig Johnson, a former Mighty Duck who also played over seven seasons with the Los Angeles Kings after coming over from St. Louis in the Gretzky trade. Jason Marshall, who played seven seasons in Anaheim, is Orange Lutheran’s head coach.

“A lot of the former players are moving back to Southern California. We’d like to get them involved,” Trottier said, representing the growth of the Ducks’ alumni program 18 seasons after the inaugural game was played at the Arrowhead Pond of Anaheim, now named Honda Center.

Anaheim has a unique advantage in growing its local alumni pool, as living conditions and year-round outdoor opportunities have anchored many families of former players in Orange County, while salaries for youth hockey coaches have risen as the quality of play has increased throughout the area.

Among the more compelling and evocative arguments toward ending the lockout is to provide 42-year old Teemu Selanne the proper respect in playing out the remainder of his career under his own conditions.

Once the time eventually comes that Selanne is a Ducks alumni, it’s hard to see him ever leaving the area, considering his son, Eemil, is a sophomore forward on Santa Margarita’s varsity team who totaled 11 points in seven games last season as a freshman.

This year, his Eagles squad will have more company, as a record nine teams will compete under the varsity banner, while five teams will comprise the junior varsity division. Santa Margarita and JSerra are the two schools with both a varsity and junior varsity program, while Los Alamitos, Corona del Mar, Corona-Norco and Huntington Beach will have teams for the first time.

“Within the last three or four days, I’ve had calls from three schools in Orange County that are interested in next season already,” Trottier said. “So it’s great. The goal is to grow the sport in Southern California. There are a lot of things to do here, so we’ve got to keep hockey relevant in Southern California.”

Building a program from scratch takes some patience and requires some recruiting. Goaltender Megan Almond, one of two girls playing for Los Alamitos, goes to Upland High School and commutes to Glacial Gardens in Lakewood for practice.

But after watching an hour of Los Alamitos’ practice, the skill level on the ice is impressive, considering it’s a junior varsity team in its first year of existence. Many of the players also appear on local club teams such as the Anaheim Jr. Ducks. Los Alamitos, 1-0 after its win over Bishop Amat/Upland Christian Academy, will get a tough test against the Santa Margarita JV squad this Saturday.

“Right now we’re trying to build. It’s a start-up program,” Karpa said. “Our first try-out, we had 11 kids. It’s kind of like, as I say, ‘If you build it, they will come.’ Now we have a full roster. We almost have 20 kids. We’re going to eventually keep trying to build it up so that we do have a varsity and a JV team, like some of the other schools do have.”

The Ducks offer their assistance by helping fund ice time and equipment purchases, though much of the organization and promotion occurs at the grassroots level. Parents, volunteers and school district officials have all collaborated to solidify the league’s success. Trottier, the league’s executive director and a former college hockey linesman, is the vice president of The Rinks, a consortium of six ice and roller hockey rinks in Orange and Riverside counties who runs the league out of his desire to expand the sport.

It’s a similar mindset to that of the players who make up the league, many of whom also play for successful club teams and appear in the ADHSHL because of the alluring ability to wear the colors of one’s school.

“It’s super cool. I never would’ve thought this would happen a couple years ago, that I’d be playing for my high school,” DeMarco said.

It’s a commitment that sits well with Karpa.

“I actually really enjoy it, because the kids come, they work hard, and that’s the one thing I asked them: to come and work hard. They give you that, and you can’t ask for anything else with that.”