Famous for its sun and sand, California will never actually be known as a frozen state. But don’t tell that to the increasing number of collegiate hockey players who call the Golden State home and are making their presence known on the NCAA hockey frontier.
As the Los Angeles Kings and San Jose Sharks embarked on the fourth playoff meeting in their history this past spring, their respective organizations, along with that of the Anaheim Ducks, can take pride knowing that they’ve helped cultivate a pool of hockey talent that is making itself known in college hockey, the NCAA Championship Tournament, and all the way down to the Frozen Four.
This year’s Men’s Frozen Four Tournament concluded with a final game in which North Dakota defeated Quinnipiac to take the Championship. The Quinnipiac roster featured three Californians in Soren Jonzzon (Mountain View), Sean Lawrence (Granite Bay), and Alex Miner-Barron (Glendora). Among the Frozen Four teams, which also included Denver and Boston College, seven California-born players occupied roster spots.
There were a total of 19 Californians on the 16 teams that made up this year’s Men’s NCAA Championship Tournament. The 16 starting goaltenders hailed from seven states, three provinces and Finland, and California led that field by producing three of those goalies.
Last season as a whole, there were 56 California-natives playing Division I men’s ice hockey – up from 20 in 2002-2003 – which ranked California sixth behind Minnesota, Michigan, Massachusetts, New York and Illinois. Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Colorado and Wisconsin round out the top ten, but have 15 Championships between schools within the four states.
Los Angeles defenseman Matt Greene, a North Dakota alum, was able to catch parts of the Frozen Four Final in between periods of the Kings’ regular season finale back in April.
“More and more kids are getting involved. The youth program here is great,” said Greene, who has played in LA for eight seasons. “Kids want to play sports that they’re fans of. Having a successful team means you can get a lot more fans going and that’s how you grow the game, through young kids that want to play that look up to guys playing on the ice. There’s been a big influx of that since before I got here and it’s just getting bigger and bigger.”
Greene chose the NCAA route because he grew up watching college hockey and thought it could grant him a free education. As it turns out, he did earn a partial scholarship to North Dakota, where he majored in Communications.
“For kids that want to play college hockey, it’s a great avenue,” said Greene, who tries to visit his alma mater each summer. “Make sure you’re always having fun playing hockey and take your schooling seriously. Get yourself on the right path; there are a lot of Division I teams in the country and I think it’s a great asset for young kids playing hockey to be able to continue doing that through college.”
Someone who seems to embody Greene’s advice is Tomas Sholl, a Hermosa Beach native who is entering his senior year at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. Sholl is a goaltender for the men’s ice hockey team at BGSU, which also happens to be the alma mater of Kings’ Assistant General Manager, Rob Blake.
Sholl, whose father, Brad, is currently the General Manager of Toyota Sports Center, the training facility for the Kings, played in the Jr. Kings program from the age of eight until he was 16. At that time, he went to play for the Fresno Monsters in the North American Hockey League before accepting a scholarship to Bowling Green.
“It’s grown so much,” said Sholl about the popularity of hockey in his hometown. “I’ve only been away from home for five years now and every time I come home I’m shocked by how big it is. When I was playing Midget there were only three AAA players in my birth year, and now there are closer to 10.”
Although the number of Californians playing college hockey is rising, Sholl still gets raised eyebrows when new people hear he’s from SoCal.
“Most of the time the first question people ask is ‘You’re from LA? Do you know any famous people?’” said Sholl, who is double majoring in finance and applied economics and made the Western Collegiate Hockey Association’s All-Academic Team for the 2015-16 season.
The answer to that question is actually ‘yes,’ although the explanation may surprise some. Sholl’s childhood hockey hero is goaltender Ryan Miller, currently of the Vancouver Canucks, who spends his summers training at Toyota Sports Center.
“I’ve had the privilege of training with and learning from him,” said Sholl, whose dad and grandfather also played hockey.
The presence of NHL players, like Miller, and former NHLers has also had an impact on California’s hockey growth.
“We’ve got a generation of former players that are getting involved and coaching their kids now who are of the age where they’re playing, so you see fathers like Rob Blake, Nelson Emerson, Glen Murray, Craig Johnson, Jaime Storr, all these guys are helping out with their kids’ teams. Then you go down to Anaheim and you have (Scott) Niedermayer and (Teemu) Selanne. It’s great to see the guys giving back,” said Kings Color Analyst and former player, Daryl Evans. “No disrespect to anybody else who has coached these kids over the years, but you bring in former NHL players that have gone through a very important coaching phase in the growth of hockey, and they have a lot to share with these young kids and the younger generation is really reaping the rewards because of it.”
The Kings and Ducks alumni that Evans refers to is a large contingency of former players whose kids now play for the Jr. Kings and Jr. Ducks respectively, have chosen to stay in California, and not only allowed their kids to play here, but are integral parts of the coaching staff for their kids’ teams.
Last season, the Kings enhanced their hockey development efforts by creating the LA Kings High School Hockey League, as a next step in furthering the hockey careers of local kids who may have otherwise aged out of hockey once they hit their teen years. The inaugural LAKHSHL season included eight teams, and will expand to 12 for the 2016-2017 season.
“As we continue to grow the sport, our goal is to give kids locally the chance to play at a high level,” said Kelly Cheeseman, the Chief Operating Officer of AEG Sports. “The only thing that’s going to hold us back from expanding further is just creating ice time and getting more rinks. That’s a big plan of ours as well – to create more resources to grow the game.”
The game’s growth is noticeable in the choices California-born kids have now in regards to the path they take to the NHL, as opposed to the limitations they experienced in years past. Even the American Hockey League is now present in California as of last year.
“The biggest thing I’ve noticed is that they’re able to stay in California longer before they make the decision to go to a prep school or transition to college, and that’s a testament to the improvement and depth of coaching that’s available to the kids here, and the credibility of the programs that have been established,” says Kings color analyst and former player, Jim Fox, who also served as the LAKHSHL commissioner. “Kids have now seen players ahead of them take those strides. It used to be by the time you were 12 or 13 you had to go back East. Now they can stay a lot longer before they have to make that decision.”
A few years back, the Kings also created a beginning hockey program called Lil Kings, which allows kids the opportunity to learn to play hockey at a reasonable price. The program, which serves as a feeder system for other youth hockey programs, has sold out each year, and according to USA Hockey there were over 26,000 registered hockey players in the state of California during the 2014-15 season, up 57.4 percent over a 10-year period.
That is certainly a stat that won’t remain frozen, and will have a direct impact on the number of Californians playing in the NCAA Championship Tournament in the coming years.