When Helen Alex relocated from Toronto to Los Angeles, she brought her love of hockey with her. Only it was tough for her to find that love reciprocated.
"When I first started there must have been about 10 rinks, but some of these rinks were lower basement-type rinks that were probably a hardwood floor for roller hockey," she told NHL.com.
Over the last 20 years, though, Alex -- the Tier Director for the Los Angeles Jr. Kings Hockey Club -- has seen Southern California grow into a fertile hockey-producing region.
The latest product of that development model is Nicolas Kerdiles of the U.S. National Team Development Program, a left wing who is No. 29 in NHL Central Scouting's final ranking of North American skaters for the 2012 NHL Draft.
He had 20 goals and 22 assists in 50 games with the USNTDP under-18 team this season, and added four goals and five assists in six games to help the U.S. win a fourth straight gold medal at the 2012 World Under-18 Championship last month in the Czech Republic.
Kerdiles grew up in Irvine and played his minor hockey with the L.A. Selects hockey club, which recently merged with the Jr. Kings.
And if he is drafted in the first two rounds, it would mark the third straight year and fourth time since the 2007 draft that a California-born or -trained player has been drafted that high.
The high-water mark for California players was two years ago, when the 2010 draft -- held at Staples Center in Los Angeles -- saw a pair of local players get picked in the first round. The Pittsburgh Penguins selected Beau Bennett of Gardena with the 20th pick, and the Anaheim Ducks used the 29th pick to draft Long Beach native Emerson Etem.
And there's more talent coming. The L.A. Selects Pee Wee Triple-A team won this year's Quebec International Hockey Tournament, a highly-regarded proving ground for future NHL stars that has seen players from Guy Lafleur and Marcel Dionne to Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux participate.
Also, a number of players from the L.A. Selects bantam team were drafted into the Western Hockey League, among them defenseman Keoni Texeira (Fontana), a second-round pick of the Portland Winterhawks; center Ty Comrie (Newport Beach), a third-round pick of the Tri-City Americans; and goaltender Evan Sarthou (Kent, Wash.), also a third-round pick by Tri-City.
From the Jr. Kings program, forward Garrett Gamez (Chino Hills) signed to play at Denver University next season, while teammate forward Ryan Siroky (Manhattan Beach) will play next season at Miami. Both players are will be eligible for the 2013 NHL Draft.
Another player from the Jr. Kings, Nolan Stevens -- son of L.A. Kings assistant coach John Stevens -- will play for the USNTDP U-17 team next season. He's eligible for the 2014 NHL Draft.
A large part of the reason California has grown into a hockey hotbed is the quality of coaches that have joined the youth programs in the region.
"This marketplace has arguably the best coaches, top to bottom, in any market in any part of the United States and arguably throughout Canada," Kelly Sorenson, executive director of the L.A. Jr. Kings Hockey Club, told NHL.com. "Our coaching staff alone, we have significant NHL pedigree and presence in our clubs coaching and developing, these youth hockey players and student athletes. The likes of Nelson Emerson and Rob Blake and Valeri Bure ... pure youth minor hockey coaches like Jeff Turcotte and Jack Bowkus. These guys have been doing this for a long time. They're recognized on a national level for their ability to coach, develop and get kids moved on to the next level."
And then there's the support the Jr. Kings get from the Los Angeles Kings. The Jr. Kings are headquartered at the Toyota Sports Center in El Segundo, which also is the NHL team's practice site. So the next generation is able to get an up-close-and-personal look at today's NHL stars.
"There is such a great little buzz going on at our facility," Sorenson said. "This Los Angeles Kings team has such a confident, yet calm aura about them. And we're progressively seeing a lot more foot traffic at the facility here over the last few weeks. And during practice, our Jr. Kings players are up against the glass, eyes wide open, getting the chance to watch these guys go through their drills during the Stanley Cup Playoffs. These kids are so fortunate to be able to do this.
"Having these guys housed out of there gives these kids the opportunity to interact with these guys on a day-to-day basis. It's a big deal. Yes, that certainly has a correlation on the growth of the sport in the last couple years."
And as the Kings keep winning -- they're in the playoffs for the third straight year and in the Western Conference Finals for the first time since 1993 -- Sorenson said he expects more players to jump on the hockey bandwagon.
"As I can tell you today, we're leading up to tryouts in the first part of June," Sorenson said, "and the Kings' success will have a major impact on the amount of kids that show up at our facility for tryouts. That I feel."
Contact Adam Kimelman at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @NHLAdamK
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