ANAHEIM -- Emerson Etem could have gravitated toward a number of sports. He sometimes played soccer and tennis when he was younger, and his parents and sister have backgrounds in rowing and swimming.
Actually, if it wasn't for his chosen profession, Etem might not have ended up in sports at all.
"I think I'd be an artist," Etem said. "Or maybe a surfer."
Instead, Etem followed his brother Martin and put on roller-hockey skates at the YMCA in his hometown of Long Beach, Calif.
It proved not to be a fleeting interest.
He transitioned to ice hockey, made the highly regarded prep team at Shattuck-St. Mary's in Faribault, Minn., and then played for the United States National Team Development Program. He became a 61-goal scorer in the Western Hockey League and made his NHL debut with the Anaheim Ducks on Jan. 29, 2013.
"I don't know why it was hockey," Etem said. "My brother picked it up and I did it just out of curiosity. I just wanted to try it out and I liked it."
Etem isn't an outlier.
Twenty-five years after the arrival of Wayne Gretzky in Los Angeles, NHL rosters are spotted with California born-and-trained players, including Etem, Jonathon Blum of the Minnesota Wild, Beau Bennett of the Pittsburgh Penguins, and Matt Nieto of the San Jose Sharks. More are in the pipeline; goalie Thatcher Demko of San Diego and wing Nicolas Kerdiles of Irvine were on the U.S. team at the 2014 International Ice Hockey Federation World Junior Championship. Demko is No. 1 on NHL Central Scouting's midterm ranking of North American goaltenders for the 2014 NHL Draft.
"I tell people this quite often," Gretzky said. "You can pick 10-year-olds and 12-year-olds [from California], put together a couple of teams, and they can go all through Canada and handle themselves extremely well. They can compete with the best of Canadian kids at 10 and 12.
"More importantly there's room for hockey here. It's something the kids want to do now. I think the proof of that is in how many kids [there are] now in junior hockey and college hockey, but in the National Hockey League. There's a lot more kids that are from this area. Chris Chelios isn't the only guy now from California."
There is symmetry to it all.
The 2013-14 NHL season was prefaced by the anniversary of Gretzky's trade to the Los Angeles Kings and began with the 20th anniversary of the Anaheim Ducks franchise. California will be front and center Jan. 25 with the first regular-season outdoor game on the West Coast, when the Kings and Ducks meet at Dodger Stadium as part of the 2014 Coors Light NHL Stadium Series.
Has California become a hockey hotbed?
"Something's bound to happen when you have 35 million [people] in your state," Etem said. "It's a great feeling to represent California."
ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST
Hockey fans in California owe a debt of gratitude to William Jennings. Without the governor of the New York Rangers in the early 1960s, the NHL might have taken a lot longer to get to the Golden State.
Jennings brought up the topic of expanding to the West Coast in September 1963, beginning with two teams that would begin play in the fall of 1964. Not only would bringing the NHL to California make it a truly national league, it would eliminate any concerns the Western Hockey League would try to become a major league.
Expansion was a hot topic within the NHL until it finally approved the addition of six franchises to begin play in the 1967-68 season. Two of them were to be based in California: the Los Angeles Kings, and the California (soon to be Oakland) Seals.
The Seals never found much traction in the Bay Area and moved to Cleveland in 1976; not until 1991, with the arrival of the San Jose Sharks did the NHL successfully put down roots in Northern California.
By then the Kings were firmly established.
Transplanted Canadian Jack Kent Cooke, who owned the Los Angeles Lakers of the National Basketball Association, beat out Los Angeles Rams owner Dan Reeves for the right to pay $2 million to join the NHL.
Cooke hired former NHL player Larry Regan as his general manager and grabbed longtime NHL star Red Kelly as his first coach. The best-known of the Kings' picks in the expansion draft was goaltender Terry Sawchuk, who along with Kelly helped the Toronto Maple Leafs win the Stanley Cup in 1967.
"I remember after the [expansion] draft that Mr. Cooke asked me to rate all the teams, after the draft," Regan said in the Kings' 25th anniversary video. "After about four hours working on it I told him that we would end up either first or second, with Philadelphia, and I picked Oakland last. He kept that paper, and I think there was only one team out of place at the end of the year."
Kelly was excited about making the transition from player to coach.
"This was a new franchise and we were going to start building from the ground up," Kelly told the Kings website. "It was going to be exciting and I was looking forward to that. It was a real exciting time for me and I thought we were going to build something that would last and go on."
To the surprise of many, Cooke opted not to play at the Los Angeles Sports Arena, then a few years old. Instead, Cooke promised a 16,000-seat building that would house the Lakers and his new hockey team.
"I can remember driving around L.A. with Jack and his chauffer, looking for spots to build The Forum," Regan said. "I can remember when we chose Hollywood Park, although anyone who knew Jack Kent Cooke knew that he [was the one who] chose Hollywood Park."
Cooke's new arena in Inglewood, Calif., dubbed The Forum and located next to the racetrack, wasn't ready for the Kings' debut, so they played their first two games at the Long Beach Arena, defeating the Philadelphia Flyers 4-2 on Oct. 14, 1967 and topping the Minnesota North Stars 5-3 one night later. After a six-game trip, the Kings' next 14 home games were played at the L.A. Sports Arena.
On Dec. 30, 1967, a crowd of 14,366 turned out for the opening of The Forum; the Flyers spoiled the festivities with a 2-0 victory.
That loss wound up costing the Kings first place in the West Division; L.A.'s 31-33-10 record was good for 72 points, leaving it one behind Philadelphia. Little did the Kings, or their fans, know that was as close as they'd get to a first-place finish for more than two decades. The Gretzky-led Kings in 1990-91, coached by Tom Webster, was the first team in franchise history to finish in first place.
The Kings' first opponent in the Stanley Cup Playoffs was the North Stars, but after taking leads of 2-0 and 3-2 in the best-of-7 series, Los Angeles lost Game 6 in Minnesota and was routed 9-4 in Game 7 at The Forum.
The second season didn't go nearly as well during the regular season, though a 24-42-10 mark was good enough for second place in the all-expansion Western Division. The Kings ousted the Seals in seven games to win a playoff series for the first time but then were swept by the St. Louis Blues.
Kelly left for the Pittsburgh Penguins and Hal Laycoe took over as coach, beginning a stretch of four consecutive non-playoff seasons marked by numerous deals for veterans at the expense of high draft picks.
"What we did at the end of the second year was say that we've got to bring in some names, because everyone always said that Los Angeles is a star town," Regan said. "We made changes. We got Eddie Shack, Dickie Duff and Terry Harper and different players, but it wasn't done with the idea that we were going down the right path; we thought we had the immediate chore of getting the fan interest in the team."
Not until 1975 would the Kings have a star just coming into his prime. Los Angeles acquired forward Marcel Dionne in a trade from the Detroit Red Wings. Dionne, one of six 700-goal scorers in NHL history, keyed a run of nine consecutive playoff seasons, culminating with the 1982 "Miracle on Manchester," a comeback from trailing 5-0 in Game 3 of their first-round playoff series against the Edmonton Oilers that led to an upset victory.
By then the Kings were the only NHL franchise in California; in fact, they were the only U.S.-based team west of St. Louis. They had loyal fans but were often overshadowed on the local sports scene by the higher-profile Lakers and Dodgers. It took a few more years and the biggest trade in hockey history for that to change and for hockey in California to really take off.
-- John Kreiser reported this segment
HOCKEY GOES HOLLYWOOD
In the summer of 1988 Kings right wing Jim Fox was rehabilitating a knee injury and working in the community relations department. To hear him tell it, the job wasn't eventful.
"The requests weren't flying in for our activity in the community," Fox said. "There was no need for a formalized department. When Wayne came, there was a need."
Hockey was well off the radar in Southern California, where the sports landscape revolved around the Lakers, Dodgers, USC football and UCLA basketball.
The metaphorical earthquake happened Aug. 9, 1988, when Gretzky, the biggest name in hockey and the sport's most-prolific scorer, was traded to the Kings.
"I was in my parents' house in Montreal," said Luc Robitaille, then a 22-year-old left wing and now Kings president of business operations. "My mom can never say no, and everyone was calling. I remember I had a [note pad] and I wrote everyone's name and I had to call back everyone. Our PR guy at the time called me and said, 'Can you do some interviews?' He gave me a list. I think I spent about four hours talking to everybody about what it meant. That was my afternoon.
"It wasn't about hockey. It was about the fact that there was such an image about the Kings."
Within months kids were playing ball hockey in the suburban streets trying to be like No. 99. When Gretzky switched to an Easton composite stick with a shiny shaft, those who could afford it were using the model on local streets and ice hockey rinks.
Fox immediately saw the trickle-down effect at the Kings' youth hockey camp, held at Culver City rink, which had one sheet of ice.
"We had to borrow equipment," said Fox, now the team's television color commentator. "[Prominent local youth hockey coach] Ronny Van Gompel had a whole bunch of equipment that he used for helping kids. Well, we had to borrow from him. I would say 50 percent of the enrollment of 120 kids did not have their own equipment.
"Something we learned from Day 1: My wife and I spent a lot of time showing kids had to put the equipment on. They didn't know how to put it on. This was grassroots. These kids were just starting."
The notion one of those kids could be born and trained in Southern California and make it to the NHL was inconceivable.
Six or seven years after the start of the Gretzky Era in Los Angeles the thought patterns started to change. For Fox it was seeing a gifted defenseman named Brian Salcido from Hermosa Beach who was beginning a journey to the top levels of the sport.
In 2009 Salcido became the first Southern California born-and-trained player to play for the Ducks. The Etems of the hockey world were well on their way, and more are coming 25 years after Gretzky pulled on a Kings sweater for the first time.
Kings assistant general manager Rob Blake, a coach in the Junior Kings program, sometimes meets adults who began playing hockey when Gretzky arrived.
"A lot of it was because of Wayne coming here and they all started on roller hockey," Blake said. "That tendency has changed now. Now there's enough rinks around that they're all starting right on the ice. I think when I first moved here, the popularity of Wayne being here, and the Kings in their run in the '93 Final, combined with the roller-hockey era, that's where they all got their start and then they transfer to ice.
"I still meet kids today and their parents [were] involved because of Wayne Gretzky. I've seen the generation switch. At first I saw kids, and 20 years later I'm seeing kids of the parents involved."
Fox said Gretzky's impact went beyond the gaudy stats and highlight-reel goals, because when the layers of his legendary status were peeled, he was just a humble guy from Brantford, Ontario.
"I think the way Wayne handled his entire career was the reason," Fox said. "He was accessible. He was a true superstar but he was an everyday man in his treatment of media, in his treatment of sponsors, in his treatment of fans. That attracted not only the kids themselves but parents. They said, 'Hey, I'm going to have my kid playing hockey now because this Gretzky guy is a pretty good guy.'
"I've been asked over the years, 'Who could have done that?' Maybe Mario Lemieux. Wayne had more than the on-ice attraction. He had that polite superstar [aura]."
Gretzky made hockey a part of Southern California culture as much as surfers, skateboarders, hot rods and beachside taco stands. Even Gretzky, living with his wife, Janet, in the San Fernando Valley, couldn't ignore the cultural shift during his first year on the scene.
"We used to go by this set of tennis courts," Gretzky said. "I remember we were stopped at a stoplight one time and I said to my wife, 'You know, back home, kids are playing inline hockey or ball hockey on these tennis courts.' We didn't' think much of it. Two years later, I went by the same tennis courts and I saw a sign that said, "No Ball Hockey Allowed.' I remember thinking, 'We've come a long way.'"
QUACK … QUACK … QUACK …
Jack Ferreira was convinced he hadn't landed the general manager job with the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, an expansion team about to join the NHL.
In the first week of January 1993, Ferreira met with top Disney executive Michael Eisner to discuss managing a new NHL franchise named after the 1992 Disney movie, "The Mighty Ducks." Ferreira, already a seasoned hockey personnel man, served as GM of the expansion San Jose Sharks during their first two years. He was coming off a Stanley Cup championship season as director of pro scouting for the Montreal Canadiens.
But Ferreira had a bad feeling about this Anaheim gig after meeting Eisner.
"I went to dinner with him," Ferreira said. "After that I never heard a word back until St. Patrick's Day, March 17. I never heard a word. I met with [Mighty Ducks president] Tony Tavares and that interview didn't go well. I told my wife, 'I'm not getting this job.'"
Ferreira was hired shortly before the 1993 NHL Expansion Draft and he would help the Mighty Ducks find an identity other than the cartoon-logoed jerseys and eggplant-and-teal uniforms. Knowing his team would get no respect, Ferreira acquired tough guys Stu Grimson and Todd McEwen to keep opponents honest.
Those first seasons were spiked with novelty and the occasional pratfall. There was the famous clip of the Wild Wing mascot falling over a ring of fire. There were comical variations of the jersey which mocked all notions of traditional hockey. The Kings later used "Serious Hockey" as their motto, a presumed jab at their cartoonish rivals.
Teemu Selanne, who arrived in 1995, took it in stride.
"It was kind of fun," Selanne said. "Disney was the owner and they brought the cartoon and the Disney atmosphere. I think [it was good] for the kids coming to the games … sometimes the show is more important than the game. It was fun. Disney started a really good thing. Without them, there's no Ducks. I think this is a good place to play hockey."
Ferreira made Anaheim relevant with the acquisition of Paul Kariya, the fourth pick of the 1993 NHL Draft, two-way forward Steve Rucchin, and Selanne, whom Ferreira shrewdly secured from the Winnipeg Jets in a trade for defenseman Oleg Tverdovsky and forward Chad Kilger.
With a top line that could play with any in the NHL, the Ducks were at least fun to watch.
"Our fourth or fifth year, we went to New York and won," Ferreira said. "[Rangers coach] John Muckler came up to me and said, 'Jack, I've never seen anything like that since Gretzky and [Jari] Kurri.' Paul and Teemu had four or five points that night. There were some nights they could really light it up."
Anaheim made the playoffs for the first time in 1997, eliminating the Phoenix Coyotes. It would be another six years before it won another playoff game, but the Ducks were on their way to expanding the Southern California fan base that exploded with Gretzky.
Nieto, the future San Jose Sharks player, was born the year of the first of three Mighty Ducks films (1992) and he remembers having two NHL teams to follow locally.
"It was great, and that was the time when the Mighty Ducks movies came out and they were popular," Nieto said. "So I was all into that too. It was just perfect timing, I guess."
Attracting kids like Nieto was precisely the effect expected from Gretzky, whose career with the Kings reached its apex with a run to the Stanley Cup Final in 1993, four months before the Mighty Ducks made their debut.
"Everything was kind of lined up," Ferreira said.
Anaheim became the first modern-day expansion team to win a Final game, in 2003 against the New Jersey Devils. Selanne had stints with San Jose and the Colorado Avalanche but returned to Anaheim and won a Cup in 2007. Having seen both phases of the franchise, he wouldn't want to be anywhere else.
"For me, I've seen all the good days and bad days," said the 43-year-old, who repeatedly has cited Anaheim's contender status as a reason for putting off retirement. "Now it's any player's dream to come to an organization that wants to win and has a lot of pride to play well and take your steps to win the Stanley Cup. It's a dream to win the Stanley Cup and to know you have a chance at it. That's pretty much all a player can ask."
RIDING THE WAVE OF YOUTH HOCKEY
When the Ducks were pummeling the Ottawa Senators on their way to the Cup in 2007, Blum, then 18, was watching from the stands at Honda Center. About two weeks later Blum, from nearby Rancho Santa Margarita, became the highest-drafted California player when was chosen at No. 23 by the Nashville Predators.
"Jonathon Blum definitely paved the way for California players," Etem said.
Three years later Etem and former Junior Kings teammate Bennett were picked No. 20 and No. 29, respectively, at the 2010 NHL Draft, aptly held in Staples Center in Los Angeles. It marked the first time two California players were picked in the first round.
Chase De Leo, a forward from La Mirada, is eligible for the 2014 NHL Draft and is expected to continue the trend of top prospects from the Golden State. He is friends with Etem, Bennett and Blum and able to use them as an example.
"It's definitely good to see California hockey spread like that," said De Leo, who plays in the Western Hockey League for the Portland Winterhawks and competed in the NHL/CHL Top Prospects Game on Jan. 15. "It's reassuring. I can't compare myself to them. I've got a long way to go, but it's nice to see them making it."
The common denominator is they all started in local youth hockey.
The Junior Kings boast 11 NHL players as alumni, including Etem, Bennett and Ottawa Senators forward Bobby Ryan, who played for the Junior Kings and called El Segundo home for part of his development after moving from New Jersey.
Nieto played for the Junior Ducks and Blum played for the California Wave.
Kelly Sorensen, executive director of the Junior Kings, said there are about 425 players, ages 6 to 18, in the program, up from 300 when he took over in April 2011. He said 51 have gone on to play at the NCAA level or higher.
"From a statistical standpoint there are not many programs that have that kind of success," Sorensen said. "The days of parents looking for alternative ways for their kids to play youth hockey is over [in Southern California]."
Blake, a star in the NHL for close to two decades, has a 12-year-old son, Jack, who plays for the Junior Kings. His team recently returned from a tournament in Detroit. Travel teams with the Junior Kings and Junior Ducks provide exposure for the next Etem or Bennett, much like the AAU youth basketball circuit for which Southern California is famous.
"It used to be the unsought area," Blake said. "No one really came out here. No one scouted out here. When you take a U-16 team or a U-18 team to these big tournaments back East, they're scouting the California kids. With Emerson Etem and Beau Bennett leading the modern-day charge, these other kids are all following. You watch the college scouts and the United States Hockey League [the only Tier-1 junior league in the country] scouts are at all these major tournaments.
"The top level of these programs are as good as any of the programs back East. We won't have the sheer numbers; we might be able to put one team in [every] age group whereas Toronto can put four or five, but as far as the top-level competitiveness, [it's equal]."
Blake and Sorensen cite former NHL players among the coaches in the Junior Kings: Nelson Emerson, Glen Murray and Jamie Storr. Among the coaches in the Ducks' youth programs are former NHL players Dave Karpa, Jeff Friesen, Craig Johnson, Jason Marshall and Guy Hebert.
"These guys want to stay involved with hockey and coach youth hockey," Selanne said. "That's huge … that's what it takes."
The Junior Ducks have 50 in-house teams, more than doubling in the past seven years, program vice president Art Trottier said. In addition to the two-sheet Anaheim Ice, the Ducks' Rinks program has constructed multiple outlets in the region, starting with an inline establishment in Corona in 2009 and expanding to ice sheets in Lakewood, Westminster and Yorba Linda.
"Right now we're filling four buildings," Trottier said. "Six years or seven years ago we were concerned about filling one sheet."
The Ducks' high school hockey league, which began in 2008, has doubled in size to 28 teams spread across Orange, Riverside, Los Angeles and San Diego counties. One of those teams, Santa Margarita, won the 2013 USA Hockey Varsity High School national championship with Eemil and Eetu Selanne, sons of Teemu.
The popularity in Southern California is reflected by the fact that Anaheim has 5,300 players involved in its adult league, according to Alex Gilchrist, the director of media and communications for the Ducks. To the north, meanwhile, San Jose is home to another of the largest adult leagues in the United States with 5,000 skaters and 165 teams, according to Sports Illustrated.
Blum, Etem and Bennett earned plaudits for the state, and the 2014 NHL Draft likely will be another weekend to remember for California hockey. Demko and De Leo are considered candidates to be first-round picks. Another goaltender, Blake Weyrick from Ojai, is expected to be chosen high. He plays for the United States National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor, Mich., and is No. 3 on Central Scouting's midterm ranking of North American goalies.
Nieto played around with a plastic stick his grandfather gave him. Like so many other area kids, he started with roller hockey. He sees how far it's come since his days with the Junior Kings.
"It's crazy," Nieto said. "When I first started out there we would go to these tournaments in Canada, in Michigan. We were winning them. It was pretty crazy at the time because everyone's like, 'Who's this team from California?' So I think each year kids want to get into the sport. The Kings just won a Stanley Cup. The Ducks are doing well. I think it's really good. Each year, the new birth years are coming in and playing. I think every division has a solid team."
CUP PARADES AND FREEWAY SERIES
Shortly after the Kings won the Stanley Cup in June 2012, Jarret Stoll brought the trophy to his adopted hometown of Hermosa Beach, an area where many Kings players live. The locals couldn't take their eyes off it. There was a sense of community.
Stoll can step back and see the bigger picture.
"Kids see that trophy, and even if they don't know much about hockey they're going to ask questions and maybe start skating and maybe start playing hockey," Stoll said. "Obviously Gretzky did his thing in putting hockey on the map out here and making it a huge deal when they went to the Finals. Winning does a lot of things."
Anaheim won the Cup in its 13th season of existence; it took Los Angeles 45 years to do so. When the 2010 NHL Draft was held at Staples Center, a large contingent of Ducks fans chanted "Where's Your Cup?" when the Kings were on the clock.
In fact, one side of the Ducks' 2007 Cup ring reads "California's First Cup." That could be perceived as a back-door jab at their rival, but it rippled a different wave when the Kings lifted the Cup at Staples Center.
From a media standpoint the Kings have always been regarded as the more-established team, and their championship somewhat validated their place in Los Angeles proper beside the Lakers and Dodgers.
"You feel it in this town," Robitaille said. "We're part of the other teams. Everybody understands. We have our crowd. We have our following. We're part of something. We're part of the big guys."
Anaheim, Los Angeles and San Jose were three big guys in the Western Conference even before this season. From 2005-06 to 2008-09, the Ducks and Detroit Red Wings were the two most successful teams in the NHL; each won a Cup and tied for the League lead in playoff rounds won (7).
San Jose's 107 playoff games from 2004 through 2013 are second-most in the NHL to Detroit's 123. It includes three trips to the Western Conference Final, a Presidents' Trophy and two Presidents' Trophy runner-up finishes.
Last season the Kings became the third team since 2000 to make the conference final the season after winning the Cup, a difficult feat in the salary-cap era. These days, a three-game California swing is the hockey equivalent of soccer's Group of Death; San Jose, Los Angeles and Anaheim were a combined 51-8-8 at home through Jan. 14.
"That's been the biggest thing," Ducks captain Ryan Getzlaf said. "When you have success, you create rivalries. You create buzz around the cities, and when you win championships, people pay attention. It's been a great growth in the last nine years that I've been here."
It wasn't until 2009 that the NHL staged its first all-California playoff series in 40 years when the eighth-seeded Ducks upset the No. 1 Sharks. The two other in-state playoff clashes since have been nail-biting series between the Kings and Sharks in 2011 and 2013.
What is sorely missing is a Kings-Ducks playoff series, and that's where the symmetry has worked in reverse. Outside of a brief period in the early 2000s the teams never have been contenders at the same time until recent seasons. It has held back a rivalry whose regular-season matchups are emotionally charged on the ice and in the stands.
"This [outdoor] game is going to obviously give that a boost," Gretzky said. "But when they meet for the first time in the Stanley Cup Playoffs? That's when you're going to see the rivalry of the Ducks and the Kings go to a whole new level."
The stage is set: The defensive-minded Kings under the stubborn glare of coach Darryl Sutter trying to lay down a spike strip for Bruce Boudreau's free-wheeling, offensive-happy Ducks. And with the Lakers likely headed for an early summer, this spring is practically screaming for a Kings-Ducks playoff battle.
"That would be taking the hockey to the next level," Selanne said. "It was very close last year. I think it needs one series to create something really special around, because there's a lot of respect for each other. They have a great team, and we can play well too. Getting that exposure for hockey, it would be something that would make a big difference."
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