|Spokane's Mitch Wahl is authoring an impressive hockey story, one that has its origins in the arrival of Wayne Gretzky in Southern California.|
The deal happened two years before he was born, but Wahl said Wayne Gretzky's trade to the Los Angeles Kings in 1988 had a huge impact on his hockey career. Instead of growing up playing baseball or basketball like a lot of his Southern California friends, Wahl fell in love with hockey.
"Ever since Wayne Gretzky went down to L.A. with the Kings, it really opened doors down in Southern California," said Wahl, a native of Seal Beach in Orange County. "There are some good organizations down there that really helped us out. That's where I started out and the rest is history, I guess."
Wahl traveled a long way during the past 10 years to pursue the game and his dream. He is currently playing in the Western Hockey League for the Spokane Chiefs.
Despite a limited number of hockey rinks in his neighborhood while he was growing up, Wahl knew that hockey was his game.
"I played a few sports when I was younger but I started with hockey when I was around 6," Wahl said. "I played a little bit of football and a little bit of baseball and basketball but I just had a love for the game of hockey ever since I was a young kid. Around 7or 8, I started getting more serious about it and traveling out of the state and out of the country for tournaments. It was around that time that I started to get serious about it."
Wahl got pretty good at it too.
He was an elite player growing up and helped the prestigious California Wave program to the championship game of the U.S. Under-16 championships in 2005. He was the team's co-captain and led the tournament in scoring.
Wahl said that playing in the Wave program helped prepare him for life in the WHL and to hopefully make the jump to the NHL.
"There were a few teams down there, but not much competition," said Wahl, who frequently traveled to Western Canada to play in tournaments as a kid. "So we were on the road a lot. Almost every other weekend we were either out of the state and we were out of the country at least once a month. There was a lot of travel involved, but it was definitely worth it."
The 5-foot-11, 190-pound center has quickly become a sought-after NHL prospect. He was rated No. 37 among North American skaters in Central Scouting's mid-term rankings released in January.
"He makes his wingers better and for a young guy at 17 years old, we have high expectations for Mitch," Chiefs coach Bill Peters told Rogers Sportsnet earlier this season. "He plays against other teams' best guys a lot of nights. That's hard to do at a young age in the Western League but he's able to do it."
Wahl made an immediate impact in Spokane after being selected fourth overall in the 2005 WHL draft. He had 16 goals and 32 assists for 48 points in 69 games as a rookie last year and upped his output to 20 goals and 53 assists for 73 points in 67 games as a sophomore this season.
He also scored a goal in the CHL Top Prospects Game in Edmonton in January playing against 39 other top-rated, draft-eligible prospects.
His coach in Spokane said that he isn't surprised at the success that Wahl has enjoyed.
"For a kid who came out of a non-traditional market in California, he's got very good hockey sense and elite on-ice vision," Peters said.
Wahl has had some good role models.
After watching Gretzky weave his magic when he was a kid, Wahl has turned his attention to some of the League's bright young stars like Alexander Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals.
"He is something else," Wahl said. "Watching him is just incredible. Any time the Capitals play I like to watch those games because you know he is going to do something exciting. He's really fun to watch."
Wahl admitted that he would love to get the opportunity to play professionally in his native state, especially after watching the Anaheim Ducks last spring become the first California team to win the Stanley Cup.
"That would be a great honor," Wahl said. "We've had season tickets for the Ducks for years now and the run last year was a great experience to watch those games. It was really cool to see that. I'd love to be drafted anywhere, but it would be quite a story if I was drafted to a California team."