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California slowly becoming a hockey hotbed

Tuesday, 05.05.2009 / 10:17 AM / 2009 Playoffs Conference Semifinals

By Eric Stephens - NHL.com Correspondent

"I have three boys that play youth hockey and I've seen the progress. The last three or four years has been unbelievable. Obviously all these kind of things can make a huge step forward for the game. It's very good for hockey."
-- Teemu Selanne

ANAHEIM -- If there's one player who can most appreciate the NHL's first all-California playoff series in 40 years, it would be someone that originates from thousands of miles away.

Teemu Selanne has lived in Southern California for the bulk of his long NHL career, and the Finland native also resided in Northern California for a decent spell as well. Since arriving on the West Coast at the age of 26, Selanne has assimilated himself into the culture while raising a family of four with his wife, Sirpa.

And in a span of nearly 15 years, the longtime Anaheim Ducks right wing and one-time San Jose Shark has seen how much the sport of hockey has taken further root up and down the coast.

The first playoff meeting between the Ducks and Sharks, he said, can only raise the sport's profile in a state known more for sunshine and sandy beaches than ice and frozen ponds.

"I have three boys that play youth hockey and I've seen the progress," Selanne said. "The last three or four years has been unbelievable. Obviously all these kind of things can make a huge step forward for the game. It's very good for hockey."

The only other postseason meeting between two California teams took place in 1969 when the Los Angeles Kings defeated the Oakland Seals in a first-round series that went seven games. Only Sharks 43-year-old winger Claude Lemieux was born by the time that series was played.

Neither of these Pacific Division rivals was conceived until the League's mass expansion in the 1990s. But their presence in San Jose and Anaheim has left an impact in their respective communities.

Sharks Ice was built in 1993 to serve as the main practice site for the Sharks. Originally built with two rinks, the facility has been expanded to house four sheets of ice and also serves as the home of an adult hockey league that has more than 2,000 participants and more than 100 teams.

The club also runs ice rinks in Oakland and suburban Fremont and has developed three junior tier-level teams. It also co-sponsors the HP High School Hockey League, which runs from mid-November to April.

And there are the fans, who immediately took to the team back when it played along the San Francisco Bay at the antiquated Cow Palace. The Sharks regularly sell out HP Pavilion, where they've played since it was built in 1993.

Patrick Marleau, the Sharks' all-time leader in goals and points, said there is a clear difference in the level of interest in San Jose from when he arrived as the No. 2 pick in the 1997 Entry Draft.

"It's obviously grown," Marleau said. "When I go around town, there're people that know what's going on. They give you a thumbs-up if you won the night before or if you had a tough one, they'll say, 'Hey, go get them the next night.' It's a great place to live and play."

Raised in Aneroid, Saskatchewan, on a family farm in the heartland of hockey-mad Canada, Marleau said it didn't take long for San Jose to pick up the nuances of the sport and adopt the Sharks as its own.

"I think I was surprised by how much the fans knew [the sport]," he said. "Part of it was getting fans to the game. Once they're at a live hockey game, they're pretty much hooked. There's so much action and the game's so fast. You can't really take your eyes off the play for a second because there might be a big play."

The Ducks have done their part to grow the game in Southern California since joining the League in 1993.

Originally owned by The Walt Disney Co., Disney's then-CEO Michael Eisner commissioned renowned architect Frank Gehry to build Anaheim Ice, which opened in 1995. The facility houses an NHL-sized rink and an Olympic-sized sheet of ice, which are in constant use on a year-round basis.

Anaheim Ducks Playoff Gear The team's involvement in developing hockey has mushroomed under current owners Henry and Susan Samueli. Currently, the Ducks own and operate in-line rinks in suburban Corona and Huntington Beach in addition to their practice facility in Anaheim. The rinks are the home to numerous youth and adult leagues.

In 2008, the club also launched the Anaheim Ducks High School Hockey League, the first such club of its kind in Orange County. All of the initiatives are meant to grow hockey talent in Southern California.

"Samueli's plan is the key to continued growth," said former Ducks General Manager Brian Burke, now the GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs. "There are not enough places to play and the barriers to entry are too high."

The Ducks' investment follows other places that have set the pace as far as bringing hockey to non-traditional markets. The Dallas Stars teamed with Dr Pepper to build a series of rinks in suburban Duncanville, Euless, Farmers Branch, Frisco and Plano. Another rink is scheduled to open in McKinney, Texas, later this year.

Players such as Marleau have taken the lead to introduce kids into the sport. Last October, the Sharks' captain teamed with the Good Tidings Foundation to install a street hockey court at Washington Elementary School in downtown San Jose.

Selanne thinks that the first Ducks-Sharks tussle could have a lasting impact.

"I think it's huge," he said. "I know here and back in the south, the hockey programs have improved so much because of these two teams."

From the arrival of Wayne Gretzky, who made hockey popular in Southern California when he joined the Los Angeles Kings, to longstanding efforts at the grass-roots level, California-born and trained players are beginning to make an impact.

Nashville prospect Jonathon Blum, born in Long Beach and raised in Orange County, was the first California-based player to be selected in the first round of a draft in 2007. Hermosa Beach-raised Brian Salcido became the 23rd California-born player to play in the League and the first born and developed native to suit up for the Ducks earlier this season.

Ducks winger Bobby Ryan, who was an in-line hockey sensation in his native New Jersey, began to develop on the ice when he lived in California and played on champion age-group select teams. Ryan said the Golden State isn't overlooked as it once was and that a playoff series between two NHL teams in the state can only heighten interest among hockey-playing youngsters.

"California in recent years has kind put itself on the hockey map," Ryan said. "You look at recent drafts as well. They're not only getting draft picks but high draft picks. Steadily, more guys are going to come up.

"It's not yet anywhere like say Detroit yet but there's more established programs. There's more coaches. The coaches are better and more dedicated than they were when I was here. And it's nice to see that it's happening in Southern California."

Anaheim's 2007 Stanley Cup triumph raised the stakes for the Sharks and Kings as the Ducks became the first California team to win the NHL's championship. The Ducks eventually got the upper hand on San Jose again as they eliminated the top-seeded Sharks in six games.

For Sharks fans such as Josh Leupold, it's that kind of result that'll further intensify a blossoming rivalry between the teams and respective fan bases. It might not be Dodgers-Giants, but it's a start.

"It's a like a sibling rivalry," said Leupold, 39, a Bay Area native and San Diego resident. "It's like your little brother having success. You don't like that at all."
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