LOS ANGELES -- For the first time in NHL Entry Draft history, two Californians realized their hockey dreams when Beau Bennett of Gardena and Emerson Etem of Long Beach were taken in the opening round on Friday at Staples Center.
The two California kids lauded the other. Bennett was selected 20th overall by the Pittsburgh Penguins to become the highest drafted California-born and -trained player in history. Etem was drafted 29th by the Anaheim Ducks.
"It's unbelievable -- having the draft here in L.A. and sharing with friends and family, it's been a whirlwind this week and I'm happy to be chosen by Pittsburgh," Bennett said. "It's nice, but Emerson is a deserving guy. He works hard and we actually grew up and played together in Pee Wee, so it's definitely a nice gesture. He's definitely deserving."
Said Etem: "Beau's a fantastic player, great hands, he has so much skill. It says a lot about California hockey in general. What the coaches are doing, the caliber of hockey here, just keeps on improving. Every time I come back here, it's great to see."
And does Etem, who led all rookies in goals (37) in his first season in the Western Hockey League with the Medicine Hat Tigers, consider himself a role model?
"Just keep on believing," he said. "Today was a perfect example of keep on believing. I was sitting there longer than expected (Etem was rated No. 8 among North American skaters by NHL's Central Scouting) but I couldn't have fell to a better organization, such a high class organization. (California hockey) just has to keep progressing. I'm here to help it grow more."
Bennett scored 41 goals in 56 games for Penticton in the British Columbia Junior Hockey League.
Jim Johannson, the assistant executive director of USA Hockey, is happy to see hockey coming of age along the Pacific coastline.
"It's really exciting," Johannson told NHL.com. "As the NHL grew to the Sun Belt area, we've seen more and more kids in those areas playing hockey and especially in the case of California. We're getting more and more good athletes playing hockey. One of the challenges of getting athletes to play hockey in the U.S. is the fact there are so many sports, so to get the best athletes playing hockey in California is huge. The NHL's expansion to the California area has given those kids a chance to play."
Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mike_morreale