On Saturday, Sept. 7, Southern California witnessed a closely contested hockey game featuring many names that should be familiar to fans of the Anaheim Ducks.
Former Ducks Craig Johnson and Jason Marshall went head to head and someone named Selanne scored the winning goal. But this wasn't a preseason alumni game. It was one of the opening games of the 2013-14 season in the Anaheim Ducks High School Hockey League, and Santa Margarita Catholic High School, coached by Johnson, topped Orange Lutheran High School, coached by Marshall, 2-0.
The player who scored the game-winning goal? That was 15-year-old Eetu Selanne, son of Ducks forward Teemu Selanne.
For longtime fans of the Ducks, this exciting high school game wasn't just a walk down memory lane. It was an indication of how the ADHSHL, led by Ducks ownership and alumni, have helped turn Southern California into a hotbed of young hockey talent.
"It started off with one team. They kind of kicked it off. Then the following year Santa Margarita joined the league," said Johnson, who spent nine of his 10 NHL seasons playing with the Ducks and Los Angeles Kings and last season led Santa Margarita to a national high school hockey championship. "We started off with 12 kids that went to the school. We had to take kids from outside the school and basically patched it together. Now, four years later, we're at 44 kids in the program, every kid goes to the school and it's grown a lot."
The championship program at Santa Margarita isn't the only example of growth in the ADHSHL. The league has expanded since it was launched in 2008 with JSerra Catholic High School as its charter member. By the beginning of the 2012-13 season, the league had 14 teams, with former Ducks players Johnson, Marshall, Guy Hebert and Dave Karpa coaching teams.
With the Ducks contributing financially to all teams, 2013-14 will be the biggest season yet. On Sept. 5, the Ducks announced that the league would be doubling in size from the previous season, up to 28 teams from 19 schools, split across three divisions, with a total of 450 players. That five-year growth could be the greatest testament yet to the popularity of hockey in California.
"They had a vision when they first started to grow the league and really make the high school league the No. 1 place for kids at that age to grow and hopefully develop and go on to college," Marshall told NHL.com. "The level of competition is right up there with the club teams. They get a thrill from representing their schools and their friends come to watch them play. It's great for the kids and the fan base here."
But there may be no greater example of the growth than last season's performance by Johnson's Santa Margarita team. Featuring Eetu Selanne and his older brother, Eemil, Santa Margarita beat Regis Jesuit (Aurora, Colo.) 4-3 in overtime to capture the USA Hockey National High School Championship.
All throughout their season the Eagles showed repeatedly they could compete with teams from traditional hockey hotbeds in Canada and the United States. It likely won't be the last time a high school team from Southern California makes national news.
"Now with more rinks, and what the Ducks are throwing into youth hockey, they've done a phenomenal job with what they've invested in it," Johnson said. "They financially back it, they provide equipment, they're making it [affordable]. The Ducks have done a great job, not just with high school hockey, but just with bringing people into the rinks and providing them with skates and equipment and letting them try out the game."