California has always been and will always be associated with gold miners, beach goers, movie stars, surfers, basketball players, and maybe even green thumbs cultivating poppies.
In 2010 the Bleacher Report compiled a list of the 10 best professional athletes born in California – the list was comprised of six baseball players, three football players, a tennis player, a golfer and a swimmer. Even their honorable mention list, at 25 names long, included a race car driver and a female athlete – but no hockey player.
It’s probably a pretty safe bet that there aren’t very many people who would readily think of California and ice hockey in the same thought. As a matter of fact, the previous sentence just may be a pioneering one, incorporating the two seemingly opposite concepts.
Get used to it.
There has been somewhat of a hockey baby boom, and the ‘babies’ are now starting to become draft-eligible. Southern California’s Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim Ducks have two hometown boys in their systems in right wings Brandon Kozun, and Emerson Etem, respectively.
Kozun, who is currently on loan to the Manchester Monarchs, was born in Los Angeles to an American father and Canadian mother. On the heels of two older brothers, Kozun began playing hockey at the age of three in 1993, the same year in which the Kings made it to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time.
“Both my brothers played and I grew up watching them around the rink and it just drove me to want to play,” said Kozun, who was drafted by the Kings in the sixth round, 179th overall, in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft.”
Kozun, who grew up watching the Kings with his dad, used to play hockey at the Kings old practice facility, and his first hockey coach happened to be Mike Barnett, Wayne Gretzky’s agent.
“It feels unbelievable,” said Kozen of being part of his childhood team’s system. “If I ever get to play for the Kings one day it would be a dream come true.”
Just down the freeway, Long Beach-native Etem is living out that same dream.
Drafted 29th overall by the Ducks in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, Etem is enjoying the hometown perks associated with his current job location.
“It’s a great feeling just being down the road. It’s nice for my parents,” admitted Etem, who left home to play hockey at the age of 14. “It’s nice to be home and have my parents see every game.”
Etem confesses that he was a Kings fan growing up, but concedes that all changed the moment he was drafted.
“It’s just great to see the Kings win it two years ago and the Ducks win it in ’07. Southern California has definitely come a long way, and I’m here to help that,” offered Etem, who grew up idolizing local stars like Luc Robitaille and Teemu Selanne.
Etem describes the difference in hockey popularity when he was growing up compared to now as ‘night and day,’ and the realization that he is helping to lead what will likely be a large contingency of California-born hockey players is something that resonates significantly with him.
“When I was growing up, all we had were each other to compete with, me and a couple other guys who have made it up the ranks, too. It’s good to see and it’s good to see them have success as well,” Etem explained. “We’re here to set a good example for all the young Southern California kids playing and growing up here, and it’s been fun so far.”
According to College Hockey Inc., during the 2002-2003 season there were only 20 Californians playing Division I college hockey. 10 years later, the number catapulted to 59, ranking California seventh in the country, which means players like Kozun and Etem are indeed part of a group forging a place for California within the hockey world.
The Outdoor Game between the Kings and the Ducks in January will certainly cement an even larger – and perhaps tan and sand-covered – footprint for California on hockey’s map, and Etem brightened up just at the thought.
“I’m a Dodgers fan,” Etem revealed. “I’ve been to many Dodgers games, and to be out on that field…we’ll have to wait and see what it feels like, but I’m sure it’s going to be quite an amazing feeling.”
At this point, it’s safe to assume there are quite a few people who would trade their flip flops to be in Etem’s skates for that game.
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*This is the second of a seven-part season series, titled ‘The California Cold Rush’ that will explore key points in the growing popularity of hockey in California over the last 25 years, which has ultimately led to the much-anticipated Outdoor Game between the Los Angeles Kings and the Anaheim Ducks to be played at Dodgers Stadium on January 25, 2014.*