New York newspaper magnate Horace Greeley coined the phrase “Go West, young man,” as a call to action for those seeking to tap into the untold opportunities in the new frontier.
The American Hockey League, with its roots historically entrenched east of the Mississippi, has heeded Greeley’s call by sending five franchises to California as part of a reconfiguration of its ranks.
The five teams — the Stockton Heat (formerly the Adirondack Flames), San Jose Barracuda (Worcester Sharks), Bakersfield Condor (Oklahoma City Barons), Ontario Reign (Manchester Monarchs) and San Diego Gulls (Norfolk Admirals) — will form the new Pacific Division along with the Texas Stars and San Antonio Rampage.
In return, three ECHLteams — the Stockton Thunder, Ontario Reign and Bakersfield Condors — will fill the void by relocating to former AHL cities.
The seismic shift makes sense both geographically and financially for both the league and the NHL teams that have been pushing the move for several years. Having their top minor league clubs in the same time zone will ease travel costs and help NHL teams keep better tabs on their prospects.
As the primary developmental league for the NHL, the AHL features a number of players who are a step away from playing in The Show. That means that a player could be skating in Bakersfield one night and the next be suiting up for the Edmonton Oilers.
As the dust settles, the biggest beneficiary could be youth hockey programs scattered throughout the Golden State.
“We’re excited for the AHL to come out here. It’s going to be a huge success and we hope to get involved with those teams as we continue to grow our sport here,” said Steve Laing, president of the California Amateur Hockey Association.
The state currently ranks sixth in registered players within USA Hockey, growing from 11,393 in the 2003-04 season to 26,383 last year, dramatically outpacing the national growth rate. During the same time, the number of Californians playing Div. I college hockey has nearly doubled from 89 to 179.
Add in three Stanley Cup titles and a combined 23 postseason appearances in the last decade by the Kings, Anaheim Ducks and San Jose Sharks, and interest in the game continues to grow in a state once known more for surfing than ice skating.
“When you think of hockey you don’t think of California, but we’ve made some pretty big strides in the last few years,” said Art Trottier, vice president of The Rink, a conglomerate of ice and inline facilities in Southern California. “We’re seeing the benefits from it. The programs are continuing to grow out here; things are moving in the right direction for us.”
While professional hockey has been in California even before the Golden Seals opened shop in Oakland in 1967, the explosive growth of the sport out west can be traced back to Aug. 9, 1988, when Wayne Gretzky arrived in Los Angeles. Not only did The Great One’s presence boost attendance at the Great Western Forum, it also inspired kids to lace up roller skates in cities and suburbs where ice rinks were non-existent.
Similar success stories could unfold in other California cities when the AHL affiliates of the Kings, Ducks, Sharks, Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers open their doors to an untapped market of new fans.
“You’ve seen the tremendous success that the three NHL clubs have had in California, and now to bring in five more teams to provide more visibility to smaller markets, I think will help continually grow the youth hockey market,” said Ty Hennes, a former American Development Model regional manager for the Rocky Mountain and Pacific Districts.
And with a deeper talent pool comes the opportunity for more players to make it to the highest levels of the game.
“The quality of players coming out of California right now is fantastic,” Hennes added. “We have players in our National Team Development Program and playing on our Select Teams in the summer. If [the state] continues to grow the base of players and get involved in the communities and schools, that would be great.”
Former NHLer and U.S. Olympian Craig Johnson was a key component to the 1996 trade that sent Gretzky to St. Louis. He is confident that the additional exposure brought on more professional teams will inspire a new generation of California kids to hit the ice.
“As more people are exposed to the game out here, I would think that more kids will start playing the game, and more adults will start playing as well,” Johnson said. “It’s going to help the popularity of the sport for sure.”
It’s just another sign that when it comes to hockey in California, these are golden times in the Golden State.
Story published on LAKings.com with the consent of USA Hockey. The story, written by Nick Salen, was originally published in the August 2015 edition of USA Hockey Magazine.
More about the Ontario Reign:
AEG History – Officially became a property of AEG in 2008; elevated to the American Hockey League prior to the 2015-16 season.
Team History – The Ontario Reign had proudly served as the ECHL affiliate of the Kings for several seasons. The Reign play at Citizens Business Bank Arena located just 40 miles east of Los Angeles. The state-of-the-art arena holds more than 9,300 fans for hockey and is often filled to capacity for premier games.
NHLers Kyle Clifford, Martin Jones, Dwight King, Jordan Nolan, Devin Setoguchi and Jeff Zatkoff are just a few of the players who have suited up for the Reign over the years.
The Reign have proven that ice hockey is the hottest ticket in the Inland Empire with five ECHL attendance titles and four Pacific Division championships in just seven seasons.