The Los Angeles Kings are instead looking to continue to provide athletic opportunities in a team setting and to grow the sport of hockey throughout Southern California while further replenishing the growing base of players borne out of Wayne Gretzky’s tenure and further motivated by the club’s recent successes.
The Los Angeles Kings High School Hockey League will field tryouts in May and begin play in September, 2015. Television color commentator Jim Fox will serve as the league’s commissioner.
“I see every high school athletic sport as passionate, so I think there’s just a great combination there,” Fox said. “It’s a great way for us to provide a framework that the high schools and students can use to develop their life skills along with the athletics, but at the same time it’s just a great way to combine the passion of high school sports and the passion of hockey.”
In doing so, a bridge will be established between those who may have had opportunities to play hockey facilitated by the Lil’ Kings Learn to Play Hockey Program and more advanced clubs and settings. The Lil’ Kings program provides first time players equipment from head to toe, instruction and practice time free of charge in a grassroots effort, like the high school league, to continue to grow the sport and provide recreational and competitive opportunities.
“That youngest age group – the four-to-eight year-olds who are starting the sport for the first time – we had to come up with a program that was going to be generating a lot of new players coming into the hockey community,” said Chris Crotty, Director, Hockey Development with the Los Angeles Kings. “We were able to do that with Lil’ Kings. Once we had that set up, there’s now a feeder base for all these other hockey programs. Those kids will go into the in-house leagues and the travel hockey leagues at the local rinks. Now is the next step.”
As Crotty noted, many players already have travel club and in-house teams that they play for. The high school league plans to allow players to double-roster pending USA Hockey and CAHA rules while wearing the insignia and colors of the high school that they attend. For the first three years, the Kings will subsidize helmets, jerseys and practice jerseys free of charge. Though the schedule hasn’t been finalized, it is planned that teams will practice twice a week and play one game per week, most likely on Friday and Saturday.
“We’re hoping for Friday, Saturday,” Crotty said. “Go with that true high school model.”
To provide mechanisms and personnel behind the ambitious grassroots endeavor, Crotty has aligned high schools and “district teams” with local rinks to populate a competitive league. The first school to agree to participate was West Ranch High School in Santa Clarita, while three additional high schools are expected to join the league in the inaugural season. The district teams will also form from a delineated talent pool throughout Los Angeles, Ventura, Santa Barbara and Kern counties. A brand new ice rink in Goleta will field the league’s most northwesterly district team, while the boundary to the north will be established in Bakersfield, and the southernmost team will play out of the Kings’ facility at the Toyota Sports Center. A full list of rinks and the boundaries in which players can be assigned to teams is available at lakings.com/highschool.
"It’ll be fantastic because the teams will have their home games at the local rink in the community where they live,” Crotty said.
The league will be modeled closely after the successful high school league founded by the Anaheim Ducks late last decade. Like the Kings’ efforts, the Ducks’ league began with one participating high school. Since then, the league has flourished and is now filled out by teams throughout Orange, San Diego and Los Angeles counties in both varsity and junior varsity divisions and has welcomed San Jose-based Bellarmine College Prep into the fold. Athletic powerhouse Santa Margarita High School quickly transferred its gridiron prowess into 200-foot-by-85-foot dominance and under Head Coach Craig Johnson, a former King and Duck, won the 2013 USA Hockey High School Hockey National Championship.
Similar to the origin of the teams that will grow into the Kings’ league, the Santa Margarita team originated as a combination district and high school team.
“There is no more of a fierce competition in Southern California than the Kings and the Ducks – on the ice,” Fox said. “The Ducks have started their own high school league, they have offered the Kings assistance in the setup, in the framework, and the guidelines and the regulations, and I can’t say thank you enough to the Ducks for providing that assistance, for understanding that the more kids we can get in this atmosphere, and that atmosphere is that you’re a student, so you’ve got those responsibilities, but now you’re able to play a sport for your high school or for your district, as it may be in the case sometimes. We’re going to learn from the Ducks, but we’re going to take our own program and make it as rewarding as possible, but I think it’s great for two teams that want to beat each other so bad on the ice realize that we do have a responsibility to the community as a whole, and I am so happy that the cooperation in this instance has been there, and it’s only going to benefit both.”
While Fox’s duties as commissioner align towards governance “from an objective, non-partisan and bigger picture element,” as he described it, the day-to-day logistics of the league will be handled by the Kings’ hockey development staff. As in any high school sport, students will need to maintain a certain grade point average to remain eligible. Coaches will be USA Hockey-certified.
As the Ducks turned to alumni as coaches and on-ice instructors, the Kings will also turn to a wide base of former players in the area once the league has been fully set up to gauge interest in who would be available and would want to be involved.
“I think that any professional franchise has to take it upon themselves to do as much to help the overall community as they can,” Fox said. “I think there is a void right now for that player who wants to continue playing hockey and get the benefits of team atmosphere, competition, and just going up against someone else. Combining that with your school, there’s a little bit of a void right now. I think geographically, the northern part of Los Angeles, that’s where the Kings are going to jump in.”
A rising tide lifts all boats, and through the efforts of the Kings and Ducks at the grassroots level, and through the AHL migration into California on a professional scale, those involved hope to provide athletic opportunities united with the franchises that they love while continuing to catalyze a burgeoning talent pool in a massive metropolitan area.
“People always refer to LA as a non-traditional hockey market. I don’t think that’s true anymore,” Crotty said. “I think we have kids getting drafted, we have travel teams winning national championships. If you have a feeder program like Lil’ Kings and then you have something like this that’s going to connect it more to the community, you have the makings of creating, turning California into a hockey hotbed.”