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The Next Step

by Jon Rosen / Los Angeles Kings

For those who played at a highly competitive level of hockey or had kids who may have advanced through the competitive minor associations to realize that there was an interesting future that lay ahead, the path towards junior and collegiate hockey is one that, for some of the brightest young players, can come with significant life decisions that have to be made as a teenager.

Because players are recruited to play for junior teams and receive letters from NCAA programs in their mid-teenage years, there is a path towards fulfillment in hockey that may seem more difficult to navigate in Southern California than it would in areas where hockey is omnipresent such as Minnesota, Michigan and Massachusetts.

“We don’t have that culture like when you grow up in Minnesota,” said Noah Clarke, the former King who experienced the immersion firsthand while playing for the dominant prep school program Shattuck-St. Mary’s in Faribault, Minnesota.

“I think from the time you start playing, you end up wanting to be a Gopher. All those kids from Minnesota, it’s kind of ingrained in them.”

While California has experienced tremendous growth within the sport over the last 15 years, there aren’t any Major Junior, Junior-A or NCAA Division I programs close by. The closest D-I programs are in Colorado, there are Major Junior programs in Oregon and Washington, and the USHL, which boasts an array of California alums, is located in the Midwest.

In an effort to properly educate Southern California hockey players who may be considering the leap towards junior, collegiate or prep school hockey, Clarke is hosting a seminar at LA Live on November 20 called The Next Step.

“We want to provide information in a feedback form where they can ask questions as well and just present different options,” Clarke said. “A lot of kids think it’s the NHL or nothing, but there are still some great options. If you want to go to a really good school like an Amherst or a Williams and you have the grades to get in, or if you’re highly recruited, you can go play major junior – just having the information out there. When I was growing up, I didn’t have a lot of that information available.”

And so while there will be representatives from USA Hockey and the USHL on hand, there will also be Leon Hayward, the Associate Director of Admissions at Connecticut prep school Avon Old Farms, which boasts Jonathan Quick as an alumnus. All levels of hockey advancement will be covered, and those who hold NHL aspirations will be able to make the most educated decision, as will those who are vying to learn more about options at boarding schools, junior hockey, NCAA club hockey and Division III NCAA programs.

There are wrinkles in college eligibility that will be clearly explained. When a player signs a contract with a major junior hockey club – major junior hockey is under the banner of the Canadian Hockey League, which includes the Western Hockey League, Ontario Hockey League and Quebec Major Junior Hockey League – they immediately forfeit their right to play NCAA hockey due to the CHL’s semi-pro status.

Shane Harper is a 25-year-old Valencia native and former L.A. Junior King who has appeared in 215 AHL games with the Chicago Wolves and Adirondack Phantoms since the end of the 2009-10 season. A teammate of Ty and Paulina Gretzky at the former Iceoplex complex during his first year of organized hockey in the West Valley Wolves program, Harper provides an archetypal example of the emergence of the sport in Southern California.

Influenced by the “Gretzky Effect,” Harper transitioned from roller hockey to ice hockey when he was young and took advantage of the emergence of ice rinks around the area spurred by The Great One joining the Kings in 1988.

1989 was a good year to be born in Southern California if you held high hockey aspirations. It was the year that Harper (signed by Philadelphia in 2010), Jon Blum (the first Californian to be selected in the first round of the NHL draft), Colin Long (a fourth-round selection by Phoenix) and C.J. Stretch (Ontario Reign and Oklahoma City Barons veteran) were born. All played together for the 2004-05 California Wave, which was probably the most talented minor hockey team ever to come out of Southern California.

Though Harper was happy with the decision to play (and eventually star) for the WHL’s Everett Silvertips – all of the aforementioned 1989-born players went the major junior route – there were no seminars available at the time that could have clearly laid out all of the options he had at his disposal.

“Even though I was on one of the best teams in the US, I just didn’t think I was at that level, I guess. But I was still so young, that’s why I didn’t really realize it,” he said. “I was still so young that looking back on it, I probably could have waited. It would have been fine if I waited. Luckily for me, it ended up working out. I think I had Vermont and UMass Lowell both sending me letters that summer. So I did have to coaches interested in me. I think I was still so young that I felt there were only two teams interested. It doesn’t look like I was going to get anymore. ‘Maybe I’ll just go into the Dub.’ But looking back, I could have been getting letters for the next three years.”

“I guess I didn’t know as much as I do now. For sure, I didn’t know as much.”

The California talent pool, boosted by the Kings’ two Stanley Cups in three seasons, will only deepen.

“When I was coming up, whenever you said you were from California I think there was a little bit of a discount. I think you really had to prove yourself on the ice. I think the stigma of like ‘Oh, they’re not well coached,’ I think was more of it,” Clarke said.

“They’re highly skilled, but if you put them in a tight checking game, they’re not going to play that way against kids from Minnesota, where now, I think that’s changed because the coaching has gotten better in California. So these kids are being taught systems at a young age and how to play the right way and then going on to different programs. They’re becoming really good college players, really good pro players. So I think that’s definitely changing, but I think it’s still out there a little bit in California just because it’s not your traditional hockey market.”

As Clarke noted, “there is not one right way” to build a future in the sport.

“It depends on what the kid wants, what the parents want and what the right fit is,” he said. “…I remember even the pressure when I was growing up, like ‘You’ve got to do this and this.’ But every kid is going to be different and ‘here are the options available.’ [We’re] having these people come in who are experts in the field just to give advice and options to the parents and kids.”

It’s a worthwhile venture that provides information to players who now have additional resources that weren’t there for Clarke and Harper even 10, 15 years ago.

“I think it’s totally different,” Harper said. “Even five years later it’s definitely, definitely different. People don’t consider California hockey a joke anymore. They know that good players come from it and there are some young kids who are really good. There are a lot of kids coming up every year – it seems like it’s more and more.”

Though not every player is going to be signed by an NHL team, there are still important lifelong decisions that affect players who may be overwhelmed by the surplus of options. The experience has left Harper with a senior viewpoint on the decisions for those who now stand where he once stood.

“I guess the only thing I would say is don’t rush into it. You always have time to make a decision.”

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