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California pipeline producing emerging talent

by Mike G. Morreale
LOS ANGELES -- Emerson Etem believes he's uncovered the secret to hockey success in The Golden State.

It's simple, really -- play like there's no tomorrow.

"For our group, it felt like we were Canadian kids playing in California," Etem told "We were all so determined, so passionate … once we stepped onto the California rink, we might as well have been in Canada. It just felt like hockey was everything and was the most important thing. We might have been from California, but we work twice as hard as the Canadians because we didn't know any better."

It's that hard work and determination that ultimately enabled California natives Etem, Beau Bennett, Jason Zucker and Taylor Aronson to be drafted by NHL teams during the two-day 2010 Entry Draft at Staples Center this weekend.

"To play in the NHL, you have to have an unbelievable dedication to your craft to prove your skill set and all these kids have done it because they've played inline and on ice hockey," said Eustace King, the agent for Etem and Bennett. "That's what has helped them take a step forward, because they were on the ice or on the court and those skills are transferrable. I think these kids are all great friends and, at the end of the day, they drove each other. Emerson, Beau and Jason all played for the L.A. Selects hockey club. I believe the love these guys had for each other and the passion they exhibited played a part in getting them to the next level."

That next step for each of them, of course, is making it to the NHL. Bennett of Gardena and Etem of Long Beach became the first two Californians to be selected in the opening round in the history of the selection process. Bennett, chosen No. 20 by the Pittsburgh Penguins, was the highest drafted California-born and -trained player in history. Etem was drafted 29th by the Anaheim Ducks.

Sandy Gasseau coached all four players with the L.A. Selects and was as proud as a peacock watching each of them plucked off the draft board.

"I started coaching Beau as a Mite, as a 9-year-old, and he just had a lot of passion for the game and lot of skills," Gasseau, who resides in Long Beach, said. "They're both students of the game and now they have to stay focused in order to move further. Emerson came to summer tryout for the Brick California Team going to Edmonton and right away, you could sense how great an athlete he was. When you watched him skate and stickhandle, you knew he was special."

In addition to all that, however, there was also the incredible drive these players showed in traveling a lengthy distance to perfect their craft.

Etem, for instance, has spent the last three offseasons taking a train over two hours, one way, from Long Beach to Venice Beach to work with renowned trainer T.R. Goodman. He did it six days a week. When Etem first began his workouts with Goodman, he weighed 145 pounds. He's now 190.

"It meant so much to train with him, not only physically, but mentally," Etem said. "He shaped me as person and helped build so much character and physical strength. I know it took about two-and-a-half hours one way, but it was worth it. It was such a humbling experience and shaped me as a person."

Even though King felt both Bennett and Etem possessed skills equal to, if not better than, a few of the players tabbed among the top 10 selections, he's a firm believer everything happens for a reason.

"It's not when you go but where you go -- to a team that really wants you … that's all that matters," he said. "They have a plan and structure for you and that's what you want. Sometimes teams draft a player because he was left there. But these clubs know what they're getting."

Gasseau, who joined his brother, James, and Igor Nikulin almost 10 years ago to coach for the L.A. Hockey Club and Selects, credits improved coaching and successes of various California clubs as building blocks for the growth of youth hockey in the state. It also helps to have several NHL alumni such as Luc Robitaille doing everything possible to make it all happen.

"Over the last few years, we've been getting more looks for L.A. players and it's getting better," Sandy Gasseau said. "Having two players drafted in the first round is amazing. I think it'll open a path even more for the players to come for sure."

2010 NHL Draft HatsGasseau was gushing with excitement when asked to discuss the upcoming crop of standouts playing for the L.A. Selects -- perhaps the best is yet to come.

Zucker, who was born in Newport Beach but moved to Las Vegas when he was only two months old, is ecstatic to see the current impact of those players along the Pacific coastline.

"Not only in California, but places like Phoenix and Texas, it's great to see these athletes getting drafted," Zucker said. "It really shows how much hockey is growing in the U.S. People have not really known the U.S. as being a hockey country, but now with all the medals we've won, we're getting recognized."

Etem, already donning an Anaheim Ducks polo shirt, knows the sacrifices that Zucker made to earn his time in the spotlight.

"He traveled weekly from Vegas to practice with us in L.A.," Etem said. "For him and his parents, (the draft) was a great event for what he did, and he's a dedicated player. The feeling of being drafted is still kicking for all of us; it's great."

Aronson, drafted in the third round, No. 78 by the Nashville Predators, is also privy to the caliber of talent along the West Coast. Aronson and Long Beach native Jonathon Blum actually have something in common. Blum, a defenseman, was also selected by the Predators, 23rd in 2007.

"A lot of those coaches have realized California is a hotbed for hockey players," Aronson said. "Everyone is going to see later on, a lot of kids are going to make it. You can definitely see a lot of talent. California kids, some of them are growing up with great hands, some are becoming great hitters. They're all striving to be great players."

Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mike_morreale

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