Emerson Etem grew up in Long Beach, California, and attended a handful of Los Angeles Kings games at The Forum every season.
Much like his pal Matt Nieto, he grew up a Kings fan and dreamed of being a professional hockey player. Nieto, a rookie for the San Jose Sharks this season, and Etem, who retained rookie status despite debuting with the Anaheim Ducks in 2012-13, are two of the best examples of the meteoric rise of youth hockey in Southern California.
The sport is flourishing at all levels in California, and the three NHL teams were all among the League's elite this season. Etem's Ducks will try to do what Nieto's Sharks could not: Eliminate the favorite team of his youth from the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
"I definitely listened to [Kings play-by-play announcer] Nick Nickson a lot on the radio, that sort of stuff. It's a dream come true to play against them in a series," Etem said. "It's huge. Even the last matchup between San Jose and the Kings. Both of them combined, it's huge for the game here.
"When I'm in Orange County, I see more and more Ducks stickers on cars, flags waving. When I'm in L.A. County, I see a lot more Kings stuff too. The game is definitely growing throughout California, and that's a good feeling."
When the Ducks and Kings met at Dodger Stadium in January as part of the 2014 Coors Light NHL Stadium Series, it was a celebration of the sport in this part of the world. The 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs have given the NHL an opportunity to extend that party by a full month.
"I think it was definitely a great year for hockey in Southern California so far," Anaheim goalie Jonas Hiller said. "You have a first-round battle and now a second-round battle. It's almost too bad that we can't have more California teams move on. We have to eliminate ourselves. It definitely seems like with the outdoor game and some other stuff that hockey is becoming more and more successful in California and there is more acceptance of hockey in California."
The Sharks and Kings did not disappoint; Los Angeles needed the full seven games to vanquish their rivals from the north with an epic comeback from a 3-0 deficit in the Western Conference First Round series.
Now the Kings, who won 3-2 in overtime Saturday in Game 1, are essentially trying to claim the NHL's first California state championship before pursuing a second Stanley Cup title in three years.
"I think with this new system and the way the seeding is set up, it is going to create a lot of rivalry series," Kings defenseman Alec Martinez said. "I think that's going to be really good for the game of hockey. To have two series now that are two teams from California is great. Even since I've been here, the game has grown so much. To have the opportunity to create excitement and awareness through these two series is pretty cool."
The story of hockey in California is both well-told and amazing. The Kings and the short-lived California Golden Seals helped establish some roots for the sport. The arrival of Wayne Gretzky in 1998 made them take hold.
Two new franchises, the Sharks and the Ducks, arrived in the early 1990s. Kids played roller hockey and eventually more and more of them put on ice skates. Etem and Nieto started on roller blades and switched to skates.
All three franchises have played a large part in cultivating youth participation in the sport, and the numbers have skyrocketed. More and more players from the state are earning college scholarships and hearing their names called at the NHL Draft.
"It's a lot different. Maybe when I was playing as a kid, the ice wasn't taken up as much," Etem said. "Now it is new group after new group [on the ice], and you can see it evolving.
"At the beginning of the year, I was helping my old coach out at the local rink with his teams. It's the skill level. Guys just look bigger, faster, stronger, and it's kind of the year-round development that California coaches are doing a great job with."
The Kings and Sharks have birthed a fully fleshed-out rivalry. They've met three times in the past four seasons in the playoffs, and the 41 games between the two teams are the most between any two teams during that span.
It played out during the first round. The teams don't like each other much, and there was plenty of snarl and post-whistle shenanigans.
The Ducks won the Stanley Cup in 2007, and the Kings followed with a title run of their own in 2012. There has been a passionate rivalry between the two fan bases. This was pretty evident when Ducks fans were chanting "Where's your Cup?" at Staples Center during the 2010 NHL Draft (the day Anaheim drafted Etem, no less).
That said, the players on the two teams have not developed a similar level of hostility. As Kings coach Darryl Sutter noted, some of the players from the two teams are even neighbors because the beach towns west of Staples Center and north of Honda Center are popular places to live.
This is the first time since Anaheim joined the League in 1993 that its two Southern California franchises have met in the postseason. This series, and potential future skirmishes with the new playoff format, could hatch a tremendous rivalry, something akin to what the teams in the New York area and eastern Canada have among each other.
"Southern California has been waiting for this matchup for a long, long time," Ducks forward Teemu Selanne said. "Finally it's here. I think everybody is really excited. It's going to be a tough series though, two very good teams. A lot of respect for each other, but at the same time, a lot of competing.
"The rivalry has always been there, but we all knew that it needed one playoff series, we needed to play against each other, and then it will be at another level. There's a lot of competition in the marketplace, off the ice too. For the marketing of both teams, this is time to take advantage of this."
Game 1 lived up to the hype. Each team wears black, but "Paint it Orange" has become a rallying cry for the Orange County-based Ducks. There are orange flags on cars everywhere in the city.
The fans were given orange T-shirts and towels for Game 1. Honda Center did not become a sea of orange though.
Thousands of Kings fans infiltrated the arena, and when Martinez scored to give Los Angeles a 1-0 lead, a huge roar erupted. Many of the Kings fans were sitting in the same general area, so it created an effect similar to a college football game or a European soccer match, settings in which the away fans are all seated together.
The competing chants of "Let's Go Duuu-cks" followed by "Go Kings Go" became a melody which went on for minutes at a time.
"I thought the atmosphere was great. A lot of times when you're on the road, all you want to hear is silence, but there wasn't much silence when we scored," Kings forward Justin Williams said. "There was a lot of Kings fans there and a lot of support for us. It was an extra added element to the game. Usually when you score an overtime goal, it's crickets in the building. We heard a little something. Kings fans were making their way down the freeway."
For the players and coaches, this series is about winning four games and being four away from reaching the Stanley Cup Final. Now that it has begun, there won't be much time given to questions about growing the sport in the region and all of the big-picture stuff.
For the two franchises, this is an incredible opportunity. L.A. is a great sports town, and it's one with plenty of built-in geographical rivals. Although UCLA and USC have competed on the field in conference-championship deciding games and the two MLS teams, L.A. Galaxy and Chivas USA, met once in the playoffs, the teams in the other professional sports have never met on this type of stage.
The Dodgers and Angels have never met in the postseason, in part because it would need to be in the World Series. Despite being in the league (and the same conference) together since 1971 and the same city since 1984, the Lakers and Clippers have never clashed in the playoffs either. The Rams and Raiders never played in a Super Bowl, while tenants in Southern California or elsewhere.
Southern California teams have had plenty of playoff moments against Northern California clubs, and Game 7s for both the Kings and Sharks and NBA's Los Angeles Clippers and Golden State Warriors are now part of that regional lore.
This can be different though. This is L.A. County versus Orange County. Dylan McKay and Brandon Walsh against Ryan Atwood and Seth Cohen. Guns N' Roses vs. Social Distortion.
For the next two weeks and beyond on the ice, it is silver and black against orange and black.
"It's two teams that are competing every year," Etem said. "Take the Ducks' Cup in '07 and the Kings' two years ago: It is two teams that combined have really grown the game. These two organizations are going to be competing for years to come. That's just how it sets up right now."