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Golden era: Hockey flourishing in California

by Mike G. Morreale

Now that the NHL announced Monday that outdoor hockey would be coming to Dodger Stadium in January, fans in Southern California can pay tribute to the Los Angeles Kings and California Seals, each of whom played their part in bringing the game to the area in 1967.

But it can also be said that hockey really didn't arrive in "The Golden State" until the summer of 1988 with Wayne Gretzky's arrival to the Kings via a trade with the Edmonton Oilers.

In their first season with Gretzky in 1988-89, the Kings improved from 68 points to 91, and won a Stanley Cup Playoff series for the first time since 1982. In 1990-91, they won the only division title in club history and finished with 102 points. Two seasons later, they had their unforgettable run to the 1993 Stanley Cup Final.


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In the years that followed, more and better ice facilities were built, and youth hockey began to flourish. According to USA Hockey, there were 8,094 youth players (through 18 years old) registered in California for the 2009-10 season. Another 12,310 adults were registered through USA Hockey.

At the 2010 NHL Draft at Staples Center in Los Angeles, right wing Beau Bennett (Gardena, Calif.), selected No. 20 by the Pittsburgh Penguins, became the highest drafted California-born and -trained player in draft history.

Additionally, right wing Emerson Etem of Long Beach was selected No. 29 at the 2010 NHL Draft, marking the first time that two Californians were picked in the first round. On the second day of that draft, California natives Jason Zucker and Taylor Aronson were chosen by NHL teams.

"For our group, it felt like we were Canadian kids playing in California," Etem told after the 2010 draft. "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."

Zucker, who was born in Newport Beach but moved to Las Vegas when he was only two months old, was taken in the second round (No. 59) by the Minnesota Wild. He scored the overtime game-winner against the Chicago Blackhawks in Game 3 of the Western Conference Quarterfinals on Sunday to pull the Wild within 2-1 in that best-of-7 series.

Aronson was drafted in the third round (No. 78) by the Nashville Predators. He had something in common with Long Beach native Jonathon Blum, a defenseman, who was also chosen by the Predators (No. 23) at the 2007 draft.


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