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Gretzky-generation Californians get noticed at Draft

by Adam Kimelman
The Los Angeles Kings and California Seals brought the NHL to the West Coast of the United States in 1967, but it can be said that hockey really didn't arrive in California until Aug. 9, 1988.

That was the day of Wayne Gretzky's monumental trade to the Kings. Like a one-man army, Gretzky carried the NHL into living rooms where the only ice was in people's freezers. More than 20 years later, the reverberations of that move can best be seen at the yearly NHL Entry Draft.

For the first time, the Entry Draft will be held in Los Angeles, and a number of players from California are in line to hear their name called pretty early at the June 25-26 selection process.
Medicine Hat Tigers right wing Emerson Etem, No. 8 on NHL Central Scouting's ranking of North American skaters, grew up in nearby Long Beach. He led all first-year Western Hockey League players with 37 goals and was fourth with 65 points.

He isn't the only highly regarded player with California roots. Five players in Central Scouting's top 100 North American skaters hail from the Golden State -- Etem; No. 32 Beau Bennett of Torrance (Penticton, BCHL); No. 51 Jason Zucker of Newport Beach (USNTDP); No. 68 Jacob Fallon of Riverside (Indiana, USHL); and No. 88 Taylor Aronson of Placentia (Portland, WHL).

Those five are one more than hockey-centric Massachusetts (four) and just one fewer than Michigan (six).

It's just another step in the growth of youth hockey in the state in the Gretzky generation. Rancho Santa Margarita native Jonathan Blum became the first California-born and -trained first-round draft pick when the Nashville Predators took him No. 23 in the 2007 Entry Draft, and California players have dotted the draft list over the last few years.

Etem, who is expected to go in the top 15, could replace Blum as the highest-drafted California-born player ever.

"Wayne's influence created a demand for ice time," said Pat Brisson, a Los Angeles-based agent who represents top NHL players like Sidney Crosby and Patrick Kane. "I saw it firsthand. I was here. Youth hockey took off. ... And now you see kids born in 1990, 1991, '92 or '93 in L.A. are now going to come into the NHL draft because of what Wayne did."

Gretzky made hockey cool, and Kings games became not just things to see, but places to be seen. And in image-mad Hollywood, celebrities jumped on the bandwagon.

"I started teaching hockey to actors, celebrities and just regular moms and dads who wanted to try this hockey thing," Brisson said.

Etem got his start on pavement before he jumped on the ice.

"Like many kids from California playing hockey nowadays, I started playing roller hockey at age 3, and when I started getting bigger, about 6, I started playing ice hockey," Etem said. "Played youth hockey not far from where I lived. We had pretty good coaches from all over who settled there."

It was Etem's parents who first signed him up for hockey, much like Steve Long of Santa Ana and Mitch Wahl Sr. of Long Beach did for their sons.

"Back in the day nobody talked about hockey," Wahl said, "but everybody knew Gretzky."

"The Great One's" arrival in Los Angeles immediately turned the Kings into contenders. In their first season with Gretzky, the Kings improved from 68 points to 91, and won a 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 magical run to the 1993 Stanley Cup Final.

"I can remember that was the first time I saw the little (Kings) flags flying on the windows," Long said. "It was a big deal. Each game, from the semifinals on, each game was like high drama. It was a wonderful run. The Kings were on the front page of the sports sections, they were the top of the sporting news. People that had never watched the game started to watch it at that point. There was a big buzz about the team at that point. ... It was fun. People that didn't know hockey were interested in hockey."

Those people included Long's son, Colin, and Wahl's son, also named Mitch.

"For my kids and kids their age, that was the first sporting event he watched and remembers," Steve Long said. "That was what hooked him on those games."

While hockey's popularity was growing fast, there wasn't near enough ice.

"When I first started there must have been about 10 rinks, but some of these rinks were lower basement-type rinks that were probably a hardwood floor for roller hockey," said Helen Alex, a transplant from Toronto and the mother of two hockey-playing sons.

"In our neighborhood, maybe five rinks," added Mitch Wahl Sr. "Westminster was just a supermarket they converted into a small rink. It was mainly for figure skating and recreational skating."

More and better ice palaces were built, and youth hockey, which had been a near non-entity, began taking off.

Among the half-dozen or so competitive teams were elite-level organizations like the California Wave and Los Angeles Junior Kings.

While elite-level California hockey was considered an oxymoron -- like jumbo shrimp -- it wasn't long before the talent infusion helped the "beach boys" make a name for themselves.

"They definitely thought, 'What are these L.A. kids doing playing hockey?' with our long bleach-blond hair and we're just playing for fun," Bennett, a product of the Junior Kings system, told This season -- his first outside of California -- he led the British Columbia Hockey League with 120 points

"'Where's your surfboard?' jokes like here come the Beach Boys," said Alex, now the Tier Coordinator for the Junior Kings. "'I can't believe these guys think they can skate.' But we turned the negative into positives. ... We went to Nationals and I remember hearing a parent say how good can those kids from California be?"

Good enough to win titles at multiple age groups and earn California notoriety as a U.S. hockey hotspot. And now the Junior Kings field 15 teams at age levels from mite to midget AAA.

Mitch Wahl and Colin Long were part of those top teams. Wahl, a 2008 second-round pick of the Calgary Flames, led the Spokane Chiefs with 96 points this season, and then had 4 points in four AHL games with the Abbotsford Heat. Long, a 2008 fourth-round pick of the Phoenix Coyotes, played just 29 AHL games with the San Antonio Rampage after suffering a season-ending head injury in January.

And now players like Etem and Bennett are following them down the trail blazed by Gretzky.

"(Gretzky) made ice hockey big down there," said Etem. "And it's growing. I think he definitely left a mark on California hockey. We're happy he came and he did a lot for California."

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