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Gretzky made hockey cool in California

by Adam Kimelman /

When "The Great One" landed in Los Angeles, hockey quickly took off in Hollywood causing more fans to come out to the Great Western Forum to cheer on the Kings, including a handful of celebrities like actress Goldie Hawn.
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.

It's the 20-year anniversary of the great sea-change in hockey, when Wayne Gretzky was traded to the Kings. Like a one-man army, Gretzky carried the NHL into living rooms where the only ice was in people's freezers. The "non-traditional" NHL markets exist mostly because places where hockey was as foreign as Sanskrit wanted the chance to see "The Great One" in person.

Hockey, a distant afterthought in Hollywood throughout the Kings' existence, suddenly became a front-burner item. In the sports pages, they went from the back of the paper to fighting with Magic Johnson and the "Showtime" Los Angeles Lakers for the front page.

While it didn't happen overnight, Gretzky's arrival heralded a hockey boom in California that the NHL just now is starting to see. The 2008 Entry Draft featured four California-born or -trained players selected.

That number might not seem like a lot -- it's two fewer than traditional hockey power Massachusetts produced -- but it builds on the three who were taken each draft since 2005, including first-round picks like Anaheim's Bobby Ryan in 2005 (No. 2) and Nashville's Jonathan Blum in 2007 (No. 23).
"Wayne's influence created a demand for ice time," said Pat Brisson, a Los Angeles-based agent who represents top 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.

Steve Long and Mitch Wahl Sr. were two of many parents who had young sons around the time of Gretzky's arrival. Neither were hockey fans, but Gretzky's reputation certainly preceded him

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

"When you first start reading his stats, it's like you're looking at the Harlem Globetrotters," Long said. "It's hard to fathom that he's that much better than the second-best guy in scoring. You wonder, how can this be true? He's not physically imposing at all. You watch him skate and he's not a fast skater. Nothing he does is remarkable, except the score sheet at the end of the game."

"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, and two seasons later, they had the 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.

During his playing days in Los Angeles, Gretzky had an enormous influence on the youth of "The Golden State", including Mitch Wahl, who was one of four California-born or-trained players selected during the 2008 NHL Entry Draft. 

"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.

"'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 was the second-leading scorer for the Memorial Cup-champion Spokane Chiefs of the Western Hockey League, and was chosen in the second round of the 2008 draft by the Calgary Flames. Long, playing for the Kelowna Rockets, had 100 points, was second in the WHL scoring race and was a fourth-round pick of the Phoenix Coyotes – the team Gretzky now co-owns and coaches – in June.

And there's another generation coming along, including Tyler Marek of the L.A. Selects, listed as a player to watch by NHL Central Scouting for the 2009 Entry Draft.

Marek was born in December 1990, midway through Gretzky's second season in Los Angeles. While he might not realize what hockey was like before Gretzky arrived, he's one of many who have thrived in the 20 years since his arrival.

He had an influence on the game, a huge influence," said Brisson. "I can't even measure it."

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