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Gretzky's California hockey legacy continues to grow

by Dan Rosen
Two decades later, hockey fans in Hollywood are still basking in Wayne Gretzky's glow --  except now we're witnessing an altogether different result from The Great One's presence in Southern California.

The kids born out of the Gretzky craze -- we'll call them "The 99 Boomers" -- are developing into NHL prospects because the state of California built on the budding interest in the game even after Gretzky departed for St. Louis in 1996, eight years after he made hockey popular in the Golden State.

Long Beach native Emerson Etem will become the latest California-born and-trained player to hear his name called in the first round at the Entry Draft, except he have the honor of hearing it called mere miles from where he grew up as Staples Center is the host venue for the weekend's two-day event.

Jonathon Blum, a fellow Long Beach native, became the first California-born and trained player to be selected in the first round when Nashville took him with the 23rd pick in 2007. Four California players were selected in the '08 draft, and three others should get picked this weekend.

But how did this happen?

We know that Gretzky's arrival signaled the start of the hockey boom, and the Kings' drive to the Stanley Cup Final in 1993 put it over the top. But to become something of a State of Hockey, Kings President of Business Operations and Hockey Hall of Famer Luc Robitaille said everything at the youth level had to develop over time.

The coaching, Robitaille noted to, "has improved tremendously in the last 10 years."

Former NHL players such as Nelson Emerson, Glen Murray, Jamie Storr, Craig Johnson, Dave Karpa and Brandon Convery are all coaching at the youth level in California, some in the now nationally recognized L.A. Junior Kings program.

Other former players are involved, such as Robitaille and the recently retired Rob Blake, who played 15 ½ of his 20 NHL seasons in California. Scott Niedermayer is also about to settle into retired life in Orange County.

"A lot of players live in So Cal now and they are all involved to some degree," Robitaille said. "It is crucial for the young players to get to meet some of these guys and to get coached by them also."

"I experienced it here (in San Jose) on Memorial Day weekend," Blake said. "My son played in a squirt hockey tourney and within a 40 to 50 mile radius there were probably 15 tournaments going on. That was non-existent when I got to L.A. (in 1990).

"There is the Junior Sharks program, the Junior Kings program -- they have allowed these kids to grow and mature and you're seeing these kids become draft eligible now. It's been great to see and it's continued. When you start setting up homes and living in these cities and having families the players come out and that helps in the development for sure."

The coaching has increased the visibility of the several of the major junior programs in California. 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.

The Jr. Kings have 16 teams under their umbrella and are now members of the Tier 1 Elite Hockey League, which is scouted heavily by the USHL and top collegiate programs in the U.S. The Anaheim Junior Ducks have 14 teams under their umbrella and the San Jose Junior Sharks have 16 teams.

These programs all have teams for female players as well.

"Youth hockey here is steadily growing in size and success," said Andrew Stone, a Minnesota native who is coaching in the L.A. Jr. Kings program. "It's sort of difficult being out here on an island -- many of our teams have to travel to Detroit, Minnesota, Ontario, etc. … a few times per season in order to play the more competitive teams -- but there has emerged a strong enough base and a continued growth to the point where there are now three or four clubs in Southern California that can compete nationally.

"I experienced it here (in San Jose) on Memorial Day weekend.  My son played in a squirt hockey tourney and within a 40 to 50 mile radius there were probably 15 tournaments going on. That was non-existent when I got to L.A. (in 1990)" -- Rob Blake

"It is still a niche sport," he continued, "but the niche is growing, and with some 10 million or so people living here, it should at the very least be able to sustain itself."

Robitaille and Stone both said the Kings' resurgence into a playoff contender this season with young, personable stars like Drew Doughty and Anze Kopitar has fueled extra interest in the Jr. Kings program.

"We are already seeing a higher demand in all of our leagues," Robitaille said.

Stone also said the United States' success at the Olympics has a lot to do with that.

"That really had hockey at the forefront and in the mainstream discussion for the first time since I've moved here about seven or eight years ago," Stone said.

In Orange County, Anaheim's Stanley Cup run in 2007 gave the Junior Ducks program a big boost.

"We saw between a 15 percent and 20 percent spike when the Ducks won the Cup, and we have been very fortunate to keep those kids," said Art Trottier, President of the Junior Ducks program. "There are some very talented kids coming out of California and it will only get better with time. Every year there are a few more."

Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl

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