-- It was just two months ago that Emerson Etem
of Long Beach and Beau Bennett
of Gardena became part of history at the 2010 Entry Draft when the two California natives were chosen in the first round.
It didn't signal the apocalypse, but did send a clear message that the Golden State was becoming a bona fide breeding ground for future NHL talent. That future was on display at the 2010 NHL Research, Development and Orientation Camp Fueled By G Series at the Toronto Maple Leafs
' practice facility on Wednesday and Thursday.
Forwards Shane McColgan
of Manhattan Beach and Matthew Nieto
of Long Beach joined forces at the camp on the same line for coach Ken Hitchcock. Both have high hopes of following in the footsteps of their good friends Etem and Bennett as first-round selections at the 2011 draft, to be held in June in St. Paul, Minn.
Reaching the NHL no longer is a pipe dream for those born along the Pacific coast.
"It would be a dream … I just got chills right now thinking about it," the 5-foot-8, 170-pound McColgan, a right wing with the WHL's Kelowna Rockets, told NHL.com. "Seeing my friends get drafted really high was motivation for me. I just can't imagine what it would feel like."
Nieto, who won back-to-back gold medals at the Under-18 World Championship in 2009 and '10, was equally excited.
"It would be amazing," he said. "I'm looking forward to it and hoping for the best."
Detroit Red Wings
Assistant General Manager Jim Nill can sense the excitement those players along the West Coast have generated in recent years.
"This is kind of the result of that Wayne Gretzky
to L.A. trade and we're reaping the rewards from that now," Nill told NHL.com. "It just shows that if you have a good product in an area, even though it might not be a solid hockey market, you can groom hockey players. We're starting to see that in California and Texas."
McColgan, the only U.S.-born player selected in the first round of the 2008 Western Hockey League Bantam Draft, spent his first full season with Kelowna in 2009-10. He had quite the banner season, too, totaling 25 goals and 69 points in 71 games on the way to finishing second to Red Deer's Ryan Nugent-Hopkins
as WHL Rookie of the Year.
Quite an accomplishment for a player deemed to small to succeed.
"Getting top rookie would have been a nice accomplishment, but it's just more motivation to dominate this coming season," McColgan said. "I'm not the biggest guy, but I'm sure you saw during the (RDO) Camp I like mixing it up with bigger guys and won't back down. I'm not afraid to fight if I have to … I know that's not my game, but I'm not going to back down."
McColgan played defense for four years before being moved to forward in his bantam season.
"People think (size) is a factor, but it doesn't faze me when I'm out there," he said. "I just look at players like Zach Parise
, Patrick Kane
and Martin St. Louis
and the success they have had. They provide the motivation -- if they can do it, I can do it."
NHL Director of Central Scouting E.J. McGuire is glad to see so many players from California being rewarded for their hard work.
"Beau and Emerson started the flood, but my question is, 'How do you learn to skate so well on Manhattan Beach?'" McGuire quipped. "McColgan is quite a player, and I think any doubters that would say anything about his size only have to see him play once or twice in the WHL -- he's playing in a league with plenty of credibility."
Like most other aspiring hockey player in California, McColgan and Nieto started playing on roller skates.
"Starting on the roller skates is how we developed our hands and the finesse side of the game," McColgan said. "It's hard to get ice (in California), and there are new facilities opening up. People are realizing that it's turning into kind of a hockey state -- as weird as that sounds."
McColgan and Nieto each began when they were 3 years old at the local YMCA -- skating alongside Etem, who the Anaheim Ducks
took with the 29th pick in June. Bennett was chosen 20th by the Pittsburgh Penguins
"I started playing with Emerson at the YMCA and we played on the same teams growing up our whole lives … I even played AAA with him," Nieto said. "I also played with Beau, McColgan and a lot of other guys who have gotten that attention."
"This is kind of the result of that Wayne Gretzky
to L.A. trade, and we're reaping the rewards from that now. It just shows that if you have a good product in an area, even though it might not be a solid hockey market, you can groom hockey players. We're starting to see that in California and Texas." -- Red Wings Assistant GM Jim Nill
McColgan said attending the draft at Staples Center in Los Angeles was a great experience.
"I was pretty fortunate to go there with my agent, and seeing Beau and Emerson drafted gave me that motivation to have a great season this year and be up on that stage next year," he said. "I really do feel the Wayne Gretzky
trade to Los Angeles boosted hockey in this area. Over the next couple of years you'll see some good kids coming up and I'm really looking forward to seeing them. As it is now, we're competing with Canadians and other countries and it's nice to know California is playing a part."
Nieto is prepared to begin his collegiate career at Boston University in the fall after producing 28 goals and 54 points in 54 games with the U.S. National Team Developmental Program's under-18 team last season. Despite being a late cut from Team USA's National Junior Evaluation Camp for the 2011 World Junior Championships, Nieto remains confident he still can make the squad.
"It was disappointing at first, but I'm using that as motivation and could still make a good run to make the team come December, so I'm working toward that," the 5-foot-11, 180-pound left wing said. "I'm looking to have a good start to the year at Boston University."
McGuire expects Nieto to perform admirably for the Terriers.
"Matt is a good offensive player with good stick skills," he said. "He'll fit in well at BU."
Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mike_morreale