The stakes are higher, the facial hair thicker, the play is chippier. It's that time of year.
"There's a definite spike in intensity on the ice," agrees Tyler Shaffar. "You see more guys blocking shots, more pushing and shoving after the whistle, more game misconducts for fighting."
He was referring not to the Western Conference semifinal between the Kings and the Sharks, but to the spirited amateur action on four rinks at Sharks Ice in San Jose. Shaffar presides over the largest adult hockey league in the country: some 5,000 skaters on 165 teams ranging from A level (hotshots who've played Division I, or in the minor leagues, according to Shaffar) to EEEE ("They literally just completed our hockey class," he says). Nearly as entertaining as the play on the ice is the list of team names, ranging from the Hogwartian (Hufflepuff) to the hero-worshipping (Honey Nut Chelios) to the priapic (Peter North Stars, who put the adult in adult league hockey).
Underfoot at this velodrome-sized facility, lugging equipment bags into which many of them could comfortably fit, are members of the Jr. Sharks—a score of traveling club teams for boys and girls, ages eight to 18, sponsored by their NHL parent. It's a noble act on the part of the Sharks, underwriting these youth league teams, but San Jose does have a smidgen of self-interest in the venture. By growing the game at a grassroots level, the Sharks are also minting fans for life.
Since the NHL planted the team in San Jose 22 years ago, this high-tech hub has morphed into a kind of Hockeytown 2.0. That evolution is part of a larger trend now animating the NHL, a Zamboni-driven version of Manifest Destiny. It's true that the league's Sun-Belt expansion has yielded mixed results: The Coyotes are in receivership; the Thrashers bailed on Atlanta last season, resettling in Winnipeg, pucks having proved a poor mix with peaches. Hockey in California, however, is almost as hot as Paulina Gretzky's Instagram account. All three Golden State teams made this season's playoffs. The Sharks are in their ninth straight postseason, the NHL's second-longest streak, and have played in two of the last three Western Conference finals. The Kings, of course, are defending Stanley Cup champs; the Ducks won it all in 2007. It's a sensitive subject in Canada, where no team has won a Cup since 1993. California clubs, meanwhile, have taken two of the last six.
By bouncing Anaheim in the first round, the Red Wings spoiled what would have been the first Freeway Face-off between the Ducks and L.A. Scoring Anaheim's opening goal in its 3--2 Game 7 loss to Detroit was rocket-fueled rookie Emerson Etem, a winger who got his start in the sport playing roller hockey in his hometown of Long Beach. Etem honed his speed and cultivated his unorthodox crouched skating style, by Rollerblading uphill.
Etem and fellow Californian Beau Bennett, now a rookie winger for the Penguins, were both taken in the first round of the 2010 NHL draft, in which a total of four Cali kids were selected—all of them products of what is now the Los Angeles Jr. Kings Hockey Club. They are the vanguard of a large, and growing, column of homegrown talent, cultivated in youth hockey programs that have exploded in number over the last decade.
What all the state's franchises have in common, says Blues coach Ken Hitchcock, whose team was dismissed in six games by the Kings in Round 1, is that each "has invested heavily in the sport" by sponsoring youth and minor league hockey. (Anaheim, for example, has poured $12 million into its youth program since 2007.) "When you watch national championship games—bantams, peewees, midgets—the teams from California, especially Southern California, are always at the top of the heap."
That's due in large part to a glut of overqualified coaches in the area. Turns out that when they get to the end of their NHL careers, some players are in no rush to return to Canada. "We've got 12 former NHL players coaching in our organization," says Kelly Sorenson, executive director of the Los Angeles Jr. Kings Hockey Club. Since 2002, boys teams from L.A. have appeared in 10 U.S. championship games (from peewee to midget), winning four. In February the Jr. Kings' 12-year-old team won a world title at the Quebec international peewee tournament.
Few sports are more expensive and less convenient than hockey. "If a kid in California wants to play hockey, he must really want to play hockey," says Luc Robitaille, the Kings' alltime leading goal scorer and now the club's president of business operations. "He must be very passionate and willing to work harder than most kids."
That's a spot-on description of Etem, who starting at 14 worked out six days a week every summer with NHL vets, including Chris Chelios and Rob Blake. He would rise before 6 a.m., then begin a two-hour commute by Rollerblading four miles to the Long Beach Metro station. Two trains and a 40-minute bus ride later, he'd blade the final mile to the gym. "A little workout before my workout," he says. At the end of the session he'd repeat the commute in reverse.
The rising tide of California talent has spawned an exodus of sorts. "I'd say 60% of college teams have at least one California kid on their roster," says Jack Ferreira, the former Sharks and Ducks general manager who is now special assistant to Kings G.M. Dean Lombardi. Two seasons ago Western Michigan featured seven skaters from the Golden State, including defenseman Matt Tennyson, who this spring became the first player developed by the Jr. Sharks to take the ice for the real Sharks.
"I'd like to credit the Sharks and Ducks and Kings for the job they've done growing the sport," says Jim Fox, a former Kings forward who's now a TV analyst for the team, "but I know the real reason" hockey is flourishing on this edge of the country. "I was there," he says. "I lived it."
Wayne Gretzky, at 27, had led the Oilers to four Cups. He'd won the Hart Trophy eight straight times. Suddenly, at the peak of his powers, just 24 days after his marriage to Janet Jones—the closest Canada has ever come to a royal wedding—he was gone. Edmonton owner Peter Pocklington dealt him to then awful Los Angeles for two very good young players, forwards Jimmy Carson and Martin Gelinas, three first-round draft picks and $15 million. It was the trade that convulsed a continent.
Gretzky's most enduring legacy is not the four Cups he won or the extraterrestrial numbers he put up (10 scoring titles, 61 NHL scoring records) or even the arresting photographs of his carefree eldest daughter, born four months after the trade. His most enduring contribution is distilled by Hitchcock: "Gretz made it cool to come to the rink."
More significant than his goal scoring and playmaking was his missionary work, his understated evangelism for his sport. "If Wayne doesn't come to L.A.," posits former Kings G.M. Dave Taylor, a five-time All-Star who played six seasons with Gretzky in Los Angeles, "I don't think we'd have [teams] in Anaheim, or San Jose or Phoenix."
The man who made the trade that reshaped the NHL was Bruce McNall, a jolly, jowly felon who'd made his fortune, he claimed, collecting rare coins—some of which he later admitted to Vanity Fair that he had smuggled out of foreign countries. In the winter of 1988, with assets of uncertain provenance, he acquired majority ownership of the Kings. McNall would later serve four years in prison after pleading guilty to four counts of conspiracy and fraud, and admitting to having bilked various banks out of more than $200 million. Yet he retained the affection and loyalty of many of his former players, including Gretzky.
Los Angeles was a bastion of mediocrity in those pre-Gretzky days, and drew accordingly. "It was always the same five or six thousand people, every night," McNall recalls. "You knew them all by name, pretty much."
How to get attention in a crowded entertainment market if the team wasn't winning? "You get a star," McNall says. "And if you're going to get a star, you might as well not screw around."
Life got better right away for the Kings. "All of a sudden," says Fox, "everyone was treating us differently, and I mean everyone: the league, the referees, the media, the equipment suppliers." For eight years Fox had chafed in a helmet that didn't fit quite right. He'd badgered the company rep for a particular model, to no avail. "Wayne shows up, I get the helmet."
Upon retiring in 1990, Fox became L.A.'s director of community relations. His portfolio included youth hockey, suddenly very popular in SoCal. At the first hockey camp they worked, Fox and his wife had to help 70 or 80 youngsters get into their equipment, donated by the Kings. "They didn't know how to put it on," he recalls. "We literally had to dress them."
Similar confusion and excitement would soon take hold in the Bay Area. In their first two seasons, 1991--92 and '92--93, the Sharks were consigned to the ancient and malodorous Cow Palace in Daly City, best known for annually hosting the Grand National Rodeo. Both the venue and its new tenant stunk. In their second campaign San Jose redefined the term sophomore slump, losing 71 of 84 games. Most weren't close. "After taking a 1--0 lead over the Calgary Flames," reads one clipping from that season, "the Sharks lapsed briefly, yielding 13 goals."
And yet, by every measure other than its record, the team was a smashing success. Most Sharks games were sellouts. San Jose sold $150 million of teal-colored merchandise that season, more than any team in the NHL, by far. "With all the corporate support they had coming in," says Ferreira, who served as the team's first G.M., "you knew hockey was going to be a home run in that city."
The team hit its stride in Year 3. Coach George Kingston was replaced by Kevin Constantine, who guided his band of cast-offs and unproven youngsters into the playoffs. It helped immensely that the Sharks had by then moved into their gleaming new quarters, the 17,190-seat San Jose Arena (renamed the HP Pavilion in 2002), a.k.a. the Shark Tank. Somewhat surprisingly, given San Jose's reputation for politeness and high-tech geekery, the Tank turned out to be one of the loudest, most inhospitable pits in the league. To get to the ice from the visitors' dressing room, teams are forced to embark on a virtual pilgrimage. Red Wings coach Scotty Bowman in particular was vexed by the building's labyrinthine passages. Twice during Detroit's first-round playoff loss to the Sharks in 1994 he inadvertently locked himself in subterranean rooms, forcing him to pound on doors and call out for assistance, which explained the appearance of this sign held up by a fan at the Shark Tank:
IT'S SCOTTY BOWMAN!
San Jose's highly capable general manager from 1996--97 to 2002--03 was Dean Lombardi. The Sharks fired him for failing to get the team into the playoffs despite the fact that San Jose had improved its point total in each of the previous seven seasons.
His successor was Doug Wilson, a former Norris Trophy--winning defenseman with the Blackhawks, who brought a reputation for square dealing and a willingness to swing for the fences: In 2005, he sent three young players to the Bruins for center Joe Thornton. True, Thornton and the Sharks flamed out in the Western Conference finals in 2010 and '11. But, hey—at least they made it to the final four. By building a consistent winner, by dealing fairly with players, San Jose is known around the league as a great place to play. "You can't bulls--- a hockey player," says Wilson. "They talk to each other; they know the truth."
Wilson's compulsion to speak the truth cost the Sharks $100,000 over the weekend. After knocking Kings center Jarret Stoll out of L.A.'s 2--0 win in Game 1 with a violent hit, San Jose forward Raffi Torres was suspended for the balance of the series. Wilson argued that the check did not violate the NHL's hit-to-the-head rule and that his player was being punished for past behavior. The NHL's riposte: That'll be a hundred large for the "inappropriate nature of the comments." That bit of bad news was offset by the Sharks' 2--1 OT win in Game 3 last Saturday night.
There was center Logan Couture on the game-winner, cashing in a sweet feed from left wing Patrick Marleau, who had redirected a typically crafty, creative pass from Thornton, operating out of his office along the right boards. It's interesting to see Couture (21 goals, 37 points in the regular season), 24, and in just his third full year, starting to eclipse veterans Thornton (7, 40) and Marleau (17, 31) as San Jose's best player and primary alpha.
Perhaps that change will do the Sharks good. In addition to being the odd men out in their own state, where the Ducks and Kings have both won Cups, San Jose is generally considered the best team in today's NHL never to win it all.
But one of the benefits of operating in a nontraditional hockey market is that "there's a bit less pressure," says Robitaille, who notes that all three California teams "were allowed to rebuild the right way, through the draft."
"Maybe there's something to that," says Sharks coach Todd McLellan, 45, who points out that his five seasons behind the bench in San Jose make him the fifth-longest-tenured coach in the league, "even though I'm not a very old coach." We'll see how young he feels if this series goes seven games.
McLellan was a 20-year-old prospect in the Islanders' system in the summer of 1988, when the Gretzky trade went down. Nelson Riis, a member of Canada's parliament, had urged the government to block the trade. He was needled by citizens from both countries for declaring that Gretzky "is a national symbol, like the beaver."
Riis, it turns out, was less of a caricature than a Cassandra. In the near term the deal looked like a draw: The Kings got the best player in the history of hockey; the Oilers won another Cup. It's now clear that the trade set in motion a series of events that tipped the NHL's balance of power from one country to another. "It was fabulous for the game in the United States," says McLellan, "and California in particular."
From the NHL down to the squirts, the hockey boom in California is massive and irreversible. Players and coaches who come to the Golden State tend to stick around. They can check out any time they like, but they never leave.
It's the Zamboni-driven version of Manifest Destiny. Hockey in California is as hot as Paulina Gretzky's Instagram account.
Though the Sharks struggled on the ice, "With all the corporate support they had," Ferreira says, "you knew hockey would be a home run."
Photograph by ROBERT BECK/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
A ONCE AND FUTURE KING? This diminutive goaltender is guarding the crease at the Toyota Sports Center, home of the L.A. Jr. Kings youth hockey system, which produced four players—including two first-rounders—taken in the 2010 draft. Hockey participation in California has grown nearly five-fold since 1990.
BILL ROBBINS FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (GRETZKY AND JONES)
GREAT STATE ON SKATES Twenty-five years after Gretzky and Jones (left) came to L.A., all three California teams made the playoffs. In Round 2, the Kings and Robin Regehr (44) took an early lead on Brent Burns (88) and the Sharks.
ROBERT BECK/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (REGEHR AND BURNS)
[See caption above]
ROBERT BECK/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (JR. KINGS)
DUCK √Ä LA KINGS Anaheim's Etem (65), who was a first-round selection in 2010, came out of what is now the Kings' youth system, which flourishes today for girls and boys (below).
DEBORA ROBINSON/NHLI/GETTY IMAGES (ETEM)
[See caption above]