The sport of hockey is not synonymous with warm weather and sunshine. However, no one region has had more of a growth in the sport over the last decade than the state of California.
For the three professional NHL hockey clubs (San Jose Sharks, Los Angeles Kings, and the Anaheim Ducks) the proof is in the hardware.
Three Stanley Cups trophies, three Western Conference championship trophies, one President’s trophy, and eight regular season conference championships, all within the last ten years. Throw in last year’s Stadium Series game between the Ducks and Kings, and this year’s Stadium Series game between the Sharks and Kings, and one could argue that the California teams have really taken center stage in the world of professional hockey.
However those familiar with hockey in California will also tell you that there has been a tremendous growth in the “grass roots” ice hockey programs. And yes I did say ICE hockey.
In Orange County, the Anaheim Ducks High School hockey league was established in 2008 with only one high school program. As of this year, the ADHSHL has 41 high school hockey teams participating in its 2014-2015 season, including teams from Phoenix, Arizona, Colorado Springs, Colorado, and Hamilton, Ontario, Canada.
Just a few miles down the freeway, The LA Kings Jr. Hockey program has been a SoCal youth hockey factory since the early 1990’s. From PeeWee to the Midget level, the Jr. Kings program has developed some of Southern California’s brightest stars such as NHL players Bobby Ryan, Emerson Etem, and Beau Bennett.
Not to be outdone, the San Jose Jr. Sharks program has established itself as the elite Northern California development program for kids and young adults. Just recently the program was named a “USA Hockey Model Association Program” from USA Hockey, sharing this honor with only eight other junior hockey programs around the country.
Growing up in Southern California, I have witnessed the growth and popularity rise first hand. Gone are the days of the bandwagon hockey fans that only supported a team during the post season. The local fan bases for the Ducks, Sharks, and Kings are now rabid year around. Ducks and Kings bumper stickers populate the roadways as much as any other local sports team.
I’ve been to local bars where patrons have been in heated arguments over why “their” hockey team is better than the other. Local sports radio/television talk shows now cover hockey news and information on a daily basis. It’s safe to say that ten years ago not one of these was apparent in the California sports culture.
Between the fans there is a respect for each club and the for love of hockey. But don’t be mistaken there is strong hate between the three rival fan bases. The hatred level has been raised over the past couple years as all three teams have faced off against each other in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. And with the re-aligned division and playoff structure the stage is set for more grueling and historic series between the three. The result should be a stronger emotional bond and love for hockey in California .
Although we Californians as a whole might not quite yet match up to the “traditional marketplaces” when it comes to a passion and history of hockey, hockey fans worldwide should understand that the sport has made it here in California.