Hockey's sunbelt players
These Sunbelt kids are part of a new wave, rising up from the bottom left corner of the continental United States, and infiltrating major junior hockey west of Ontario. They are taking a traditionally Canadian route to the NHL, skating beside tractor-strong Prairie boys and riding buses through the B.C. Interior.A nice read. If you get a chance on your long weekend, sit down and work your way through this one.
The number of U.S. players in the WHL has doubled over the past five years, and the Sunbelt kids are behind that spike. They cut their teeth in Wayne Gretzky's haunts, amid retired hockey professionals, with elite travelling clubs modelled after the Detroit-area youth programs founded by NHL owners such as the Mike Ilitch of the Detroit Red Wings and Peter Karmanos of the Carolina Hurricanes.
The arrival of Californians in the NHL has been slow to come, but it is on its way. Seven players who played a game in the league this past season were born in the state, including Ryan Hollweg, Brett Sterling, Scott Parker and Brooks Orpik (who grew up in western New York).
The WHL, however, has been going to the south for players for a while now. I'll never forget when, back in 2003 in Kamloops, when the Blazers put a smooth-skating 16-year-old defencemen on the ice for six games.
Unlike most kids that age in a league full of 19- and 20-year-olds, he stood out for his raw skills. The 'hockey sense' part of his game wasn't quite there.
I asked a friend where the newcomer was from.
Ray Macias, who grew up a speed skater, went on to become a dominant offensive player in the 'dub, with 30 goals and 70 points in his final season. As a fourth-round pick by the Avalanche in 2005, he's since caught on with Lake Erie in the AHL, where he played 42 games last season.
Now 21, he'll play in the NHL at some point.
Sekeres gets into all of the how and the why, but for those who are extra curious, the film In The Crease offered a great take on minor hockey in California, one that featured Spokane's Mitch Wahl before he hit the big time. That Wave team in the movie also featured at least one player named Wayne, a direct link between Gretzky's arrival in Los Angeles and the rise of players from the region.
It's incredible how far these kids are willing to go to play junior hockey, forfeiting their NCAA eligibility and chasing an unlikely NHL dream through the backwoods of, well, places like Kamloops.
A few are going to make it, to be sure.