Saturday, May 17, 2008

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.

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.
A nice read. If you get a chance on your long weekend, sit down and work your way through this one.

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.

"Long Beach."

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.

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At 10:54 a.m., May 17, 2008, Blogger Lowetide said...

My theory is that these are all just the children of Roy Sommer.

At 11:04 a.m., May 17, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Speaking of Karmanos, a native (yep, native) of Raleigh NC who has been playing hockey in Raleigh since mini mites in 1996 was just drafted by the OHL.

At 3:18 p.m., May 17, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A few are going to make it, to be sure.
Well, then it must be worth it to yank 16-year-olds out of their parents' homes, plant them somewhere 2500 miles away, and entrust them to the care of guys like Graham James and the former coach of the Portland team who shares the same last name as a prominent cable company.

At 7:55 p.m., May 17, 2008, Blogger Lowetide said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 10:34 p.m., May 17, 2008, Blogger Kevin said...

"the former coach of the Portland team who shares the same last name as a prominent cable company."

What, there's actually a person named Comcast?

At 1:02 a.m., May 18, 2008, Blogger Hawerchuk said...

Hockey's a different beast in California - it's almost exclusively the province of rich families, which makes it all the more interesting that kids would ditch their education to play in the WHL.

There are some good players here, and almost every rink's hockey programs are managed by a former NHL star (Andre Lacroix at the rink I used to play at.)

But given that California high schools dominate the MLB draft and account for a very large percentage of NCAA football scholarships, there's just never going to be the focus on hockey that would result in a lot of pros.


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