When the Detroit Red Wings played (and lost to) the San Jose Sharks in the 2010 Stanley Cup playoffs, Hockeytown was appalled. How could a team from Michigan, a winter wonderland where there’s ice and snow all the way into the month of April, be beaten by a team from California, a place where some people live their whole lives without seeing a single fluffy white flake?
“They don’t even have real ice there. The kind on sidewalks in the winter, you know?” One Red Wings fan grumbled.
“What kind of hockey team is from Califorrrrrrniaaaaaa?” Another whined.
Little do they know, hockey is starting a revolution in the Golden State.
A look at the list of home states from this year’s draft reveals that eight expected draft picks called California home, as opposed to last year’s three. Emerson Etem, who went 29th overall to the Anaheim Ducks and Beau Bennett, a first-round pick for the Penguins, are proof that California hockey players are no joke. “California is producing some really high-end players,” a Los Angeles-based agent said of this recent trend.
But why now?
Rewind to 1977, when Chris Chelios first started calling Southern California home. He spent the greater part of his formative athletic years there, working out and training until he was good enough to get drafted, play for University of Wisconsin, and eventually play in the NHL. He never played for a California team, but has remained close to the state ever since.
And then there’s Wayne Gretzky, and the trade in 1988 that brought him to the Los Angeles Kings, brought the Kings to the Stanley Cup Finals, and, essentially, brought hockey to California. During his tenure with the Kings, ticket sales rose, Californians became hockey fans, and other hockey franchises made their home in California (the Ducks and the Sharks both started up during Gretzky’s time with Los Angeles).
Luc Robitaille has a similar story, going to the Kings in 1986, helping take them to the playoffs, breaking franchise goal records, and retiring to standing ovations in two different California arenas.
Nowadays, Robitaille and Gretzky are finished playing professional hockey entirely, but neither of them have severed their ties with their state. Robitaille is in charge of Business Operations with the Kings. Gretzky is frequently cited as the man who brought hockey to California and serves as the face of the sport, with his time as a King being discussed most prominently. Chelios has a home in California and trains during the offseason with T.R. Goodman at ProCamp Sports, a facility in Venice Beach (something ESPN finds pretty fascinating). They’ve all found a way to stay connected to the state that got them their starts.
Even after the Chelios-Gretzky-Robitaille eras, the hockey revolution in California is still young, but players wishing to be a part of it early have some amazing pioneers to look up to—and live up to. And that is what has started an entirely new breed of legend: the born, raised, trained, and now professional California hockey player named Emerson Etem.
After falling from the Top Ten to the 29th pick overall in the draft on Friday, there was no doubt he was a little nervous, sitting there waiting for his name to be called. He was just meant for a California team, because his selection by the Ducks was met with a huge roar from the crowd. Hometown boy goes to hometown club. “I’m so excited,” he said in an interview for Ducks TV, “I can’t wait to give back to California Hockey.” How many eighteen year old boys do you know who care a bit about “giving back?” He said that being a California player and joining a California team was a great opportunity for “growing the game of hockey in California.”
He may not completely realize it yet, but he has a leg-up on the legends he looked up to for so long. Where Chelios grew up in California but left to play hockey and Gretzky and Robitaille ended up in California by chance, Etem is 100 percent California and will now be playing there, which turns him into an even more powerful spokesperson for hockey in his home state. Years from now, after what will hopefully be successful (and long) career with Anaheim, in one of those “giving back to California Hockey”-type speeches we all know he’s going to make, he can say, “look, kids. You can grow up in California, train hard in California, then actually play in California.”
So save your breath if you’re planning on whining about “hockey teams from Califorrrrrnniaaaaaaa,” again. Because they’re only going to get better, especially if Emerson Etem has anything to say about it.
Read more from me on my blog, Embellishment!