California is the most populated state in America and has a rich history of sports. From the 17-time NBA champion LA Lakers to the nine-time World Series-winning Oakland Athletics, California has a near-unrivaled sports pedigree.
Athletes who are from California include golfing legend Tiger Woods; Mark Spitz, a swimmer who won nine Olympic gold medals; Tom Brady, the greatest football quarterback of all time; and two baseball legends, MLB Hall of Famers Joe Dimaggio and Ted Williams.
California’s hockey history is not nearly as rich as its overall sports history. However, numerous successful NHL players hail from California. In this article, we will explore the starting lineup for an all-California hockey team.
Center: Auston Matthews (Active From 2016 – Present)
Matthews is an Arizonan at heart, having grown up in the “Grand Canyon State”, but he was born in San Ramon, CA. He and his family moved to Arizona when he was two years old.
The Toronto Maple Leafs’ star is the cream of the crop of California-born hockey players. He is already California’s all-time leader in points and goals, while ranking third in assists. Matthews’ biggest asset is his sensational goal-scoring ability. In 316 games played, he has netted a whopping 182 goals. Of these goals, 137 have come at even-strength, which has caused him to sit first all-time in even-strength goals per 60 minutes played (ESG/60).
Although the statistic of average time on ice (TOI) only began being tracked in the 2005-06 season (From ‘Ice Time: The Means to Judge Production’, The New York Times 12/24/06) it is impressive that Matthews bests Alex Ovechkin in this stat, as he is arguably the greatest goal-scorer of all-time.
Additionally, Matthews possesses good play-making ability. In his 316 games played, he has racked up 145 assists. His career goals and assists totals combine for 327 points, placing his career points per game average career at just over a point per game (1.03). Overall, Matthews is certainly Team California’s most skilled player.
Left Wing: Jason Zucker (Active From 2012 – Present)
Hailing from Newport Beach, CA, 29-year-old Zucker is the best winger to come from the state. His 143 career goals rank second among California-born players and his 120 assists rank fourth (his assists are second among California-born forwards). Overall, his 263 points are second only behind Matthews in points by a California born-player.
Zucker has spent most of his NHL tenure skating in “The State of Hockey”, Minnesota. In nine seasons with the Wild, he gathered 243 points, which is 93% of his career totals. He was traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2019-20, where he has played in 34 games and posted 20 points.
Zucker is the only player on Team California to have won an individual award, as he won the King Clancy Award in 2018-19. This is awarded to the player whom:
“Exemplifies leadership qualities on and off the ice and has made a noteworthy humanitarian contribution in his community”NHL
Zucker has represented the United States in four international tournaments, twice in the U-20 World Junior Championships and twice in the U-18 World Junior Championships. He brings leadership, a scoring touch, and tons of experience playing in a top-six role to the all-time California-born roster.
Right Wing: Matthew Nieto (Active From 2013 – Present)
Perhaps the most well-recognized California-born hockey player is Nieto. His California roots are well documented, as he earned the nickname “Long Beach Native Matt Nieto” while playing for the San Jose Sharks and becoming a fan favorite. This nickname carried over to his time with the Colorado Avalanche and since returning to the Sharks this season, the legend of the “Long Beach Native” has continued.
Throughout Nieto’s eight-season NHL career, he has typically played the role of a bottom-six forward. His career average TOI is 14:13 and he’s only averaged over 15 minutes of TOI in one season. In 500 career games played, he has produced a respectable 158 points, which ranks third among California-born forwards. Not too shabby, but nothing spectacular.
His defensive play is similar to his offensive play, as it is good, but not great. During his career, he has: blocked 274 shots; thrown 243 hits; and has a takeaway-to-giveaway ratio of 166-155. Nieto is probably Team California’s weakest forward; he’s never really been relied on as a top-six forward as Matthews and Zucker have, but he is a solid NHL player.
Defense: Brooks Orpik (Active From 2003 – 2019)
A two-time Stanley Cup Champion, an NCAA champion, a two-time Olympian, and a winner of a Silver Medal at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, Orpik has the most accomplished resumé of any California-born player.
Orpik had a 16-year NHL career, playing for Pittsburgh before heading to the capital of the United States, Washington, D.C. Known for his defensive prowess, he ranks eighth in all-time blocked shots and fifth in all-time hits (both statistics began being tracked in 2005-06). Furthermore, his 2,946 hits rank first among defencemen.
Orpik didn’t provide much goal-scoring or offense during his career which spanned 1,035 games, as he only scored 18 goals and added 176 assists. However, the immense skill he showed defensively throughout his career makes him one of Team California’s most important pieces.
Defense: Lee Norwood (Active From 1980 -1994)
Nicknamed “Hack” due to his style of play, which was hard-hitting, sometimes dirty, and filled with frequent fights, journeyman blueliner Lee Norwood is a great complement for Orpik. Throughout his 13 season career, Norwood played for a multitude of teams, including the Quebec Nordiques, Capitals, Hartford Whalers, New Jersey Devils, Calgary Flames, and two separate stints with St. Louis Blues.
Born in Oakland, CA, but raised in Trenton, MI, Norwood grew up a Detroit Red Wings fan. He frequently watched Red Wings games at Joe Louis Arena, where he idolized players such as Ron Harris, Gary Bergman and Gordie Howe. He got to live out his childhood dream, spending much of his career with the Red Wings. During his tenure with Detroit, he played first pairing minutes, earning the nickname “Hack.” Alongside legendary enforcer Bob Probert, he helped make Detroit a team to be feared during the ’80s.
Norwood wasn’t just a goon, as he provided value defensively and offensively. In 503 career NHL games, he posted a stat-line of 58 goals and 153 assists for 211 career points. At one point during his time with Detroit, Norwood went 17 consecutive games without being on the ice for an even-strength goal against, despite being a top-pairing defenceman, highlighting his defensive ability.
Norwood helped Detroit capture two consecutive division titles and semi-finals appearances. Norwood took a sabbatical from the NHL during the 1984-85 season. Skating in the IHL with the Peoria Riverman, he won the Governor’s Trophy, for being the IHL’s most outstanding defenseman.
Goaltender: Thatcher Demko (Active From 2018 – Present)
One of three California-born goalies to skate in the NHL, Vancouver Canucks goaltending sensation Demko is already the best goalie hailing from California. Despite only having 62 regular-season games under his belt, he is already the top goalie in multiple statistics.
Demko’s 62 games played ranks first among California-born goalies. His career save percentage (SV%) of .911 ranks first by a wide margin over Collin Delia’s .902 SV% and John Blue’s .890 SV%. Demko has the lowest goals-against average among California-born goalies, as he only allows 2.92 goals against per game. His 30 career wins also rank first, and quite a few more than Blue’s 16, who ranks second in this category. Demko and Blue are tied for first with one shutout apiece among California goalies.
Demko’s outstanding play this season has led to him being pegged a potential Vezina Trophy contender, neither of the other California-born goalies had a season where the same was said about them. Overall, Demko is already the best goalie to come from California and he will further cement that throughout his career.
California does not have a history of great NH players. On the California-born team, two of the players (Matthews and Norwood) didn’t grow up in California and never even played minor hockey in “The Golden State”. Regardless, a positive sign for California is that most of these players are current NHL players. This indicates that the game of hockey has been growing within the state in recent years. Wayne Gretzky’s arrival in LA sparked a new era of California hockey, and within just five years of him being traded to the Los Angeles Kings, both San Jose and Anaheim had gained NHL teams.
Hockey is growing in popularity in California, and young stars like Matthews and Demko should lead a golden age of California-born players.
Stats Per: QuantHockey
I am a lifelong hockey fan who will be covering the Los Angeles Kings and Vancouver Canucks here at The Hockey Writers. Before joining The Hockey Writers I spent two years blogging about hockey.
Feel free to follow my Twitter @TheRoyalQuinn or on Insta @thw_quinn for updates on when my newest articles are published.