Max Kilkuts can remember the early days of the Santa Margarita Catholic High School hockey program.
It was four years ago, and the team was made up of eight players who attended the school along with a collection of club players. And the hockey wasn’t that good.
“I came out, and I was kind of taken aback,” Kilkuts said. “There were people that couldn’t skate.”
Four short years later, thanks in large part to the guiding hand of NHL veteran and U.S. Olympian Craig Johnson, Santa Margarita is a national champion.
Kilkuts was the lone remaining player from that first season at Santa Margarita, and it was his goal in overtime that gave the Eagles a 4-3 victory in the 2013 Toyota-USA Hockey Boys’ Varsity High School Championships title game against defending champion Regis Jesuit of Colorado.
“It’s special for these kids, for our seniors, the players that have been there,” Johnson said after the final at the Saveology.com Iceplex, the Florida Panthers’ practice facility in Coral Springs, Fla.
“Max Kilkuts has been with us since the start of the program and for him to stick with our program all these years and to get the end result that he did, it couldn’t have been written any better for him and for us.
“The kids worked hard all year," Johnson added. "They bought into what we were doing. They put in a lot of time, put in a lot of effort and now they’re rewarded for it. It’s something that can never be taken away from them. They’ll always be national champions.”
Santa Margarita actually was a national power before winning the title. This was the school’s third consecutive appearance at Nationals.
Yet somehow they still have their doubters merely because they hail from a non-traditional hockey area.
“I think California kids get a bad rap, in general,” Johnson said. “People look at it as a surfer state. You hear that said to the kids a lot, they’re surfers. Or ‘California soft’ comes out a lot. But the kids are getting tougher and they’re getting a little more grit to them. And they’re good hockey players.
“They’re no different than the kids from Minnesota," he added. "The only difference is when you leave the rink, it’s usually 70 degrees and sunny where a player in Minnesota leaves the rink, it might be 10 below. But their love of the game, their passion for the game, it’s no different.”
Johnson himself is a native of St. Paul, Minn., and he played at the state school before embarking on an NHL career that started in St. Louis and ended in Washington. But the bulk of it was spent with the Los Angeles Kings after being one of three players, along with two draft picks, sent from St. Louis in exchange for none other than Wayne Gretzky.
It was during those seven-plus seasons with the Kings that Johnson met his wife and his three sons were born.
Johnson first got into coaching when his youngest son played in the Mite division, and he later was approached by former Anaheim Ducks general manager Brian Burke and Art Trottier, the director of the Ducks High School Hockey League, to start the Santa Margarita program.
“They’re no different than the kids from Minnesota. The only difference is when you leave the rink, it’s usually 70 degrees and sunny where a player in Minnesota leaves
Santa Margarita began one year after a sole program, JSerra, made up the league. It has now grown to 14 teams, including two varsity divisions and one junior varsity group.
And after having only eight players from the school on his original team, Johnson had in excess of 40 this season with the varsity and JV teams.
“It’s grown pretty big,” said senior captain Branden Vara. “I think it’s just through the success of our team. We hype it up at school, and all the guys want to come play because they see the team atmosphere that we have.”
Not surprisingly, Santa Margarita has dominated play in Southern California. The Eagles went undefeated in league play each of the last two seasons. This season they recorded the hat trick of league champion, California Amateur Hockey Association High School state champion and national champion.
“That’s a good team,” said Regis Jesuit head coach Dan Woodley. “It moves the puck around beautifully.”
For Vara and Kilkuts, winning the national championship provided the perfect way to cap off their high school careers. They’re among four seniors who will be leaving the school, but there’s still plenty of talent around for next year, including the two sons of NHL legend Teemu Selanne, Eemil and Eetu, along with their cousin Tatu Hiltunen.
“We have a first-class school, so people come here for the academics,” Kilkuts said. “On top of it, we have Craig Johnson. He’s the best coach I’ve ever had. I’ve been playing with him for five years. and he never ceases to amaze me.
“I think we surprise every team every time we come out here. Everyone thinks we’re a California team. We came out for the first game against Texas and I was talking to one of the kids on the team, and he was saying, ‘You guys really surprised us, you came out hard, we weren’t expecting that at all.’ It’s crazy to think that this new of a program can come out and compete like this.”