Robby Jackson grew his hair long and secretly hoped to lose his front teeth to emulate San Jose Sharks power forward Mike Ricci, the player he idolized while growing up in Northern California.
So, when the Alameda, Calif., native earned a 2015 invitation to participate in the Sharks’ developmental camp prior to his freshman season at St. Cloud State University and learned Ricci would be one of his instructors, Jackson felt like a little kid again. And he had to fight the urge to act like the 3-year-old version of himself who had photos taken with his heroes at a Sharks FanFest some 15 years earlier.
“It was kind of a weird feeling. I wasn’t intimidated at all by the first-round draft picks or top prospects I was playing against in camp, but I was star-struck when Mike Ricci and Bryan Marchment walked into the room,” said Jackson, who occasionally trains with San Jose players during the summer months.
“It’s so cool to see those guys you grew up idolizing, and it was pretty special to show them the pictures of me with them when I was really little. It’s still kind of surreal to share the same locker room with them and skate with them and, hopefully, one day compete for a job with them.”
Thanks in large part to the grassroots efforts of all three National Hockey League teams in California, more and more players like Jackson discover opportunities to fall in love with the sport each year. Not only has the California Amateur Hockey Association shown the highest growth among USA Hockey affiliates over the past five years, it produced Jackson and 18 others who played in the NCAA Division I hockey tournament last spring and eight others who made NHL rosters this season.
“California has always had kids who wanted to play hockey and who developed a passion for it. The difference is there are a lot more kids who want to play now because the NHL teams have made a greater effort at developing the sport. That and the success of all three teams has made a big difference,” said Los Angeles Kings president of business operations Luc Robitaille, who arrived in Los Angeles as a player in 1986 and spent 14 seasons over three different stints with the team.
“I’ve always believed in the market. If you have success, people will want to get involved. Did I think it would ever get as important and as big as it is now? Probably not. But it’s been great for hockey in California.”
The Anaheim Ducks, Kings and Sharks all have invested heavily in ice and inline facilities to support their own rapidly growing youth programs. All currently own and operate hockey facilities, and all have plans to either build or operate more to keep up with the growing demand.
“Since we’re in a non-traditional hockey market, we realized very early on that we had to be involved in the game at the grassroots level,” said Jon Gustafson, who operates the Sharks Ice Arenas and serves as a USA Hockey district director. “It’s a proven fact that, for every one person who plays hockey, you create three other passionate hockey fans within that family, so we knew we had to develop grassroots programs because those are our fan factories.
“At the end of the day, we are a hockey company, and it strategically aligns us to develop a fan base. But we also recognize that it’s not all about hockey, but also figure skating and other ice sports. There are a lot of great opportunities and, if you’re passionate about them, you can participate in them for the rest of your life.”
The NHL first ventured into California in 1967, when the Kings and California Seals joined four other teams in the largest expansion in pro sports history. But the real California hockey gold rush began on Aug. 9, 1988, when the Kings acquired Wayne Gretzky from the Edmonton Oilers and helped turn the franchise into a winner. The Kings reached the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in 1993.
“When Gretzky came, youth hockey just exploded,” said Tom Hancock, the president of the California Amateur Hockey Association. “We had hockey, but a lot of Californians at that point in time didn’t know a lot about the sport. The fanfare surrounding Gretzky and the fact it happened in L.A. -- Tinseltown, so to speak, with all the movie stars going to hockey games -- made it a real popular thing to put your kid into.”
Shortly after the turn of the century, those same kids started churning out USA Hockey National Championships. The LA Jr. Kings, LA Selects and California Wave all won age-level titles in the early 2000s.
“That really started to put California on the map,” said Oliver David, a 38-year-old Sherman Oaks native who served as an assistant on the Wave’s national title team and now works as an assistant coach for the WHL’s Portland Winterhawks.
“Now, you look at almost any roster in the WHL or the USHL or the NCAA and you’ll see kids with California roots or kids from other areas who decided to go to California specifically to play hockey.
“The population is so big and California has such a huge pool of athletes to draw from. As soon as there was a little buzz about hockey, a lot of those athletes decided to check it out and fell in love with it.”
Gretzky’s success in Los Angeles prompted further expansion into the Golden State. The Sharks became the NHL’s 22nd team in 1991, and, two years later, the Ducks joined the fold. And all three teams have won.
California teams have reached the Stanley Cup Final four times since 2007, when the Ducks won their first championship. The Kings claimed the Cup in 2012 and 2014, and the Sharks fell to Pittsburgh in the 2016 Final.
“Any time your NHL team wins, no matter if it’s Chicago or Pittsburgh or one of the California cities, it has an impact on your youth hockey numbers,” said Tim Howell, the fan development coordinator for the Sharks. “Fortunately, we’ve all been successful for several years and our communities have been very supportive.
“It’s the responsibility of the NHL club, in our eyes, to make sure we offer opportunities for those kids to try hockey and become life-long fans.”
The three California teams and their passionate fan bases don’t necessarily care for each other while competing within the NHL’s Pacific Division, and those rivalries trickle down to competition on the ice at the youth hockey levels. But, when it comes to growing the game as a whole, the Ducks, Kings and Sharks consider themselves teammates in a common cause.
“Some of the things the Ducks are doing are almost forcing us to do the same, and they’ve been great about working with us,” Robitaille said. “We shouldn’t be competing against each other off the ice, we should always work together, and we have a gentlemen’s agreement to do that. If we work together, it helps the game as a whole, and it’s going to help all of us over time.”
Recently, the Kings asked the Ducks for blueprints to their expanding high school hockey league.
“Absolutely we wanted to help,” said Aaron Teats, the vice president and chief marketing officer for the Ducks. “It’s great for all of us to have more kids playing hockey. Do we wish they were all wearing Ducks logos? Yes. But it’s about growing the sport, and it’s a tide that rises all boats.
“We’ll let the NHL players settle the rivalry on the ice, but we’ll do anything we can to help each other grow the sport.”
It’s not all about developing players. The Ducks introduced their Scholastic Curriculum of Recreation and Education program in 2005 to make a positive impact in local schools.
The program uses hockey themes to teach youngsters academic principles, encourage healthy and active living, reinforce the importance of positive character building and rewards youth for their dedication to the pursuit of academic excellence. The free program will touch 40,000 youngsters this school year.
“We’re a trusted brand, but the program is not being done with the selfish interests of selling you a ticket,” Teats said. “The goal is to cultivate healthy living and academic excellence, which makes a positive impact in the community.
“The department of education loves the program, and we certainly like the fact we’re exposing folks to the greatest sport in the world with a program that has our logo and the NHL shield attached to it.”
Jim Leitner is the sports editor at the Dubuque (Iowa) Telegraph Herald.
Long before USA Hockey put the American Development Model in place, a young Oliver David spent hours playing small-area games and developing creativity through puck touches and repetition.
Growing up in suburban Los Angeles in the 1980s, David hit the ice three or four times per week for structured practices and games. But he spent the bulk of his free time playing a slightly different, more open version of the game with his buddies on driveways, cul de sacs, tennis courts and roller rinks throughout Southern California.
“For decades, us crazy people in California have had rollerblades on our feet, trying to figure out ways to play hockey wherever we could. And it didn’t cost a lot of money,” said David, 38, now an assistant coach with the Portland Winterhawks.
"We could spend entire weekends at roller hockey tournaments that had a loose, fun environment. You could play a heck of a lot of hockey in a short amount of time, get a lot of touches and have fun with your buddies while competing aggressively. And, without even knowing it, you were developing a hockey sense that carried over to the ice.
“You can’t really talk about California ice hockey without paying respect to California roller hockey.”
The endless opportunities for street and roller hockey have led to a distinctly unique California style that has drawn the attention of the hockey establishment. Once considered as out of place at a hockey rink as surfboards, California-trained players are popping up on rosters at all levels, including the NHL.
“California hockey is definitely different; it’s more like a European style,” said Robby Jackson, an Alameda native who played for the LA Jr. Kings and now skates for St. Cloud State University.
“You’re seeing more and more skill guys coming out of California. They’re guys who are smooth skaters and puckhandlers and guys with great shots. And a lot of that you develop by playing roller hockey or you learn it from guys who play roller hockey.”
By skating 4-on-4 or 3-on-3 in roller or street hockey, players have more opportunities to handle the puck, but also must learn how to protect it while creating plays that lead to scoring chances. The openness of the game creates a need to learn gap control while defending.
Spend enough time competing against you friends, and you almost have to become creative to make something happen. And, instead of trying to harness that creativity, youth ice hockey coaches have learned to embrace it and further develop players who play both ice and inline.
“Due to the nice weather and opportunities to play a lot of sports, California programs are developing as athletes first, which falls in line with the ADM,” said Kevin Erlenbach, the director of membership development for USA Hockey.
“You produce an athlete first, then let them specialize. Thanks to California Amateur Hockey, the NHL clubs and the various clubs are providing them with opportunities to pursue hockey as their first choice.”