That's a spot-on description of Etem, who starting at 14 worked out six days a week every summer with NHL vets, including Chris Chelios and Rob Blake. He would rise before 6 a.m., then begin a two-hour commute by Rollerblading four miles to the Long Beach Metro station. Two trains and a 40-minute bus ride later, he'd blade the final mile to the gym. "A little workout before my workout," he says. At the end of the session he'd repeat the commute in reverse.
The rising tide of California talent has spawned an exodus of sorts. "I'd say 60% of college teams have at least one California kid on their roster," says Jack Ferreira, the former Sharks and Ducks general manager who is now special assistant to Kings G.M. Dean Lombardi. Two seasons ago Western Michigan featured seven skaters from the Golden State, including defenseman Matt Tennyson, who this spring became the first player developed by the Jr. Sharks to take the ice for the real Sharks.
"I'd like to credit the Sharks and Ducks and Kings for the job they've done growing the sport," says Jim Fox, a former Kings forward who's now a TV analyst for the team, "but I know the real reason" hockey is flourishing on this edge of the country. "I was there," he says. "I lived it."
Wayne Gretzky, at 27, had led the Oilers to four Cups. He'd won the Hart Trophy eight straight times. Suddenly, at the peak of his powers, just 24 days after his marriage to Janet Jones—the closest Canada has ever come to a royal wedding—he was gone. Edmonton owner Peter Pocklington dealt him to then awful Los Angeles for two very good young players, forwards Jimmy Carson and Martin Gelinas, three first-round draft picks and $15 million. It was the trade that convulsed a continent.
Gretzky's most enduring legacy is not the four Cups he won or the extraterrestrial numbers he put up (10 scoring titles, 61 NHL scoring records) or even the arresting photographs of his carefree eldest daughter, born four months after the trade. His most enduring contribution is distilled by Hitchcock: "Gretz made it cool to come to the rink."
More significant than his goal scoring and playmaking was his missionary work, his understated evangelism for his sport. "If Wayne doesn't come to L.A.," posits former Kings G.M. Dave Taylor, a five-time All-Star who played six seasons with Gretzky in Los Angeles, "I don't think we'd have [teams] in Anaheim, or San Jose or Phoenix."
The man who made the trade that reshaped the NHL was Bruce McNall, a jolly, jowly felon who'd made his fortune, he claimed, collecting rare coins—some of which he later admitted to Vanity Fair that he had smuggled out of foreign countries. In the winter of 1988, with assets of uncertain provenance, he acquired majority ownership of the Kings. McNall would later serve four years in prison after pleading guilty to four counts of conspiracy and fraud, and admitting to having bilked various banks out of more than $200 million. Yet he retained the affection and loyalty of many of his former players, including Gretzky.
Los Angeles was a bastion of mediocrity in those pre-Gretzky days, and drew accordingly. "It was always the same five or six thousand people, every night," McNall recalls. "You knew them all by name, pretty much."
How to get attention in a crowded entertainment market if the team wasn't winning? "You get a star," McNall says. "And if you're going to get a star, you might as well not screw around."
Life got better right away for the Kings. "All of a sudden," says Fox, "everyone was treating us differently, and I mean everyone: the league, the referees, the media, the equipment suppliers." For eight years Fox had chafed in a helmet that didn't fit quite right. He'd badgered the company rep for a particular model, to no avail. "Wayne shows up, I get the helmet."