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The stakes are higher, the facial hair thicker, the play is chippier. It's that time of year.
"There's a definite spike in intensity on the ice," agrees Tyler Shaffar. "You see more guys blocking shots, more pushing and shoving after the whistle, more game misconducts for fighting."
He was referring not to the Western Conference semifinal between the Kings and the Sharks, but to the spirited amateur action on four rinks at Sharks Ice in San Jose. Shaffar presides over the largest adult hockey league in the country: some 5,000 skaters on 165 teams ranging from A level (hotshots who've played Division I, or in the minor leagues, according to Shaffar) to EEEE ("They literally just completed our hockey class," he says). Nearly as entertaining as the play on the ice is the list of team names, ranging from the Hogwartian (Hufflepuff) to the hero-worshipping (Honey Nut Chelios) to the priapic (Peter North Stars, who put the adult in adult league hockey).
Underfoot at this velodrome-sized facility, lugging equipment bags into which many of them could comfortably fit, are members of the Jr. Sharks—a score of traveling club teams for boys and girls, ages eight to 18, sponsored by their NHL parent. It's a noble act on the part of the Sharks, underwriting these youth league teams, but San Jose does have a smidgen of self-interest in the venture. By growing the game at a grassroots level, the Sharks are also minting fans for life.
Since the NHL planted the team in San Jose 22 years ago, this high-tech hub has morphed into a kind of Hockeytown 2.0. That evolution is part of a larger trend now animating the NHL, a Zamboni-driven version of Manifest Destiny. It's true that the league's Sun-Belt expansion has yielded mixed results: The Coyotes are in receivership; the Thrashers bailed on Atlanta last season, resettling in Winnipeg, pucks having proved a poor mix with peaches. Hockey in California, however, is almost as hot as Paulina Gretzky's Instagram account. All three Golden State teams made this season's playoffs. The Sharks are in their ninth straight postseason, the NHL's second-longest streak, and have played in two of the last three Western Conference finals. The Kings, of course, are defending Stanley Cup champs; the Ducks won it all in 2007. It's a sensitive subject in Canada, where no team has won a Cup since 1993. California clubs, meanwhile, have taken two of the last six.
By bouncing Anaheim in the first round, the Red Wings spoiled what would have been the first Freeway Face-off between the Ducks and L.A. Scoring Anaheim's opening goal in its 3--2 Game 7 loss to Detroit was rocket-fueled rookie Emerson Etem, a winger who got his start in the sport playing roller hockey in his hometown of Long Beach. Etem honed his speed and cultivated his unorthodox crouched skating style, by Rollerblading uphill.
Etem and fellow Californian Beau Bennett, now a rookie winger for the Penguins, were both taken in the first round of the 2010 NHL draft, in which a total of four Cali kids were selected—all of them products of what is now the Los Angeles Jr. Kings Hockey Club. They are the vanguard of a large, and growing, column of homegrown talent, cultivated in youth hockey programs that have exploded in number over the last decade.
What all the state's franchises have in common, says Blues coach Ken Hitchcock, whose team was dismissed in six games by the Kings in Round 1, is that each "has invested heavily in the sport" by sponsoring youth and minor league hockey. (Anaheim, for example, has poured $12 million into its youth program since 2007.) "When you watch national championship games—bantams, peewees, midgets—the teams from California, especially Southern California, are always at the top of the heap."
That's due in large part to a glut of overqualified coaches in the area. Turns out that when they get to the end of their NHL careers, some players are in no rush to return to Canada. "We've got 12 former NHL players coaching in our organization," says Kelly Sorenson, executive director of the Los Angeles Jr. Kings Hockey Club. Since 2002, boys teams from L.A. have appeared in 10 U.S. championship games (from peewee to midget), winning four. In February the Jr. Kings' 12-year-old team won a world title at the Quebec international peewee tournament.
Few sports are more expensive and less convenient than hockey. "If a kid in California wants to play hockey, he must really want to play hockey," says Luc Robitaille, the Kings' alltime leading goal scorer and now the club's president of business operations. "He must be very passionate and willing to work harder than most kids."