The NHL's roots in California date all the way back to its first major expansion in 1967, when the league doubled in size from six teams to 12. Joining Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, St. Louis and Minnesota as new additions were the Los Angeles Kings and Oakland Seals (re-named the California Golden Seals after two seasons).
The Seals were by far, to put it mildly, the least successful of the two west coast franchises, playing just nine seasons in California with only two postseason appearances. Overall, the team won just 182 of its 698 regular season games. Following the 1976 season, the franchise moved to Cleveland (and was re-named the Barons) where it played two seasons before merging with the fledgling Minnesota North Stars (which, of course, later moved to Dallas).
The Kings, on the other hand, have been a bit more successful, qualifying for the playoffs 24 times in 42 years, even becoming the first California-based team to play for the Cup when they advanced to the '93 Cup Final. It happened in large part because of one of the biggest trades in NHL history, when in August 1988 the Kings acquired Wayne Gretzky from the Edmonton Oilers for Jimmy Carson, Martin Gelinas and a truckload of first-round draft picks. While it never helped bring the Stanley Cup to Los Angeles -- the Kings lost the '93 Finals to Montreal in five games -- and even though it's been 13 years since Gretzky last suited up for the Kings, it's a move that is still paying off for hockey in California.
Since 1988, the NHL has added two more California teams: San Jose in 1991 and Anaheim in 1993. The additions have had their share of critics for any number of reasons (for example: the league over-expanded, diluting the talent pool, in places where hockey can't succeed because there's not enough interest). Those criticisms will continue to be a topic of debate for hockey purists and outsiders, but there's no denying the westward expansions, as well as Gretzky's presence in California, have had an impact not just for California, but USA hockey in general.
As soon as Gretzky arrived in Los Angeles, Kings games became a destination and a hot ticket. Instantly selling out the Great Western Forum, the franchise saw financial boons in ways it had never seen, while also opening numerous new avenues in terms of marketing and merchandising (as outlined in this 1989 "Sports Illustrated" article, talking about the trade and its impact).
It also helped spark an entirely new generation of hockey players who are finally starting to surface as NHL prospects. As it stands, heading into this season, there have been just 24 California-born players to play in the NHL. That number could soon be on the rise.
At the 2010 NHL draft, which was held in Los Angeles, there were four California-based players selected, including two in the first round -- Beau Bennett, selected 20th overall by the Pittsburgh Penguins, and Emerson Etem, selected 29th overall by the Anaheim Ducks. In all, there have been 27 selected since 2001, including 13 over the past four years alone.
Bennett's selection represented the highest pick of a California-trained player in the history of the NHL draft.
Eustace King, a player agent and managing partner (and former college hockey player at Miami [Ohio]) from the California-based O2K sports agency that represents both players, spoke with FanHouse earlier this summer about the emerging talent coming out of California.
"The LA junior teams and the LA Selects Hockey Clubs are producing some really high-end players," said King. "I don't know if a lot of people noticed because they were going to college and weren't getting drafted, but at the end of the day, in our group alone we've had Emerson Etem and Beau Bennett, who were first-round picks. On top of that, we have Shane Harper, who played for the Everrett Silvertips (of the WHL) and broke their record for most points and goals in team history, and he signed with the Philadelphia Flyers. The impact of Gretzky has been tremendous, and if you look at the birth dates, the kids that are coming out and signing contracts are from 1989 or later."
Etem being selected by the Ducks and kept in-state could be perfect for making a positive impact when it comes to local hockey. And as King pointed out, there's another factor that could be beneficial for potential interest in the game.
"His impact could be two-fold," said King. "For one, with his ability and being a southern California kid, that's obviously one, but also because he's a minority. He's going to have an impact with kids watching him and maybe they say, you know what, here's a kid we can identify with and he's right in our backyard. He alone could help kids that might not have decided to play hockey to make the choice to say, you now what, this is interesting and there's someone I can look up to and decide to become a part of the hockey community."
And as King pointed out, Etem is a great example of how such an impact can be made, learning about the history of Willie O'Ree and how he spent many years playing for the Los Angeles Blades and San Diego Gulls after becoming the first black player in NHL history during the 1957-58 season as a member of the Boston Bruins.
"It's happened all over the place," he said. "You look at what Willie O'Ree did. He played in Southern California for the San Diego Gulls. At the end of the day Willie was a pioneer for hockey, not only because he was the first black player, but geographically he was as well due to where he finished his career. Emerson's parents knew all about Willie, and they did their research on him and brought Emerson along and said hey, this guy already paved the path for what Emerson wanted to do."
Of course, one of the biggest things that will always hold hockey back as a youth sport is the significant financial investment required to play. It's not only more expensive than football, basketball, baseball and soccer, it's also not funded by many high schools (it's usually a club sport in most areas). One of the ways Etem, Bennett and many of the California players got around that was by playing roller hockey.
"The biggest barrier for entrance to hockey is the cost of the sport," said King. "Roller hockey made it accessible to a lot more kids. Emerson started as a roller hockey player, Beau did as well, a lot of the California kids did. And then they moved over to the ice surface. Even to this day, Beau Bennett stills plays roller hockey. But at the same time, first and foremost, hockey is what they wanted to evolve at on the ice, but a lot of these kids were able to really develop their stick skills and hand skills because of playing on a smaller surface, and they were able to take what they learned from the in-line game and transfer it to the ice.
"I don't think they're identical games," he added. "They're a little bit different, but there are some skills you can transfer to both on the ice and off the ice."