Hockey continues to heat up in California
Matthew Roberson | Sports Editor | The USD Vista | @mroberson22
The autumn and winter months in San Diego carry a distinctly different feeling than they do in other regions of the country. Look out the window here and your gaze is fixed on sunshine and scenic ocean views. Nearly every other state is bracing itself for a time of heavy rain or brutally low temperatures. However, there is one thing about this time of year that unites people throughout North America, and that is the return of hockey.
A cold, physical sport played indoors on a giant sheet of ice wouldn’t seem to be especially compatible with the California lifestyle. But since the turn of the 21st century the National Hockey League has seen a westward shift of power. The three NHL teams that play in California have combined to win three Stanley Cups in the last nine years, and each member of the trio has qualified for the playoffs in four of the last five seasons.
Since the start of this decade the Los Angeles Kings have been one of the most successful teams in all of the four major sports. Their two championships were huge reasons why Californians’ interest in the sport has blossomed, in addition to the Anaheim Ducks’ memorable Cup-winning season of 2007. When the two Southern California teams met in the playoffs after the 2014 season, USA Today reported that the number of youth teams in the Ducks-affiliated youth leagues nearly doubled.
Chris King, president of University of San Diego’s Roller Hockey Club, hopes that the sport’s increase in popularity will sustain itself. King grew up in the Bay Area playing roller hockey with his brother. He knows what it will take for more California natives to catch hockey fever.
“In order for hockey to reach the same popularity as football or basketball, all three NHL teams in California must remain competitive and will need to bring home more Stanley Cup championships,” King said. “ Fans don’t want to pay to watch teams lose and because of that, NHL teams in California cannot afford lengthy struggles without losing money and potentially being forced to relocate.”
While the Kings and Ducks have each earned elusive championship rings in recent years, their rival up north has still yet to drink from the Stanley Cup. In the 24 seasons the San Jose Sharks have played since joining the NHL, they have never appeared in the Stanley Cup Finals. However, this is not a result of inability to reach the playoffs. Every spring from 2004 to 2014 featured postseason hockey in San Jose. Unfortunately the men in teal have advanced only as far as the Western Conference Finals, and have suffered playoff defeats at the hands of both Los Angeles and Anaheim.
All three of the Golden State teams look poised for promising seasons in 2015-16. Fresh off one of their best seasons in franchise history, the Ducks executed a trade with the New York Rangers for Carl Hagelin, whose speed and playmaking abilities should form a solid pairing with center Ryan Getzlaf. As has been the case recently, goaltending looks to be the team’s biggest question mark. Anaheim heads into the season with Frederik Andersen as their starter between the pipes. If he struggles, look for the Ducks to call up 22 year-old John Gibson from their minor league team here in San Diego.
Two hours up the interstate, the Kings are trying to pick up the pieces from a disappointing 2014-15 campaign that saw the budding dynasty miss out on the playoffs altogether. Rather than blowing up the team’s infrastructure, the Kings’ front office opted to keep the core of the team intact. All-world forward Anze Kopitar, defensive wizard Drew Doughty, and rock solid goaltender Jonathan Quick are still donning the black and silver Los Angeles sweaters. They will be joined by new additions Milan Lucic and Christian Ehrhoff, two players that have each played in over 70 playoff games and skated in the Stanley Cup Final during their careers. With the sheer amount of talent on the squad, and the presumptive drive and dedication that will come from missing the playoffs, expect the Kings to bounce back nicely this year.
Finally, there are the Sharks. They made quite a splash in the offseason by firing longtime head coach Todd McClellan. Usually firing a team’s most winningest head coach of all time is a curious decision, but the move makes more sense when looking at the Sharks’ recent downward trend. In May of 2011 the team appeared in its second straight Western Conference Final. After losing that series to the Vancouver Canucks the organization’s tailspin began. In the four seasons since that crushing defeat the Sharks have lost twice in the first round of the playoffs, one of which came against the Kings after holding a 3-0 lead in the series. The other two seasons were last year’s failure to make the playoffs, and a loss to the Kings in the second round of the 2013 dance.
This season marks the 25th anniversary of the Sharks’ entry into the NHL. Their roster includes a handful of key contributors who were not even born when the franchise was created. Tomas Hertl, a 21 year-old center, returns for his third season in the Bay Area. His linemate Matt Nieto is all of 22 years old and grew up in Long Beach, CA. These two will be the offensive anchors of the team’s third line, a unit that will be vital in supporting the veteran-laded top lines led by future Hall of Famers Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau. The Sharks also acquired goaltender Martin Jones from Los Angeles this summer. Jones was a grizzled 21 months-old when the Sharks won their first game in the NHL. After serving as Jonathan Quick’s backup for the early years of his career, Jones will be tasked with the enormous job of becoming a starting goalie in the NHL for the first time while simultaneously trying to get his new team back to the playoffs.
King is a poster child for the generation of children born in California during 1990s who took a major interest to slapshots and glove saves. The Sharks’ addition to the league allowed for King to experience the magic of world class hockey. He now has his sights set on expanding the game he loves in his home state.
“Hockey is a sport that is slowly but steadily growing in California,” King said. “From roller hockey to ice hockey, more high schools and colleges are offering the opportunity to play. That will increase the amount of attention that hockey gets in California.”
With three of the potential top 10 teams in the west residing right here in California, now is an excellent time to get on board with the west coast hockey movement. For those with cable, every Ducks game can be viewed on the local Fox Sports San Diego channel. Kings’ games can be found on Fox Sports West. If watching on television doesn’t do it for you, make sure to check out the San Diego Gulls as they take flight for their first season in the American Hockey League. Valley View Casino Center, home of the Gulls, is shaping up to be a raucous palace of hockey fans. With the nearby building sure to be rocking from autumn through winter and spring, and the intriguing nature of all three California teams in the NHL, 2015 is a perfect time to embrace the puck.