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Future of sports in the SCV: Breaking the ice

Locals are rising in hockey as SCV coaches and organizations are trying to promote it

Posted: July 23, 2010 10:42 p.m.
Updated: July 24, 2010 4:55 a.m.

The boom of hockey in Southern California that accompanied the years of Wayne Gretzky has faded into the distance.

But the impact of players from the Santa Clarita Valley may be the next step in gauging hockey’s relevance locally.

“The pivotal moment was Wayne coming here,” says Jim Fox, a television broadcaster for the Los Angeles Kings. “It really turned on the youth hockey base. There were rinks then, but the facilities were old and just getting by.”

Fox has been a part of the Kings organization for 30 years, beginning in 1980, when he was selected by the club 10th overall in the NHL Entry Draft.

A lot has happened in those 30 years, and Fox points out the substantial progress.

“The big thing is, now we’re seeing kids who are 15 to 20 years old, who grew up in that time, making an impact on the hockey community,” Fox says.

Two Southern California players were selected in the 2010 NHL Draft, and you won’t have to look very hard to find the several Santa Clarita Valley products now making inroads into junior, collegiate and pro hockey.

Shane Harper, of Valencia, heads the group, having signed an NHL contract with the Philadelphia Flyers, but several are not far behind.

Siblings Olivia and Steven Jakiel, of Santa Clarita, both played NCAA Division I hockey, with Olivia winning a national title at Wisconsin in 2009 and Steven beginning at Michigan before finishing his career at Div. III Curry College.

While the Jakiels’ college careers are over, Saugus product Alyssa Wohlfeiler is entering her senior season for Div. I Northeastern, where she led the team in game-winning goals last season. Kevan Miller, who was born in Canyon Country before attending private school in Massachusetts, will also be entering his senior season as an integral piece for Vermont, where the defenseman will be a team captain.

Santa Clarita Valley talent has even made its way onto the international scene, with Canyon Country native Shane Sooth being added to the United States Under-18 National Team in 2008-09.

“(The NHL) has already taken notice (of talent in Southern California),” Fox says. “With the scouting system and networks now, they’ll find you. Ten years ago, if they were looking at an L.A.-based kid, there would be question marks because of the area they’re in. Now they’re just looking at the talent.”

Another reason hockey talent is blooming in the area is the presence of a solid foundation of coaches with professional, collegiate and international experience.

One of those coaches is Swedish-born Peter Torsson, who will head the Valencia-based California Heat Under-16 AAA team.

Torsson played college hockey at Div. I St. Cloud State in the late 1990s before moving to Southern California in 2002 to coach.

“In Southern California there are some of the best coaches in the country,” Torsson says. “Coaches are moving here because they’re tired of living in cold-weather cities.”

Even with the surge of talent into the highest levels of the sport, the youth levels continue to be the focus of USA Hockey, the sport’s national governing body, and Ice Station Valencia, which will be celebrating its 10th anniversary in September.

“Nationally, we’re focused on increasing the sport particularly at the 8-and-under level, to implement a blueprint to develop players” says Pat Kelleher, USA Hockey’s assistant executive director of membership development. “Eight-and-under is where 75 percent of the kids get started in hockey.”

The Ice Station Valencia hockey office echoes Kelleher’s points supporting the concentration on youth programs.

“We’re working closely with USA Hockey to get more kids involved in the game,” says Scott Allegrini, Ice Station Valencia’s hockey director. “We’re also trying to get involved with the school system, to get awareness up and to get kids to try it.”

Although the rink is seeing a slight increase in enrollment year-to-year, the sport still isn’t translating to the general public like it did in the 1990s.

“When Wayne was here, you’d see kids out in the street with nets, shooting the puck,” says John Fregeau, the hockey administrator at Ice Station Valencia. “You just don’t see that anymore.”

Although the general interest in the sport may wane at times in the Santa Clarita Valley, Ice Station has continuously fielded local teams.

The College of the Canyons club hockey team has garnered most of the attention, advancing to multiple national tournaments at the Div. III American Collegiate Hockey League level. But the longest-standing program has been the high school hockey league that has been around since the rink opened.

Featuring local teams from Canyon, Hart, Saugus, and Valencia high schools, along with teams from surrounding areas, the offseason league has fostered many of the talents listed above.

Although it may not feature the highest level of competition, the league has been one of the biggest crowd draws for the complex, especially when Santa Clarita Valley rivals face off.

Allegrini hopes the live experience of watching a game will enhance the general public’s awareness of the sport.

“The biggest way to get people interested is to get them to watch the game live,” Allegrini says. “I can’t tell you how many times people go to games and say, ‘I hate it on TV, but I love it live.’”

Along with the youth programs, Allegrini’s efforts will rely heavily on the Valencia Flyers, the Western States Hockey League’s franchise at Ice Station Valencia.

The Flyers play under the Junior A Tier III classification in the WSHL, which features 16-to-20-year-old amateur players. Tier III programs are pay-to-play, unlike the Tier I and Tier II leagues like the United States Hockey League and the North American Hockey League. Players often use their time in junior hockey to gain access to scholarships at the collegiate level.

Allegrini, who also serves as the Flyers’ general manager, sees the team’s growth and following as an untapped resource. First-year head coach Trevor Sack echoes that sentiment and wants to increase the program’s presence in the community.

“Just being here for two months now, I see that (the Santa Clarita Valley) is a very sports-minded community,” Sack says. “The biggest thing in this market is getting people to find out what the WSHL is all about. There are some top-tier players here.”

Because the public’s awareness is limited, the Flyers have community events in the works that they hope will increase visibility.

“People don’t know we offer hockey at this level,” Sack says. “We’re going to promote ourselves in the community, along with our sponsors, even if it’s putting on the Flyers jersey and walking around and introducing ourselves.”

Even with all the local programs and players, nearly all involved with hockey in the area acknowledge that the game would get a boost from a consistently successful local NHL team.

The Olympics earlier this year helped, with an average of 27.6 million viewers that tuned in to watch the gold-medal game between the United States and Canada.

“Next year is going to be a great year, because of the Olympics,” Kelleher says. “Fortunately for us, we had a great run and millions of people watched the gold-medal game. We’ve seen that (after Olympic years) more people will bring their kids to the rink.”

Until it does, the allure and general upbeat feeling of the Gretzky years feels far off.

“There’s nowhere to go but up,” Allegrini says. “But a Stanley Cup for the Kings certainly wouldn’t hurt.”


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