Local hockey players making their mark at all levels
Noteworthy achievements by California hockey players just keep on coming.
In 2007, Jonathon Blum of Rancho Santa Margarita became the first California-born-and-trained player to be chosen in the first round of the NHL entry draft when the Nashville Predators selected him 23rd. Last year’s draft was the first in which two Californians were chosen in the first round: Beau Bennett of Gardena was taken by Pittsburgh with the 20th pick and Emerson Etem of Long Beach was taken 29th by the Ducks.
This past weekend Californians recorded another commendable feat when College of the Canyons in Santa Clarita won the American Collegiate Hockey Assn. men’s Division 3 tournament in Holland, Mich.
According to Kevin Hopkins, father of Cougars forward Todd Hopkins, most of the players on the roster are from the Santa Clarita Valley and played for local youth hockey organizations, including the L.A. Junior Kings program.
The Cougars, coached by John Taferner and Andrew McDonald, were 26-0 this season. They played five games in four days to win the title, including a 5-3 victory over Hope College of Holland, Mich., in the title game.
Congrats to them and everyone who’s playing for the fun of it and isn’t necessarily on the same track as Blum, Bennett and Etem.
I had a nice chat with Blum, whose family had Ducks season tickets when he was younger, though he said he and his dad were Kings fans and his mother and sister were Ducks fans. Some of it appears in my weekly NHL column, but here are some other tidbits.
“There’s no hockey blood in my family. It was just something I did when I was younger,” he said. “I had rollerblades and some beat-up sticks and just played in front of my yard in the cul-de-sac and played with my brother.
“Then I went to a public skate for a birthday party at an ice rink and that’s how I transferred to ice. I really loved being on the ice instead of roller hockey. Then I got enrolled in the minor hockey program in Aliso Viejo and joined the California Wave and played eight years there.”
Playing hockey in Southern California usually means scrambling for ice time. He started playing in Aliso Viejo but also played in Westminster and Lakewood “and wherever else we’d end up,” he said. “It’s so expensive nowadays. You’ve got to be pretty fortunate to be able to make a team and be able to handle the cost in Southern California, especially traveling the way you have to here. I remember playing out of country, out of state three or four times a year, Michigan, Chicago, Quebec, Toronto, just to play a tournament and just to get exposed to the competition.”
When he and his teammates would face teams from traditional hockey areas they’d inevitably face skepticism about their abilities. And even Blum acknowledged he never thought hockey would be his future, yet he’s thriving with the Predators.
“You’d go up to Canada and play in tournaments and they’d be all over you about it. We ended up winning tournaments and pretty much shutting them up and making California, putting it on the map for hockey,” he said.
“You don’t hear it so much now. You do see guys playing in the NHL and getting drafted high. Give it five, six, seven more years and you’ll probably see six to 12 guys in the NHL from California.”
Predators General Manager David Poile said he looks less at where a player is from than where that player is headed. The Predators have another rookie from an unusual background: winger Blake Geoffrion grew up in a suburb of Nashville. However, he has a hockey background through his great-grandfather Howie Morenz, grandfather Bernard “Boom Boom” Geoffrion, and his father, Danny, a former NHL player.
Poile, who has to draft carefully while operating a small-market team that can’t sign marquee free agents, said Blum’s smarts and overall potential were the most important factors to the Predators.
“We in the hockey business realize that California is starting to heat up in terms of being a recruiting area for colleges and major junior. It doesn’t really matter where a player is from,” Poile said.
“I think it’s kind of neat that he’s from California, the same as Blake Geoffrion being from Brentwood, Tenn. It’s all about looking for hockey players and I think it’s a great story for him, for us and for California.
“Last year the Ducks drafted Etem. We’ll go anywhere to find players.”
Blum, who was recalled from Milwaukee of the American Hockey League last month and made his NHL debut Feb. 22, is fortunate to have among his teammates Shea Weber and Ryan Suter, two of the NHL’s elite defensemen and members of the Canadian and U.S. Olympic teams, respectively, at last year’s Vancouver Games. Watching and learning from them is giving him a priceless education.
“I think it’s made all the difference. Nashville does a really great job of developing defensemen if you look at their track record,” Blum said. “I think spending a year and a bit in the minors helped my development and made me ready.
“I try and model my game like Ryan Suter’s. We’re pretty much the same size and both smart players. I look at his tendencies and the way he handles guys in corners and different situations and I try to pattern my game after him. It’s nice to be able to talk to him about stuff.”
Poile said Blum, who’s 6-foot-1 and about 190 pounds, is “a real smart player. Size has always been a little bit of an issue. Not so much height as weight. But he’s strong for his size and his hockey sense is excellent and I think he’s off to a real good start for us.”
And the contributions from Californians will just keep coming.
Photo: Denver right wing Beau Bennett takes a shot on Minnesota State goalie Austin Lee in the first period of a WCHA hockey tournament on Saturday in Denver. Credit: Will Powers / Associated Press