Love of hockey isn't about geography

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ANAHEIM, Calif. -- In case you were wondering, yes, there is a big chart in the Niedermayer home tracking the comings and goings of a busy hockey family.

"Yeah. No, we do -- and I'm not allowed to touch it because I mess it up," Hall of Fame defenseman Scott Niedermayer explained. "So I'm just allowed to read it and get my instructions." 

On this night, three of Niedermayer's four boys (ages 14, 12, 9 and 5) have hockey practice, and he is scheduled to be at the Ducks' home game against the Kings as part of his job as an assistant coach with Anaheim.

"I might be able to drop one of them on my way to the rink and then my wife is going to go crazy," he said with a laugh.

Niedermayer and his wife, Lisa, grew up in British Columbia, and he admits that when he signed with the Ducks in 2005, moving from New Jersey to join his brother, Rob, in California, he never envisioned that Southern California would become their home.

More than that, he never envisioned that life in Southern California would involve so much hockey. But the game remains not just a career to Niedermayer; it has become very much a part of the fabric of his boys' lives.

"The two oldest, when we got here we kind of got them into hockey at a local rink near where we live," Niedermayer said. "I didn't really know what to expect. Probably, actually, even at that point, I was a little bit surprised with how much hockey was around if you looked for it. It's not everywhere where you look. It's not always in your face, the front of the paper, wherever or the first thing people talk about when you bump into them. But I was a little bit surprised at how much hockey there was here and the leagues all spread out around L.A., how many rinks there are sort of sprinkled here and there in places you'd never guess."

On the eve of the outdoor game between the Ducks and the Kings at Dodger Stadium, it's fashionable to point to players like Ducks prospect Emerson Etem (Anaheim's first-round draft pick who grew up in Southern California) or Pittsburgh's Beau Bennett (born in Gardena, Calif.) as a sign of the area's affection for the game.

Those young men and the others from California who are regularly drafted by NHL clubs are the shiny baubles in hockey's California treasure trove. But it's what hums along beneath the surface -- the strong, steady heartbeat of a hockey community -- that truly tells the story of the game on the left coast.

In 2009, the Ducks began to consolidate local rink operations under the corporate umbrella The Rinks. They now oversee seven facilities, four traditional hockey rinks and three roller rinks.

High school hockey has exploded in Southern California, with 19 schools involved, and last year the Santa Margarita Eagles won a national varsity title, defeating a team from Colorado. The team is coached by former NHLer Craig Johnson.

The game is so popular at the youth/high school level that The Rinks now has to rent ice from other facilities to meet the demand for ice time.

Niedermayer has seen that evolution through the eyes of his oldest boy; some of his son's peers are playing both club and high school hockey.

"Down in the U.S. here it's a little different, high school, just how important that is to kids and being connected to their high school in one way or another," Niedermayer said. "Sports gives you a way to do that and, if you were a hockey player, you never had that chance before and now you do.

"I know the kids are really excited about that. It means a lot to them and they're real proud of the fact they can represent their school in a game they love, so I think that's been a really good thing too."

Although the historic trade of Wayne Gretzky from Edmonton to Los Angeles in 1988 is often cited as the catalyst to the game's gaining a foothold in California, that was a long time ago. Gretzky's influence in California cannot be overstated, but he retired from the game in 1999. A new generation of young hockey enthusiasts has come along without ever having seen Gretzky on the ice. Instead, youngsters sport Teemu Selanne, Saku Koivu, Ryan Getzlaf or Corey Perry jerseys, and just up the road young Kings fans are devotees of Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown and Jeff Carter.

Brad Sholl is the manager of the Kings' practice facility in El Segundo and a product of the California youth system back when you had to leave town to play at a top level.

As a teenager, Sholl went to Grand Prairie, Alberta, but now his children are part of a tidal wave of hockey that pushes his facility to overflowing.

The only ice time available for rent on any given day is at 11 p.m. or 5 a.m., Sholl told ESPN.com.

Last year, the Junior Kings program placed more players in junior programs around North America than any other single club program, including well-established programs in Detroit and other traditional hockey markets.

"We're definitely on the map," Sholl said.

The hackneyed joke about teams from California being made up of guys taking a break from surfing has long since gone by the boards.

"People actually take us seriously," said Sholl, whose son is a Division I goaltender at Bowling Green State University, on a scholarship.

He said he recently talked to a hockey dad whose son also plays soccer and basketball, but the understanding is that if there's a conflict, hockey always trumps the other sports.

"From my perspective, it's just ready to burst," Sholl said.

Former players like Rob Blake and Nelson Emerson also have their children in youth hockey programs in the L.A. area, helping to further solidify the game's place at the grassroots level.

"I think it's really natural in the fact that the two teams down here, and up in San Jose for that matter, have been great teams and they've given fans something to be proud of and they want to be part of that, so I could see why people are a little bit more excited about the game and that type of thing," Niedermayer said. "So yeah, I would think it would be growing."

For the Ducks, that evolution peaked in 2007 with their Stanley Cup win over the Ottawa Senators. Five years later, the L.A. Kings won their first Stanley Cup on home ice at the Staples Center. This season, the Ducks boast the best record in hockey.

"The big jump started after we won the Cup," said Art Trottier, vice president of The Rinks.

Now the number of people playing hockey from youth to adults in the area grows every year, he said.

"Our rinks are filled to capacity now," he said.

The Ducks have contributed more than $12 million to youth hockey in the past six-plus years, and Trottier thinks there's room for three or four more sheets of ice if someone wanted to develop them.

Niedermayer, a four-time Stanley Cup winner and two-time Olympic gold medalist, figures that between his work with the Ducks and ferrying his boys around, he is on the ice far more now than he ever was as a player. He acts as an assistant coach on the three older boys' teams and helps out his youngest as he learns the basics of the game.

But Niedermayer's small-town Canadian upbringing is more similar than than one might expect to the experiences his sons are having playing the game a world away from the mountains of British Columbia.

"I think in some ways, in some important ways, they're having a similar experience," Niedermayer said. "I get a lot of good memories come back to me when I see certain situations. I mean you go on the road for a tournament and the kids are running around the hotel getting into trouble and having fun together. We did that, and those are great memories. We made great friends. We see that with the kids playing with their teammates and making friendships, which is a great thing."

There are differences, of course. Niedermayer notes that his boys have traveled to places like Colorado and Phoenix for tournaments.

"I don't think I ever got on a plane to play hockey until maybe I flew to the Memorial Cup when I was playing junior hockey," Niedermayer said. "So that's a difference. There's good hockey I guess, but at the highest levels there's not as much depth obviously and that, I guess that's why coaches and parents feel they need to travel a little bit."

He added: "My 12-year-old is on one of those teams. They're out East probably four times a year. That seems a little excessive, but you know they love it. They don't know any different, and I guess we're willing to do it as parents, so away we go."

And maybe that's the key: Embracing the game at its fundamental levels, working at a set of skills with your peers, sharing in the responsibilities of being a teammate, working together toward a common goal and having fun in the process has nothing to do with geography.

It probably never has.

Of course, the teammates of Niedermayer's son, and certainly their parents, understand that their hockey world is different from the one occupied by their hockey peers in Toronto or Michigan. But so what?

"They've been to a couple of tournaments in Toronto and I think they, everybody for that matter, because hockey is a bigger deal and you turn on TV and you've got hockey highlights more than you'd ever want, and these are real hockey people, they love the game. That's one of the things too, the passion the people here have for the game is as good as anywhere. It's not maybe as broad-based or widespread, but the people that are involved love it," Niedermayer said.

Although he is reluctant to draw parallels between the Gretzky impact and the impact of a second wave of NHL stars like him, Niedermayer does revel in the idea that what draws people to the game is in many ways constant.

"I guess if you stop and think about it a little bit you do realize it -- that's a big, broad question -- but yeah it's exciting," he said. "We love the game. It's a great game. You can see that, just the kids that get on the ice as a 4- or 5-year-old, get their gear on and start slipping and sliding around ... and chasing the puck. It's a great time for the little guys. When I'm out there with them you see that, it's pretty obvious why any of us play the game. And it's great to see it growing."

And we'd be willing to guess that the chart outlining the comings and goings of the four Niedermayer boys is no different from the hockey charts in kitchens across the continent. Even if Niedermayer is only to look, not write on the chart.

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