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THESE SURFERS CAN SKATE : Southern California Youth Hockey Team Fares Well Against Midwesterners

January 17, 1988|DAVID LePAGE | Times Staff Writer

When some teen-age hockey players from Southern California pushed a host team to the wall in a tournament a couple of years ago at Minneapolis, there was more than slight disbelief.

But when the visitors won in overtime, 3-2, it was too much for players and fans from a hockey hotbed like Minnesota.

Shouts began to ring out, "Surfers go home!"

One man's ire, though, can be another's inspiration.

"We were getting pictures taken and our kids were yelling 'Surfers? We showed 'em.' " recalled Gary Lyons, one of the California club's directors.

"But I said, 'Hey, if that's what they want to call us, why not? We got the game, let's take the name.' "

The idea snowballed. Businessman Lyons checked with Marvel Comics in New York to see if his club could borrow a Marvel hero, "The Silver Surfer."

"They said OK on the name, and we're using the character on our jerseys this year," he said.

And this season, the Silver Surfers took their new image back to the Midwest to prove that their previous performance was no accident. Most of that Bantam team, 14-15 years old, are now first-year Midgets, 16-17, and played in two tournaments in the Chicago area.

They started to get some of the same old static, but again taught some people a lesson.

With overlapping schedules at rinks more than 20 miles apart, logistics were a problem. One morning the Californians played a tough semifinal in the Chicago Super Midget tournament, beating previously unbeaten Team Ohio, 5-2. Then they raced to the other rink to open the Johnson's Sporting Goods High School tournament against Lake Forest.

"We got there with half our gear still on," Lyons said. "They were nearly finished warming up. They took one look at us and you could tell they saw an easy mark--surfers already tired from another game."

In 2 1/2 minutes the score was Silver Surfers 3, Lake Forest 0, and the lotus eaters went on to swamp the Illinois team, 9-1.

The Surfers lost the final in the high school tournament to a team from Canada, 6-2. "They had five 19-year-olds and four 20-year-olds on the squad," Lyons said.

There were no Canadians in the Midget tournament, but they cast a shadow.

"When we beat Illinois, 5-4, in the opener, some people called it a fluke," Lyons said. "After we blanked Wisconsin, 4-0, they started saying, 'These guys are for real!' But then they wanted to know, 'You got Canadians on your squad?'

"I said, 'No, some of these boys have been playing for us for seven years.' "

Team Illinois got its revenge in the Midget final, edging California, 3-2, but the Silver Surfers came home with second place trophies from both tournaments.

How do they do it?

Jack White, a former Canadian who has conducted a year-round hockey clinic here for years and coaches the club team at UCLA, offered three reasons.

"There's some good coaching here," he said. "We stress the basics and yet make it fun. I hear in Canada they're worried about kids dropping out, and they're starting to try some of our ideas.

"Then there's a strong base of figure skaters here, so the rinks can stay open all year.

"Another thing is that back East, a kid gets cabin fever after a winter of hockey and wants to get out in the sun come spring and do something else.

"Kids here can skate all year and turn to the sunshine whenever they want."

The advantage young players have in the Midwest or back East, White said, is numbers, which leads to more and better competition. "You're likely to see 500 boys try out for a team in Minnesota or New England," he said. "Here it could be as few as 25."

Despite the program's success, California hockey players have a lingering identity crisis at home. It's hard for some sports fans to believe that Southern Californians playing for top college teams, for example, are not transplanted Easterners or Canadians.

The ups and downs of the area's pro team, the Los Angeles Kings, may do little to convince doubters that there is genuine hockey interest here, but the Kings are the tip of an iceberg whose size and substance is impressive by the standards of any northern city.

The fact is, at least 10 Southlanders now on Division I scholarships paid their dues on youth teams like the Silver Surfers. And among major universities of California, where hockey is still a club sport, many players also come from local rinks.

Some of the Division I players have even been drafted by the National Hockey League. Robert Mendel, who is playing for the University of Wisconsin, was tapped by Quebec in the fifth round last year, the highest ever for anyone from California.

Mendel recently returned from the Soviet Union, where he played in the World Junior Championships and made the all-tournament first team.

Eric Lamarque, at Northern Michigan University, was picked by Boston in the 11th round, and Mike de Carle, at Lake Superior State College in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., was chosen by Buffalo in the supplementary draft.

Two of de Carle's college teammates, Ken Martel and Brian Corso, are also fellow Southern Californians.

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