On the West Coast, ice hockey gets about as much respect as zinc oxide does on the East Coast. But no one needs to tell that to members of the Tier II team which participates in the Southern California Amateur Hockey Assn. They learned it firsthand during a winter tournament in Minnesota.
"When they called our name," team member Greg Hennig remembered, "they all went, 'What? California? ' Then we beat the hell out of them."
Tier II is out to ice over a few stereotypes.
In Minnesota, the team finished third among 20 teams. At a tournament last February in Colorado Springs, it beat squads from New York state and Vancouver, Canada, before falling in the finals to Team Colorado.
Six members of the West Covina-based Tier II team are from Orange County, where ice hockey doesn't just take a back seat, it isn't even in the car.
"There are millions of baseball fields and millions of soccer fields and just a couple of ice rinks," said team member Chris Coniglio, a senior at Foothill High School in Santa Ana.
So, from September to April, the players travel twice a week to an ice rink in West Covina. They spend an average of $3,800 a year to play the sport. And they must contend with the Southern California stigma when they play outside the state.
"We don't get as much recognition as people who grew up in a hockey atmosphere," said team member Erven Vallero, a junior at Esperanza High School in Anaheim. "Sometimes, I think it's really not fair. There are a lot of talented players in California who don't get the recognition they should."
Vallero, a native Californian, has never lived in the East but was on skates by age 4, playing hockey at ice rinks in Whittier and Brea. When those rinks closed, he moved on to West Covina, where he has built a solid reputation as a goal-scoring left-winger. But flipping pucks into the net like so many pancakes isn't enough in hockey.
Vallero said survival depends on aggression.
"I do spend a little time in the penalty box," he admitted. "I get my share (of penalties), maybe one or two a game."
And Vallero isn't about to let out-of-state competition dull his competitive edge. "We went out as a team and tried to show the rest of the country that California can play hockey. If we had everything that they have back East, we'd be just as good, even better. We can't just walk down the street to a rink."
Even so, the Californians proved in the finals in Colorado that they could skate with anybody. Charlie Coniglio, who coaches the Tier II team and the West Covina house team, the Southeastern Blues, certainly thinks so. "We got beat by Team Colorado, but they've been together five years and practice four days a week," he said.
Compare that to the two hours each week the Tier II team spends on the ice. But with rinks closing faster than they're being built--the West Covina rink is expected to close in a few months--even that meager ice time will be cut.
"If we could get someone to donate $25,000 to (support) each team, that'd be great," the coach said. "(Tier II) is fortunate in that we've got Erven Vallero's dad's company (Tekform Products) sponsoring it."
When Charlie Coniglio isn't looking for corporate sponsors--as with ice rinks, there are never enough--he's scouting players who know what it means to be a member of a team.
"You can't have a team of prima donnas or goal-scorers," he said. "There are two ends of the ice. It's important that a team be made up of players who understand their roles. And, most of the time, these kids do.
"When I look for players to make up a team, I look for those qualities. I look for the skills, knowledge of the game, if they can think , if they keep their feet moving. . . . "
If anyone hustles, it's Pete Scharnell, a junior at Newport Harbor High School in Newport Beach.
Scharnell was born in California but his family moved to Michigan, where he started playing hockey at 7 mainly because his older brother did. "We'd body-check each other around the house," Scharnell said.
In 1980, his family returned to California--back to the same house--and he joined a state team that year, working to improve his speed all the while.
"I picked up skating pretty easily, so some of it is natural talent," Scharnell said. "But I put in a lot of work. I do a lot of power skating--skating without the puck--and I work hard on the drills."
Scharnell's life runs along the same line as an old Sports Illustrated headline: "Speed Thrills." That's why hockey appeals to him, and why the fast pace extends beyond the rink to his school's varsity soccer team and to snow skiing.
And he was fast enough to be recruited to play hockey for a Colorado prep school.
"But when I checked out the school, I decided my junior year was kind of late to be changing schools," Scharnell said. "I'd be playing more hockey there, but I'd have to keep up with my studies, too."