It's a little odd to hear Sam May say he's a midget. When the 16-year-old ice hockey goalie puts on his heavily padded jersey, pants, chest and knee protectors and a hel met that looks safe enough to use when riding a motorcycle, he's close to six feet tall and as big as the tractorlike Zamboni machine that smooths the ice during breaks.
A member of the California Golden Bears Youth Hockey Club's midget team, made up of 16- and 17-year-olds, he moves off the ice at Pickwick Arena in Burbank with a grace you wouldn't expect of someone his size. May has been a rink rat since he was small, always hanging around the ice rink, face pressed up against the glass, trying to get as close to the action as possible. "I love this game," he said, after a tough practice blocking shots. "I love to stop the puck."
May isn't the only one who loves the game. In an area of the country devoid of ice and cold weather usually associated with the sport, hockey is drawing a crowd of young people. The Southern California Amateur Hockey Assn., the sport's local governing body, estimates that enrollments at local clubs is up 20% over last year, and 50% over 1989. About 3,000 boys and girls ages of 6 to 17 are involved in 14 clubs throughout Southern California.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday June 19, 1992 Valley Edition VA Page 24 Zones Desk 1 inches; 28 words Type of Material: Correction
Team Name--In a June 12 story about youngsters playing ice hockey, the name of one of the teams coached by Larry Bruyere was incorrect. Bruyere coached the Bruins at Ice Capades Chalet in North Hollywood.
Locally, about 600 youths play in organized hockey at three different rinks. The West Valley Wolves play at the new Iceoplex arena in North Hills, the Golden Bears are based at the Pickwick Arena in Burbank, and the Flames of the Valley Hockey Development Center in North Hollywood skate at the Ice Capades Chalet in North Hollywood.
"Until Wayne Gretzky came to the Los Angeles Kings, I don't think people gave much thought to ice hockey in Southern California," Auburn Taylor, the commissioner of the amateur association, said of Gretzky's arrival in L.A. in 1988. "He made the sport look new and exciting, which got kids interested in it."
"I think the main reason for the popularity of youth ice hockey is the popularity of street hockey," said John Libby, vice president of the California Golden Bears. "The kids get these inexpensive roller-blades, a stick, and some equipment and they're out there playing. They're learning how to control the puck and how the game works. We find that the kids who come to us after playing street hockey develop good skating skills and pick up the game fairly quickly."
Taylor believes that hockey is attracting better athletes locally, as evidenced by the good fortune in April of a team of 16- and 17-year-olds chosen from clubs within the amateur hockey association. The Southern California team beat its peers from parts of the United States where ice hockey is as common as skateboarding is here to win a national championship in the midget class in Peoria, Ill.
Clubs are organized first according to age. Mini-mites are 6 and younger, mites are 7 to 9, squirts 10 and 11, peewees 12 and 13, bantams 14 and 15, and midgets 16 and 17. Within each age class are three teams organized on ability. The B team is best, followed by the C+ and C teams.
The clubs then play each other by age group in a 22-game season that starts in September and continues through March, with a playoff series that goes through April.
"It's organized so that the children are pretty evenly matched for competitiveness and safety. You don't want a bunch of big kids charging into some little guys," Libby said.
"It's set up so that even if a child's skating isn't great and they're not very knowledgeable about the game, they can play and develop their skills," he said.
Sam May, a junior at Burroughs High School in Burbank, has been playing ice hockey since he was 8, after getting interested in it by watching games on TV. His desire to play rubbed off on his family. Eventually his father, Mike, got involved. He's now president of the Golden Bears.
Sam's sister, Kathy, 14, joined the Golden Bears at age 9. Their mother, Nancy May, is the registrar for the club.
"It isn't easy getting the kids to and from practices and games all the time, but it's fun. That's the main thing," Nancy said.
The addition this year of the West Valley Wolves reflects the growing local interest in youth hockey.
"We had about 1,000 kids interested in the club, and only about 200 spots are open on a first-come, first-served basis," said Larry Bruyere, president of the Wolves. "It's unfortunate that we can't accommodate more players."
Bruyere, who has coached youth hockey for 15 years with the Golden Bears and the Flames, sees more evidence of the sport's popularity every time he's near the ice. "You see these rink rats watching games and getting out there during public skating sessions all the time. They don't have the stick skills yet, but they're working on skating and they're hoping one day to be out there playing."