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Orange County's high school hockey league gets into spirit

The Anaheim Ducks High School League says there's a talented pool of young players in Southern California. The league is the only such program in Orange County.

January 14, 2011|By Kevin Baxter
  • Santa Margarita goaltender Kaelyn Green blocks a shot on goal by Orange Lutheran's Kevin Browning during a game in the Anaheim Ducks High School League at The Rinks Anaheim Ice.
Santa Margarita goaltender Kaelyn Green blocks a shot on goal by Orange… (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles…)

The cinder-block locker room is little bigger than a gas-station restroom. Squeeze in 15 high school hockey players and their sweat-soaked equipment, and it smells about the same too.

Yet Megan Browning, the team's freshman goalie, can't think of any place she'd rather be.

"Just because you play hockey doesn't mean you have to act like a boy," Browning explains as she checks her makeup and adjusts the twin braids in her hair. "I wear pink. I'm still girly. But when I come to the rink, I get intense."

A goalie with mascara under her mask isn't the strangest thing about this high school locker room tableau. More unusual is where the Orange Lutheran dressing room is located: in the bowels of a skating rink in the heart of Orange County, an area known more for surfboards and palm trees than slap shots and power plays.

"It's not a joke," insists former NHL goalie Guy Hebert, one of four former Ducks coaching in the five-school league, the only high school hockey league in Orange County and one of just three in Southern California, according to organizers. "The kids work hard. The talent pool here is better than people think."

It's a pool even the NHL has recently started to tap. In last June's draft, four of the first 78 players selected were born in Southern California, a substantial haul considering that over the last 14 seasons just eight natives of the area have made their NHL debuts.

Given the boost the state's broad and well-organized prep programs have provided to other sports — California has sent far more players to the major leagues, the NBA and the Olympic team than any other state — the success of high school hockey could help the area become a regular stop for NHL scouts.

"The players have to come from somewhere," says Ducks Chief Executive Michael Schulman, who helped found the high school league 2½ years ago.

Building a pipeline to the pros wasn't what Dave Pauluzzi had in mind when he first pitched Schulman on the idea of a prep hockey program. All he really wanted was a chance for his son Joe, then a freshman at JSerra Catholic High School in San Juan Capistrano, to play his favorite sport in the school colors.

"They get to experience the sport of hockey like other student-athletes have with football, basketball, baseball, to represent something you live every day," says Pauluzzi, the 49-year-old CEO of a diagnostic pathology laboratory who still has the sweater he wore playing for Notre Dame College Prep in suburban Chicago three decades ago. "Sports are a big part of the high school life."

Since no other high school in Orange County fielded a hockey team, JSerra spent its first season traveling nationally and to Canada to find opponents. The Ducks helped Santa Margarita start a varsity program the next winter and this season the league spread to three more private schools when Orange Lutheran, Anaheim Servite and La Verne Damien started programs to compete against the JSerra and Santa Margarita JV teams.

The Ducks, who administrate the league, also provide uniforms and help defray the cost of equipment and other things. Schools play 12 regular-season games at the NHL team's practice facility, The Rinks-Anaheim ICE, followed by a playoff tournament that concludes with a championship game at the Honda Center, the Ducks' home ice, in late February.

On a recent Saturday afternoon the grandstands rising from the rink looked no different than those that commonly flank high school football fields on brisk fall evenings, with proud parents watching the games through the viewfinders of their video cameras while cheerleaders, wearing bright ribbons in their hair and too much makeup on their faces, huddled together to stay warm.

The league — officially, the Anaheim Ducks High School League — is not sanctioned by the California Interscholastic Federation, meaning the sport is a club activity. But that's a distinction regularly overlooked on the campuses, where players go to class wearing hockey shirts and jackets emblazoned with the school logos, and where weekend results are announced by the administration each Monday morning.

For many of the players, who grew up competing in either roller hockey or ice hockey on travel teams, the feel of Friday night lights on the Saturday afternoon ice is what makes the high school game most attractive.

"That's the best part about coaching. Just the pride and the respect and the whole high school thing here is amazing," says Orange Lutheran Coach Jason Marshall, a former Ducks defenseman: "For the first game all the fans were dressed up in Orange Lutheran gear."

Adds Ron Dietz, whose son played youth hockey before joining the fledgling Orange Lutheran team as a freshman this season: "That school spirit is there. There's a definite difference in the high school atmosphere at the games."

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