Junior Kings hockey players arrive for a game at the Toyota Sports Center. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles…)
Wayne Gretzky is long gone from the Kings and long retired from the NHL, but the impact of his presence in Los Angeles is being felt more strongly than ever in the increasing success of youth hockey players who were born and trained in Southern California.
The L.A. Junior Kings AAA team, composed of kids born in 1996 and 1997 — Gretzky was dealt by the Kings to the St. Louis Blues on Feb. 27, 1996 — will play for the USA Hockey national championship this week in Pittsburgh. The tournament will start Wednesday and runs through Sunday. It encompasses the top teams from each USA Hockey district plus the host team, which this year is the Pittsburgh Junior Penguins.
The Junior Kings AAA team plays in the Tier 1 elite hockey league, which means it plays most of its games on the road. It has played 73 games all over North America so far, but that grueling schedule showcases kids to scouts from colleges and Canada's junior-level Western Hockey League.
Nick Kerdiles of Irvine, chosen 36th overall by the Ducks in last year's entry draft, played for the program before getting a scholarship to the University of Wisconsin. Last year, five players got scholarships to Division I schools. Nolan Stevens, the younger son of Kings assistant coach John Stevens, played for the team last season and is now participating in the U.S. National Team Development Program.
"We've had a good run this year. We have a lot of talented players," said Louis Pacella, a Calabasas attorney who co-coaches the team with Rick Kelly. "A lot of our kids have gotten a lot of attention from the NCAA. There are a number of our kids that have been drafted in the Western Hockey League as well. One of our kids just attended the U.S. national program camp.
"From the on-the-ice standpoint, from wins and losses, it's been a huge success. But in terms of potential for kids — which is really what our team is about, promotion and moving them on — it's another really big success story for us."
And all of this might not have happened if not for Gretzky arriving in Los Angeles in the summer of 1988.
Pacella became a hockey fan because Gretzky became a King, and that triggered a chain of events Pacella couldn't have predicted. In fact, Pacella said, he saw former Kings owner Bruce McNall at a playoff game last spring and made a point of thanking McNall for acquiring Gretzky from Edmonton.
"I went up to him and told him, 'If it wasn't for what you did bringing Wayne Gretzky here, my life would probably be very different,'" Pacella said. "I doubt I would be involved in hockey, and that's how I met my wife, that's how I have my three kids, and a lot of my business has come from it. One little thing has a huge impact.
"I know I would not be coaching at the level I'm coaching at right now, being involved with hockey, if it wasn't for the Wayne Gretzky effect. That just continues because you have people like me who started when Gretzky was around that are now coaching and involved with the next generation of youngsters."
As the coaching has gotten better, so have the programs. That means more Southern California kids can play a higher level of hockey and stay close to home.
"We used to move a lot of kids to prep schools on the East Coast, Shattuck St. Mary's and things like that, but over the last few years I think it's been shown that you don't have to leave Southern California to do great things and get college scholarships," Pacella said.
"Off our team last year we had a kid commit to Denver, had a kid commit to St. Cloud, had a kid commit to Miami of Ohio. And we have kids that grow up and play in the Western Hockey League too. Youth hockey in Southern California is very, very well-respected from people who are in the hockey world."
The Junior Kings will play round-robin games against the Southeast district team, which is a blend of teams from Nashville and Atlanta; the Dallas Junior Stars; and then the Boston Junior Bruins. After that come the quarterfinals, semifinals and finals. Here's a link to the tournament website for results and other information: nationals.usahockey.com.
"I think we have as good a chance as anybody. We've pretty much beaten all the teams that are there, at some point this year," Pacella said. "Nationals is a tough thing to win. Rick Kelly won twice before and this is his seventh straight year taking a team there. We've won five straight bronze medals, my teams have, so I'd love to get a gold.
"It's a great tournament because you have to be on your game basically for six straight games to win, and it showcases the best talent in USA Hockey. I think our chances are good. If we get on the right momentum streak then I think we could bring it home, and it would be really great to do that."