Two years ago, it was just one team. Last year, two. But this season, five teams will play a full schedule in the Anaheim Ducks High School Hockey League. Every Saturday afternoon from September to March, squads from JSerra, Santa Margarita, Orange Lutheran, Servite and Damien will gather at Anaheim Ice in the Ducks' latest effort to grow the sport of hockey in Southern California.
"We're kind of trying to use the model of what the Dallas Stars did," says Art Trottier, General Manger of Anaheim Ice and head of the high school program, "The Stars really put a concerted effort into growing high school hockey in Dallas, and it just ballooned. Last I heard, it's grown to sixty or seventy teams now."
The Stars own and operate around fifteen sheets of ice to support their high school league, so the Ducks are no doubt starting small with only two ice facilities in their successful Rinks program and five teams, but what they lack in quantity, they're making up for in quality.
"Four of the five schools are being coached by professional hockey players," says Trottier, "Jason Marshall is coaching Orange Lutheran, Randy Burridge is coaching Servite, Dave Karpa is coaching JSerra, and Craig Johnson is coaching Santa Margarita. We've got some big names to draw people in; these kids can be coached by former NHL players."
So far, the league is a success with the kids, many of whom have quit their club teams to compete exclusively for their high school squads. It's also been a success with the parents, whose positive word of mouth encouraged other parents to contact Trottier about convincing their child's school to add a team. And make no mistake, that same word of mouth isn't lost on the high schools themselves; Damien in La Verne contacted Trottier directly, expressing its eagerness to join the nascent league.
That enthusiasm is a boon for the Ducks, who hope to add a couple of teams per year to the league moving forward. The ultimate goal, of course, is to put hockey on par with other high school sports in Southern California, if not raise it to the level it enjoys in hockey hotbeds. Servite coach Jeff Noviello, for one, thinks he can see the transition to a marquee letter sport.
"[The Ducks] are building it from the ground up," says Noviello, a native of Rochester, Minnesota and that state's world famous high school hockey tournament, "If you build it, and the parents see it, and the kids that play club hockey see it, then you'll see it transitioning. Now we're maybe five or ten years away."
When you consider the value of high school tournaments to hockey, or any sport, in America, it's hard to challenge the Dallas Stars' growth model. And while some may argue that California has become firmly entrenched in its club hockey and travel hockey systems, school pride will surely draw some of those players, if not players from other sports, to the Anaheim Ducks High School Hockey League.