"Frankly, the first college or university that decides to add Division I hockey in California will have just an absolute bounty in front of it. They will have their pick of some of the most talented kids in the country, and they've got some great young kids coming up. If we could ever convince USC or UCLA or Stanford or California to add a program, they would have such an immediate impact."
- Paul Kelly, Executive Director of College Hockey Inc talking to SB Nation's From The Rink
Those sentiments will undoubtedly cross Paul Kelly's mind when he addresses the best AAA players in Southern California at the Ducks West Coast Prospects Camp on Saturday. The head of College Hockey Inc. targeted California as one of the next frontiers for NCAA hockey expansion, and the boom in homegrown hockey talent has become the Golden State's greatest argument for joining the Division I college game. As Californians make an impact in the NCAA, the state's best universities may have to take notice.
"California is almost getting to the point where it could be like Minnesota," says Newell Brown, Assistant Coach with the Anaheim Ducks and founder of the Ducks West Coast Prospects Camp, "where you could fill a college team with strictly California players and be a very competitive Division I team-- no question in my mind --if all the best kids decided to [stay in California]."
And the decision to stay local is not a given. Some players seem to take geography into account. Rhett Rakhshani, for example, was drafted in the fourth-round in 2006 and chose to join the Denver Pioneers, where he became a star player. But some of California's most successful prospects have taken to the road. Jonathan Blum, a first-rounder in 2007, and Mitch Wahl, a second-rounder in 2008, both went from the California Wave directly to the WHL.
"In high school, they're willing to [leave home to play hockey]," says Camp Administrator Jeff Noviello, "My kid's gonna be a freshman this year, and he's already looking at colleges. He's gonna have to go. A lot of kids are leaving to prep schools [at his age]."
"Oh, absolutely," Brown agrees, "A California program would still have to compete to recruit California kids, but tell me that a kid in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan wouldn't want to play hockey in California Division I?"
Indeed, the arrival of NCAA hockey wouldn't guarantee a roster of the state's best homegrown players, but California recruiting clout doesn't exactly end at the state's borders. And the reputation and tradition of NCAA hockey in California, like any athletic program, would be built upon the players it produced, not the birthplaces it served.
It's the tradition of college hockey that Paul Kelly will evangelize on Saturday, a tradition that has produced talented and educated players while emphasizing a sense of rivalry and history that is the hallmark of the NCAA game. And his message should resonate well in California, where some of the state's most successful NHL players are college hockey alumni. For 14 seasons, Kings fans cheered Bowling Green State's Rob Blake, while Ducks fans made former Maine Black Bear Paul Kariya their franchise player for a decade. Up north, Sharks fans are currently enjoying the work of Dany Heatley (Wisconsin Badgers) and Dan Boyle (Miami Redhawks). And that's to say nothing of the role players and Draft picks brought in by longtime Anaheim front office man (and former Badgers goaltender) David McNab and San Jose Scouting Director (and UNH All-American) Tim Burke.
And yet, the process of being an NCAA recruit is complicated, so much so that Kelly will be emphasizing not only the advantages of NCAA hockey but the process of becoming an NCAA hockey player.
"The thing about college hockey is that there's so many rules and regulations," says Brown, "Coaches can't really go up and talk to the kids, because it would be breaking the NCAA rules for contacts . . . For Junior coaches, they can just go into the locker room and say, 'Hey, I need to talk to you; why don't you go play for my program?' So there's a lot of restrictive aspects to communicating from a college hockey standpoint, and that's why it's so important that we bring Paul Kelly in here to talk to the kids."
The expansion of NCAA hockey may not happen as Kelly imagines it, with a California school bringing a lineup of its native sons to the Frozen Four. But as California players make their mark on the NCAA hockey map-- players like 2010 Hobey Baker finalist Rhett Rakhshani and prospective 1st/2nd Round pick and Denver University committed Beau Bennett --USC, UCLA, Cal and Stanford will start to take notice. And it may not be long before there are California Division I coaches in the stands at the Ducks West Coast Prospects Camp.
Paul Kelly will be speaking Saturday afternoon at 1:30 p.m. at the Ducks West Coast Prospects Camp at Anaheim Ice.
Our complete coverage at the 2010 Ducks West Coast Prospects Camp Main Page.