Hockey makes its mark on Southern California’s youth, on and off the ice
by Julian Mininsohn
photography by Daniel Torres
It is a sunny Sunday afternoon at The Rinks Westminster ICE. Outside it’s warm but as soon as you enter the rink the temperature drops about 40 degrees. Through the piercing cold you can hear sharp skates slicing across the ice. It is free-skate time at the rink, which means dozens of kids are practicing their skating or hockey skills.
Jason Cooper, 34, attentively observes the open skate as he stands next to a lifesize cutout of Anaheim Ducks all-star Corey Perry. Maybe he is watching the next Corey Perry in the making. Jason grew up playing hockey in Chino. “One of my biggest influences, funny enough, is The Mighty Ducks movies,” Jason says of the Disney movies that preceded the creation of the NHL franchise. Now, as fan development coordinator for the Ducks, he helps the team introduce the sport to Southern California children like those skating in Westminster that day.
Southern California’s hockey history
It is safe to say things changed for hockey in Southern California when the Los Angeles Kings acquired Wayne Gretzky in 1988. Gretzky, labeled “The Great One,” was a nine-time MVP and regarded as the best hockey player.
In 1993, the Kings made it to their first Stanley Cup Finals, which increased the popularity of the sport in Southern California even more. “The arrival of Wayne Gretzky in a trade with Edmonton in 1988 was a huge turning point in popularizing the sport here,” says Helene Elliot, a long-time hockey writer and columnist for the Los Angeles Times. “Existing fans respected him; casual fans recognized his star power and appreciated him. But he deserves a lot of credit for helping promote the game off the ice, and turning many people into hockey fans.” As for the Ducks, the team was founded in 1993 after the successful release of “The Mighty Ducks” movie in 1992. After a decade of mediocrity, the Ducks went to their first Stanley Cup Finals in 2003 and eventually won the Stanley Cup in 2007.
With the Kings winning two of the last three Stanley Cups and the Ducks winning the cup in 2007 along with posting a top-3 record the last two seasons, hockey has become a popular sport in Southern California. So much so that children are entering youth hockey programs to learn and play the game. “It just raises attention to hockey in the Southern California market,” says Chris Crotty, director of hockey development for Kings. “It’s an exciting time for hockey in Southern California.”
With 80-degree winters, California is a non-traditional hockey market. “Access is going to be the biggest thing, especially in a non-traditional market and a place where it would be easier to do this programming if I worked for the Angels or the Galaxy,” Jason says. “There is not a historical connection to hockey. We have seen expansion and growth over the past couple years. Within our plans in the future is to lay down more sheets of ice and create new roller rinks and more opportunities for the community to go pick up a hockey stick and play hockey.”
Much of the growth of these youth programs can be attributed to success of professional hockey in Southern California. “I very strongly believe that hockey is growing in popularity. It’s an option kids think about now, when maybe their parents never considered playing the sport. There are more rinks now, and better coaching as well, for those who play,” Helene says. “Former NHL players like Glenn Murray, Rob Blake, Nelson Emerson, Jason Marshall, Scott Niedermayer and Todd Marchant are coaching kids’ teams, which helps develop skills. From a fan point of view, more games are available on TV and livestream and other ways than ever before, so it’s easier to watch and follow. The Kings have announced something like 180 consecutive sellouts. The Ducks fill about 95 percent of their seats.”
In Southern California, the early ’90s were a time when hockey said, “I’m here.” With the recent success of the Ducks and Kings, hockey now says, “I’m here to stay.”
Hockey meets education
Jason changes into his orange and black hockey gear in The Rinks Westminster ICE locker room. While he dons Ducks colors, his team is far from the size or skill of professional hockey players. Plus, he and his teammates have all their teeth. Quite unusual for hockey players. That’s because his team is full of male and female physical education teachers. Maybe that’s why his team is named the Bad Apples. Ironic enough it is the toughness of hockey combined with the cliché “apple for the teacher” concept.
Although it is a non-contact game and for mostly teaching purposes, Jason still takes the sport seriously.” We know that if we teach a teacher how to play the game or familiarize them more with the game, they’re going to be bigger and better advocates in the classroom,” Jason says. “Not only do we want kids to get more hockey in school but we want them to be more comfortable teaching it. The best way to do that is to know the game and play it and that’s what we are trying to do here.” Contact or not, he wants people to learn about the sport he admires.
Jason has been the fan development coordinator for the Ducks since 2011. Growing up in Chino, Jason developed a love for hockey when his parents would give him a few bucks and drop him off at the local ice rink. “That was probably my biggest catalyst for my interest in the sport,” Jason says. “It got me to pick up sticks and learn how to play.” After graduating with a degree in communications with an emphasis in photojournalism from the University of La Verne in 2003, he worked for the San Gabriel Valley Tribune as a nighttime photo editor and a substitute teacher by day.
In 2005, Jason earned a job as a P.E. teacher at Orange County Maranatha Christian Academy in Costa Mesa. This was around the same time the Ducks started a fan development program. OC Maranatha Christian Academy was one of the first schools selected to implement a street hockey module as part of the P.E. curriculum. The Ducks organization provided the school with $3,000 worth of hockey gear and instructions on how to play the game. Jason had the Ducks connection and was offered a job by the team in 2011.
Programs take center ice
Besides having four ice rinks and three inline rinks associated with the Ducks, the club provides many programs to promote hockey to the youth of Southern California. Jason’s fan development department has three divisions including the adult and children’s booster clubs, Goal Outreach and Awareness Locally (GOAL) and Scholastic Curriculum of Recreation and Education (SCORE). GOAL is the youth ice and roller hockey program in which kids of all ages go to the local Ducks associated rink to learn and play the game of hockey.
Jason is most associated with the SCORE program. SCORE targets elementary school students and introduces hockey using health and wellness along with academic techniques. “The idea behind that is to introduce students to the game and the brand in school,” Jason says. “And to create high-quality, robust educational programming that is not only beneficial to the teachers, but also teaches students something about the game.” Jason and his team write a high-quality curriculum that is standards-based and approved by the Orange County Department of Education. The curriculum is distributed among physical education teachers to 45 schools across Orange County. The teachers then instruct these 10-day hockey modules to their students promoting health and wellness through hockey. The Ducks organization provides hockey gear to all the schools involved. Over 4,000 kids are getting hockey as a part of their curriculum each school year. SCORE then brings the schools to a hockey tournament at the Honda Center to play for the SCORE Cup, a kiddie version of the Stanley Cup. “The idea is access,” Jason says. “Get sticks in the hands of kids. Give them a stick and they’ll learn how to play the game.”
Jason also exposes students to hockey through academics. The First Flight program teaches the academic side of the sport. About 16,000 kids go on a math and science field trip to the Honda Center to learn about the science of hockey. Jason and his team create science and math workbooks that are sent to the schools a month prior to the trip. “They’re getting hockey, they’re getting exposed to the team, but more so they’re learning something about science and math, which is really important,” Jason says.
Lastly, the Ducks have the Captain’s Challenge event each year at the Honda Center in which about 1,000 fifth-graders do fitness tests for better health and flexibility. “The kids get really excited,” says Whitney Amsbarry, fifth-grade teacher at Nohl Canyon Elementary School in Anaheim. “It’s motivating for the kids because they’re learning nutrition, they’re learning exercises and they love it.” While the tests aren’t official, Jason hopes to get approved as a legitimate testing site by the Orange County Department of Education. “The professional sport aspect behind it really gives it a lot of carry,” says Paul Alvarez, movement and sports science department chair at the University of La Verne. Paul and his kinesiology students have volunteered at the Captain’s Challenge event for the past four years.
The Kings also provide kids with programs such as the Lil’ Kings Programs, Los Angeles Jr. Kings Hockey Club and the Kings Rink Alliance, which gives kids of all ages the opportunity to play the sport at one of the 23 ice rinks located around Southern California. The Lil’ Kings Program started with the participation of 150 kids. Next year the Kings’ hockey development department expects 1,000 children to join.”There’s a fear of hockey. We want kids to overcome it,” Chris says. ”When they do, kids love it. We want to get kids playing hockey for the first time.”
Back at The Rinks Westminster ICE, kids of all different ages and skill levels are enjoying the open skate time. Some fall, some fly across the ice. One thing is for certain: Seeing kids at hockey rinks in Southern California is becoming as common as seeing kids on a football field or basketball court.