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Wednesday, December 18, 2013
Updated: December 19, 10:39 AM ET
Hockey is blossoming in the sun

By Pierre LeBrun
ESPN.com

California's game, eh?

OK, so nobody's pretending Canada is about to lose its grip on the sport it handed the world, but California has some hockey going on this season.

The Anaheim Ducks (.736), Los Angeles Kings (.714) and San Jose Sharks (.706) were all top five in points percentage through Wednesday morning, signaling perhaps one of the greatest seasons ever for California teams since the three have been in the league.

Right now, all three are vying for the Presidents' Trophy; all three are legitimate Stanley Cup contenders. Put some hockey tape on those surfboards, dudes.

"It's been great," Ducks captain Ryan Getzlaf told ESPN.com this week. "We haven't played a lot against each other yet, that's the thing that's going to be real exciting down the stretch is having all three of us right in the hunt and playing for big positions going into the playoffs.

"I think California has done a great job backing these hockey teams and the fans getting on board and creating the buzz around here."

All together, the Cali clubs are a combined 68-22-15 this season. Gulp.

"We're all pretty experienced teams," veteran Kings center Jarret Stoll said. "San Jose has had a big, core group of guys there for a long time, Anaheim same thing, and I'd say same with us. So it's experienced guys, big, physical teams.

"We're all similar teams in a lot of ways and all three of us playing pretty consistent hockey right now. And all three teams are getting contributions from everybody. I'd say more or less the same thing going on with all three of us."

With realignment, it also means that if the three California clubs end up 1-2-3 in the Pacific Division (Vancouver and Phoenix will have something to say about that), two will meet in the first round as the No. 2 versus No. 3 matchup. Talk about a tough way to open the postseason.

Martin Jones
The Kings will likely have to stop the Ducks and/or the Sharks to make it out of the West.
"Looking at that [possibility], you want to try to get home-ice advantage," veteran Sharks winger Patrick Marleau said.  "That's why these games right now are just as important, these points are key, you have to put them in the bank right away and not take any nights off."

Marleau knows what he's talking about. Last season, his Sharks pushed the Kings to an exciting seven-game series in which every game was won by the home team and Los Angeles prevailed by an inch.

"Home ice was about the only difference in that series, pretty much," Stoll said.

Of course, it's not the California series most people were waiting for. Had the Ducks held up their part of the bargain last spring and beaten Detroit at home in Game 7 of their first-round series, it would have been a first-ever Kings-Ducks Southern California playoff affair.

"That would have been pretty cool," Getzlaf said. "That would have been a unique experience that we wished could have happened. To have that rivalry like that, to play in the playoffs, is going to build that up even more."

Oh, you better believe it.

"I remember us being at a little pub here down here at the beach, we were watching that Game 7 [Wings-Ducks] hoping we'd play Anaheim in the next round," Stoll said. "It would have been a special series, a great one for the fans here, for the city, for this whole area. I'm sure it'll happen soon, maybe this year, and we'll have a chance to knock them out, too."

Instead, it's the perennially playoff-bound Sharks who have had the chance to play both the Ducks and Kings in the playoffs.

"We played the Sharks [in 2009] when they were the Presidents' Trophy winner and beat them. Ever since then, we've built that hate with them too," Getzlaf said. "It's been great for hockey out there. When everybody is putting a winning team out on the ice, it really helps build hockey up."

At least one of these three teams has made noise in every season in the past decade, with a California club reaching the Western Conference finals in seven of the past nine seasons over the past 10 years (Sharks in 2004; Ducks in 2006 and 2007; Sharks in 2010 and 2011; Kings in 2012 and 2013).

The Ducks became the state's first Stanley Cup champions in 2007, the Kings won it all in 2012 and the Sharks have been knocking at the door for a decade, their 107 playoff games from 2004 through 2013 second-most in the NHL to Detroit (123 games) during that span.

Just one thing left to do for San Jose to join their California cousins, right?

"Yes, there is, exactly right," Marleau said, chuckling. "Hopefully, if it's going in turns, next time it's ours."

Sharks/Ducks
The California teams all have their eyes on the same prize, and are especially focused when playing one another.
All kidding aside, though, Marleau feels the impact of all three California teams had helped grow the sport in the state -- growth that will be on display when the Ducks and Kings play each other outdoors at Dodger Stadium on Jan. 25 before 50,000-plus fans as part of the NHL's Stadium Series.

"From when I first got here [in 1997], you can tell the difference in how it's grown, not only with the fans, but with youth hockey," Marleau said. "You look at our team now, we've got Matt Nieto, a Long Beach kid, I think you're going to see a lot more of that in the coming years. There's a lot of great hockey systems. And I know the Kings have done a great job down there with their youth hockey system.

"San Jose is trying to do something similar. My oldest kid is starting to go through it now and I'm seeing it firsthand now how they run things in youth hockey."

To wit, these figures from USA Hockey: From 2002-03 to 2012-13, overall players (of all ages) playing in California grew 29.3 percent from 18,660 to 24,126. More importantly, during that same 10-year span, in the 8-and-under age category, that number jumped from 1,427 in 2002-03 to 2,131 in 2012-13. That's a 49.3 percent increase. The 2012-13 figure is an all-time high for that age category in California.

"Two weeks ago, we had a pregame skate scheduled but there was a junior Kings game going on and they were going into overtime, so we had to wait a little bit before getting on the ice," Stoll said, laughing. "It was kind of funny. But we do a lot of things around the city involving the public, involving kids, it just seems like every year there's more and more kids at events. It's definitely getting better and better every year."

The Ducks launched the Anaheim Ducks High School League in July 2008 with one team. In five years, the program has expanded to 28 teams from 19 schools at both the varsity and junior varsity levels.

The impact of Stanley Cup championships by the Ducks in 2007 and the Kings in 2012 can't be discounted, either.

"It's been huge. Any time you're winning, you create an atmosphere that people want to be a part of," Getzlaf said. "The last 10-odd years, things have built up so much here with us winning, then the Kings winning and San Jose competing pretty much every season, it's been a great thing for Orange County and for hockey in general in California."