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|Because of his heritage, Nieto is an unlikely NHL draftee. LA Hockey is working to change that.|
This story appears in the Oct. 17 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
ON A BALMY AUGUST DAY, Matt Nieto is skating up a sweat alongside a few dozen eager kids from LA Hockey Club. Five years ago, Nieto was just like them, a Southern California boy who dreamed of a future in hockey.
His home turf alone makes him atypical for the sport, but Nieto's background is even rarer -- his parents are Mexican. Neither factor stopped him from realizing his dream. In June, the Sharks selected the speedy Boston University winger in the second round.
"I was the only Hispanic kid in the draft this year," says Nieto, 18.
His NHL debut is probably a few years away, but Nieto is on the cusp of joining a select group. According to the league, 6 percent of its 720 active players are racial or ethnic minorities. Of those 43 guys, only four are Hispanic, including Canadiens center Scott Gomez and Coyotes left winger Raffi Torres. But with 30 minorities under NHL contracts in junior hockey and the minors, diversity numbers could jump over the next few seasons.
The league has programs like LA Hockey to thank for that growth. When former minor leaguer James Gasseau founded the club eight years ago in a residential Lakewood neighborhood, Southern California was largely fallow ground for hockey talent. That began to change as kids weaned on Wayne Gretzky and the Mighty Ducks gravitated toward the sport. Still, championing youth hockey in the land of sun and surf had its challenges. The "LA is too warm for hockey" trope was one, but even tougher, says Gasseau, has been overcoming the idea that hockey is a rich kids' game -- not a totally unfounded perception. "No one ever played in my family because hockey is really expensive," says Nieto, who grew up near Snoop Dogg's old digs in Long Beach.
To help mitigate the costs, Gasseau devised a clever recruitment plan. For a $250 deposit, parents of 4- and 5-year-olds can rent all the necessary hockey gear for their child along with a month's worth of skating lessons. At the end of 30 days, if their kid isn't sold on the sport, they can return the gear and get their money back. This no-risk plan is expanding LA Hockey's reach. Gasseau says there were zero minorities when he started the club but now estimates that up to 15 percent of the program's nearly 300 players, ages 4 to 18, are nonwhite. "That number grows every year," he says.
Attracting local kids to its program and then developing them into good players was an important first step in establishing LA Hockey's bona fides. Now comes the truly hard part -- retaining the area's elite talent. Nieto left the club at age 14 to further his career in Connecticut, while Ducks 2010 first-rounder Emerson Etem and Panthers 2011 second-rounder Rocco Grimaldi left the program to train in Minnesota and Michigan, respectively. Gasseau envisions a day when LA has the caliber of play, instruction and facilities to persuade the city's best prospects to finish their youth careers locally. "We're building a strong network here," says Gasseau. "Who knows. The next Gretzky could live right around the corner."
LA Hockey Club just needs him to know that the door is open and the equipment is waiting.
Molly Knight is a contributing writer for ESPN The Magazine.
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