In what was one of the worst kept secrets in the hockey world, it was announced on Monday that the Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim Ducks will do battle in an outdoor hockey game at Dodger Stadium on Jan. 25, 2014.
The game, which will be part of a series of outdoor games headlined by the Winter Classic in Ann Arbor, Mich. on Jan. 1, will be the furthest south the NHL has ever attempted to play an outdoor game, and promises to be a unique experience for fans lucky enough to get tickets to see it.
More so than just being a great showcase of a budding rivalry between two of the Western Conference’s top teams, however, this game between the Kings and Ducks is going to give the teams an opportunity to showcase the explosive growth that the sport of hockey has seen in Southern California over the past several years. Aided by the Ducks’ Stanley Cup championship in 2007, as well as the Kings’ title last year, youth hockey has been gaining steam as more kids have been turned onto the game.
According to data released by USA Hockey, youth hockey participants in California have increased by 8 percent in the past year (data is only available through 2012), but overall since the Ducks and San Jose Sharks joined the NHL in the early 1990s, that number is even more staggering.
Since 1990-91, the hockey playing population in California has grown by a mind-boggling 361.8 percent, according to Chris Peters over at United States of Hockey. This explosion in popularity is finally yielding some NHL dividends as well. There are currently eight players active in the NHL who were born in California, which places the state in a tie for eighth with Pennsylvania in that regard. Minnesota leads the pack with 43 NHLers currently active, but the fact that California even has eight players is a reminder of just how far the sport of hockey has come in the state.
Several of these California born players are currently making an impact in the NHL playoffs. Beau Bennett has been a fixture in the Pittsburgh Penguins’ lineup this postseason, and had 14 points in 26 regular season games with the club. Jason Zucker had four goals for the Minnesota Wild during the regular season, and scored the game winning goal in overtime to lift his team over the Chicago Blackhawks on Sunday. Also, Brooks Orpik has been a key contributor on the blue line of the Penguins in the playoffs as well.
Most relevant of all, however, is the Ducks’ young forward Emerson Etem. Drafted with the 29th overall pick in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, the Long Beach native played 36 games with the Ducks in 2013, scoring three goals and adding seven assists in the process.
Assuming that he is healthy for the game next year, Etem is going to get plenty of attention when the gaze of the NHL shifts onto this outdoor game, and rightly so. He is a shining example of the way that the sport has grown in California, and if the league is smart in their marketing of the game, then Etem will be front and center in the run up to puck drop in this historic event.