The label is easy. Jonathon Blum, Beau Bennett and Emerson Etem were first-round NHL draft picks born, bred and developed in Southern California after The Trade. So clearly these puck revolutionaries are the Sons of Wayne Gretzky.
Right? Sort of.
While it's true that they were products of the Gretzky effect, that description might be too simplistic. With the Kings on the verge of winning their first Stanley Cup, it is worth revisiting the growth of the game in the Golden State since Gretzky arrived from Edmonton in 1988 and took the team to the finals in 1993. As the saying goes: If Gretzky doesn't get traded to L.A, there wouldn't be a team in San Jose.
So there's no dispute Gretzky was the ambassador/guiding light/missionary, but the game at the grassroots level still needed to be cultivated so the likes of Blum, Bennett and Etem could hone their skills on the ice. There had to be a bridge between cheering from the stands and watching on TV to skating with sticks and pucks at the rink.
"Those players might not have attained the heights they have, and will, if there were not outstanding youth hockey organizations filled with first-class coaches throughout the state," says Chris Bayee, who is literally writing the book on the history of California hockey in a forthcoming project titled "Palm Trees and Frozen Ponds."
"All three NHL teams have excellent youth hockey programs affiliated with them, and there are many other outstanding clubs, including Orange County Hockey Club, San Diego Jr. Gulls, Santa Clara Blackhawks, Tri-Valley Blue Devils, California Cougars, Anaheim Wildcats, California Titans and the former LA Hockey Club among them. Many of those coaches were lured to California in the aftermath of the Gretzky years with the Kings because more rinks were available to play youth hockey. The building of many of those rinks either occurred shortly before the trade or shortly thereafter."
Blum, a defenseman from Rancho Santa Margarita, became the first California native who went through the local youth circuit to be selected in the first round when the Predators took him at 23rd overall in 2007. Then in 2010, with the draft being held in Los Angeles for the first time, wingers Beau Bennett of Gardena and Emerson Etem of Long Beach both went in the first round. The Penguins took Bennett at 20th overall while Etem went 29th to the Ducks.
No California kids were taken in the first round last year, but there were a total of five selected in the eight-round draft. Two were second-rounders with Rocco Grimaldi of Rossmoor going to the Panthers, and Matt Nieto of Long Beach becoming the first California native selected by San Jose.
That depth of talent suggests that Blum, Bennett and Etem (conducting at youth clinic at right) aren't outliers but trendsetters, and Bayee says that those not plugged into the youth hockey scene are surprised at how many boys and girls "from the state ... are playing at higher levels, such as Juniors, college and the pros, and how long that has been going on. It's not a new phenomenon by any stretch."
One reason for this is that the Gretzky trade and the subsequent expansion and relocation of NHL franchises made hockey a regular part of the sporting landscape in parts of the country where it had been overlooked or completely irrelevant.
"What's happening in non-traditional markets is that the better athletes are starting to play hockey," Predators coach Barry Trotz told ThePostGame last year. "Instead of traditionally going for baseball or football, some of them are going, 'Hey, I can play hockey and make a go of it, even if I'm from California or Nashville.' "
There is still room for additional growth as elite California players a year or two away from the draft head out of state to play for programs such as major junior teams in Canada.
A potentially intriguing development would be whether big-time colleges in the area, like USC and UCLA, would decide to field Division I NCAA teams. Given the level of participation and quality of players locally, is it realistic to think this could happen in the next 10-15 years?
"I think that would be a true game-changer for the sport in California," Bayee says. "However, unless a major benefactor steps forward -- such as at Penn State -- to endow a program and fund the building of an on-campus arena, I don't think it's likely, particularly at a state school. Maybe USC or Stanford could pull it off."
Penn State will begin its first season as a Division I program this fall, thanks to a $102 million donation from alum/Sabres owner Terry Pegula.
"There is no question there is the elite young talent in California right now to make a Division I program competitive immediately," Bayee says. "Junior scouts, college coaches and USA Hockey personnel all have told me that in the past two years."
Perhaps that will be a reality for the Grandsons of Gretzky generation. Or if the Kings capture the Cup, they could be the Sons of Stanley.
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