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The Straight Edge: California ripe for Div. I NCAA hockey

Mitch Wahl was a second round pick (48th overall) of Calgary's in 2008. (Photo by Dave Sandford/NHLI via Getty Images)

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Mitch Wahl was a second round pick (48th overall) of Calgary's in 2008. (Photo by Dave Sandford/NHLI via Getty Images)

It’s been a pretty good year for hockey in California. The Los Angeles Kings proved they are well on their way to becoming contenders, while the San Jose Sharks (Game 4 disaster notwithstanding) were poised to slay their Detroit demons and make it back to the Western Conference final for the first time since 2004.

Not only that, but the grassroots efforts in the state are yielding a considerable bounty of young talent. That’s why the time is right for the NCAA to come to Cali.

While club hockey is played throughout the state, there is no Division I presence, even though the talent is certainly there now. And the first school to buy in will be rewarded with a bevy of elite players to choose from.

Paul Kelly, former head of the NHL Players’ Association, now works for College Hockey Inc., a sort of lobby group dedicated to promoting the NCAA game. He sees California as a win-win situation for the sport.

“The first college or university in California (to add hockey) will have an immediate pool of recruits to draw from,” he said. “Within a very short period of time, you could be competing for a national title.”

And that’s no overstatement. A hypothetical core roster of players for next year or 2011-12, just from California and the surrounding states, would boast: A potential 2010 first round NHL draft pick (Emerson Etem, now playing for Medicine Hat in the Western League); two potential 2010 second-rounders (Jason Zucker, NTDP; Beau Bennett, Penticton, BCHL); a proven 2008 second-rounder (Mitch Wahl, Calgary Flames/AHL Abbotsford); two top-10 scorers from the United States League (Matt White and Matt Leitner); a top USHL defenseman (Dennis Brown); Detroit’s sixth round pick in 2009 (Mitchell Callahan); three more NTDP kids (Matt Nieto, Adam Reid and Luke Moffatt) and a hot-shot freshman goalie (Brendan Jensen, Vancouver Giants, WHL).

That’s more NHL draft picks and prospects than some WCHA programs have and doesn’t even count the fact kids from Canada or other parts of the U.S. would likely be drawn to the idea of playing hockey and going to school in California.

Other states Kelly would like to see adding programs in the near future include Pennsylvania, Missouri and Illinois, but the sun and sand out west isn’t the only reason California looks so tempting.

“They’re turning out some of the top talent anywhere,” Kelly said. “Their youth programs are pretty mature now.”

Kelly noted that all three NHL teams in the state – Los Angeles, San Jose and Anaheim – have expressed interest in helping fledgling college programs in any way possible and luckily those areas are also the best candidates for NCAA schools.

UCLA and Southern Cal in Los Angeles and Stanford or California (Berkeley) in the Bay Area make the most sense from an outsider’s perspective; they’re big schools that would have natural rivalries with each other and provide a nice 2-for-1 road trip for the Boston Colleges and Michigans of the world. One school’s inclusion would also likely spurn others to join.

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“Now is a really good time for a school to add a sport,” Kelly said. “The dominoes would start to fall. Hockey, quite frankly, is on a wave, on a rise.”

Kelly sees economics and Title IX as the two biggest barriers, but not insurmountable ones. Economics speak for themselves – it’s all about the will of the university to take a chance that fan support would pay for initial investments – but Title IX is a different beast.

The 1972 law states that there must be gender equity in all educational funding, meaning the scholarships made available to a men’s hockey team, for example, must also be available to a corresponding number of women students. So if 20 men get scholarships, you need to find a sport where 20 women get scholarships to keep things equal.

But Kelly notes that it doesn’t necessarily have to be women’s hockey (if there is no demand in the area).

“Synchronized skating is a new emerging sport which uses the same type of facilities,” he noted. “And I’m told it gets pretty good attendance.”

Naturally, both barriers are questions only the universities in California can answer. As I said before, it’s a matter of will.

But based on the talent available and the buzz that continues to grow around the sport in California, I get a nice grin any time I think of what a UCLA Bruins-USC Trojans game might look like at the Frozen Four.

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Ryan Kennedy is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Monday and Wednesday, his column - The Straight Edge - every Friday, and his prospect feature, The Hot List appears Tuesdays. 

For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.

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