STRONGSVILLE, Ohio– ASU is doing everything it can to debunk the idea that Arizona is not a hockey market. Its move to Division I opened the eyes of the college hockey world, but there's another state that doesn't get talked about as much as it should. It's one with three Stanley Cups and at one point employed the world's greatest player.
"People overlook it because it's warm weather just like Arizona, but it's great hockey," forward Chris Blessing said.
He's talking about California.
In 2007, the Nashville Predators selected Jonathon Blum with the 23rd overall pick, making him the first player born and raised in California chosen in the first round of draft. Blum, born in Long Beach and raised in Rancho Santa Margarita, played his youth hockey in the area, proving it is possible to make it to the NHL from there.
He's far from the only one. Washington's Brooks Opik was born in San Francisco and Pittsburgh's Beau Bennett and Ottawa's Bobby Ryan, though not born in California, played for the LA Jr. Kings youth team growing up, the same team some of the Sun Devils played for.
Sophomore forward Michael Cummings from San Bernardino is one who played for the Jr. Kings and he said the popularity of the sport has never been higher back home.
"You'll always see Kings stickers on people's cars, even people I went to high school with that didn't know a thing about hockey," Cummings said. "Now they're huge fans."
While Wayne Gretzky's famous trade from Edmonton to Los Angeles in 1988 made the game's popularity in California explode, Cummings also credits another famous arrival of a hockey icon: when the Stanley Cup made its way West.
"There's a generation a little bit younger than me that's starting to play now," Cummings said. "They all started because the Ducks won the Cup. Now with the Kings winning two of the last three years, hockey's definitely getting a lot bigger."
The Anaheim Ducks brought the Cup to California in 2007, then the Kings returned it in 2012 and 2014. Last season during their Cup run, the Kings averaged 19,017 fans per game according to ESPN, the eighth-best in the league and behind only Chicago among American Western Conference teams.
(Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Where there is popularity, there is also talent. Five current Sun Devils hail from the Golden State, more than any other state (Arizona has four). For comparison, there are also five ASU players from Alberta, the most among Canadian provinces.
It's easy to look at the Canadians on the roster and see a goldmine of talent, but ASU has also tapped into the California gold. Cummings' 16 goals is tied for fourth on the team, Chris Blessing of Valencia has 18 points, Faiz Khan of Santa Clara has thrived since his second semester return, Valencia's Kyle Bowen is arguably the team's best penalty killer and Frazier Park native Brett Blomgren is the team captain.
"Just because it's warm area just like Arizona is doesn't mean kids aren't interested in it," Blomgren said. "There's more and more rinks and there's more and more kids getting involved and I think it's just going to continue to grow."
For the players, it just makes sense. Not all of California is the sunny beaches and 75-degree weather. A good chunk of the state, particularly in the southern part is a lot like Arizona: hot. San Bernardino and Frazier Park both average in the upper 90s in the summer months.
Cummings said the location helps too. He said he drives home on certain weekends, and huge plus of Tempe is that it is far enough away from home so feels like he's off at school, but close enough that he go home when he wants to.
Add it all together and it's not an accident that ASU has mined from the West. Based on its geographical location and being the highest-level hockey in the region, ASU does a good job of keeping its Arizona talent in-state. When it makes the move to Division I next season, coach Greg Powers said he plans on focusing on Arizona, California and Western Canada.
"If you have a plan of attack from a recruiting and you stick to that plan, or at least attempt to stick to that plan and execute it, you'll have success," Powers said. "California is a huge priority for us."
Next season the American Hockey League, the NHL's top minor league, will field teams in San Diego, San Jose, Bakersfield, Stockton and Ontario. California has hosted an outdoor Stadium Series game each of the last two seasons. USC, UCLA, Cal and Stanford all have lower-division ACHA programs.
ASU is making sure people know hockey is alive and well in the Grand Canyon State. And when the Sun Devils are looking for talent for its NCAA future, you can bet they won't forget about their neighbors to the West.