A handful of signature events have helped define California’s youth hockey surge over the last few decades. Among them the 1988 trade that brought Wayne Gretzky to L.A.; the Anaheim Ducks’ arrival in Orange County in 1993 followed by their Stanley Cup championship in 2007; and most recently the Los Angeles Kings’ Stanley Cup titles in 2012 and 2014.
Perhaps one of the more understated watermark moments took place exactly 20 years ago today - April 9, 2000 - when the Los Angeles Jr. Kings celebrated the Pee Wee AAA title at the USA Hockey National Championships - the first-ever Tier I title won by a California team.
On the final day of the tournament, which was contested in Anchorage, Alaska, the 1986/87-born Jr. Kings took down Detroit-based heavyweights Honeybaked (6-4) and Little Caesars (5-3) in the semifinals and finals, respectively.
“That day ushered in the beginning of a new era when California hockey became a competitive equal with other top programs,” said Andrew Cohen, who at the time served as the Southern California Hockey Association (SCAHA) Tier Hockey Director and was also an assistant coach on the team. “It proved there was enough talented players and quality coaching to bring the state to a whole new level, competitively.”
“It was a special group, no question, and one that worked hard and stayed extremely poised during a lot of pivotal moments of what was an extremely competitive tournament,” said James Gasseau, who served as the team’s head coach along with Igor Nikulin. “Obviously at the time we didn’t appreciate the scope of what that weekend would represent two decades later, but now it’s certainly gratifying to celebrate its importance.”
Within five years after winning their first national title, the Jr. Kings had garnered three gold medals at the USA Hockey National Championships and, as a result, witnessed more and more players packing their bags to play collegiately and professionally.
“When you think about it, it was only 10 years prior to that first national title when SCAHA had just 12 active clubs in the league where the highest competitive level at any club was ‘B’ hockey,” Cohen recalled. “The spike in growth during that period was amazing.”
Player development in California was exploding and, in addition to the Jr. Kings’ efforts, the Westminster Wave program (now the California Wave) was established highlighting top-level coaches, including Jack Bowkus, Shawn Pitcher and Jeff Turcotte, which further accelerated a bumper crop of high-level talent.
“And that translated into more and more success from California teams on the national stage, and with that more and more college, junior and professional coaches and scouts taking notice of our players,” said Cohen.
The Pee Wee AAA title-winning roster included: forwards August Aiken, Kevin Flannery, Jonathan Friedman, Johnny Kemp, Ryan Kim, Brian John, Alex Laseen, Broox Mundy, Bobby Ryan and Andreas Vlassopolous; defensemen Anthony Barela, Aaron Bendersky, Todd Bowman; Brandon Johnson, David Inman and Matt Kiefer; and goaltenders Billy Blase and Alan Hokom.
Yan Bendersky also served as an assistant coach, and Emily Friedman was the team’s manager.
Six players from the squad - Aiken, Kemp, Barela, Vlassopolous, Inman and Blase - went on to play NCAA Division I hockey, with Ryan, now skating with the Ottawa Senators, going on to become an NHL All-Star and U.S. Olympian.
“The bar was raising,” said Cohen. “Hockey was getting better everywhere and now, 20 years later, many California players have made their way into junior hockey, Division I college hockey and the professional ranks.”
“It was a special moment for sure,” Gasseau added. “To look back at that accomplishment 20 years later is something all of those players and families - and the entire California hockey family - can be proud of.”