Other stories in this series
A SEASON FOR THE AGES
Part I: The opening of Great Park ICE and Five Point Arena was a game-changer for not only the Jr. Ducks, Lady Ducks and the ADHSHL, but also for grass-roots hockey in California.
This is first of a three-part series taking a deeper dive into the unparalleled success surrounding the Irvine Ice Foundation, Anaheim Ducks High School Hockey League and The Rinks’ grass-roots programs during the 2018-19 season.
Memorable is a good starting point, but it doesn’t completely do justice to the 2018-19 youth hockey season for the offspring of the Anaheim Ducks.
The various entities enjoyed a succession of achievements the likes of which may never been seen again together.
· The Irvine Ice Foundation, the umbrella covering the Anaheim Jr. Ducks and Lady Ducks, advanced a club-record five boys teams and three girls teams to the USA Hockey Youth Nationals, saw more than a dozen more players make college commitments, and hosted the Tier I girls Nationals tournament. Then the summer began with two Jr. Ducks alumni – Cam York and Ryan Johnson – being selected in the first round of the NHL Entry Draft – a first for the club.
· Santa Margarita Catholic, an Anaheim Ducks High School Hockey League representative, won a USA Hockey National Championship for the second year in a row and the third time in five seasons.
· And The Rinks opened a four-sheet facility in Irvine – Great Park ICE and Five Point Arena – that raises the bar for programs across the United States. That undoubtedly will fuel further growth in The Rinks’ already-booming Learn To Play and in-house programs.
THEY BUILT IT, AND THEY CAME
As the calendar flipped to 2019, Great Park ICE and Five Point Arena opened its doors and immediately became the flagship outlet among The Rinks’ six ice facilities. (It also operates three inline rinks).
Home to four ice sheets and the Anaheim Ducks’ training facility, the building increased The Rinks’ ice sheet total to 13.
“The Samueli’s have done a remarkable job growing the game in Orange County,” said Craig Johnson, the Jr. Ducks’ longtime director of coaches. “All of our programs, from in-house to AAA to high school, are thriving.
“The one thing that was holding more growth back is there weren’t enough sheets to accommodate everyone.”
The vision for the south Orange County facility was born more than a decade ago, said Art Trottier, vice president of The Rinks.
“About 10-12 years ago we started talking to a couple of locations,” Trottier said. “(Ducks owners) Henry and Susan (Samueli) and Mike (Schulman, the Ducks’ CEO) really thought that Orange County could use a great facility. We are fortunate we have an ownership group that really wants to grow the sport.
“We’ve had to purchase ice at other buildings for our programs for years. We’ve tried to grow but we had no place to grow. … This gives us a chance to really expand our programs.”
That concept is at the root of the Jr. Ducks and Lady Ducks, who have espoused a ground-up approach since their formation. In a matter of months, Great Park ICE’s opening already has had a profound impact on the growth of youth hockey in Orange County and the surrounding areas.
“Our grass-roots programs have blown up,” said Rick Hutchinson, The RINKS’ director of hockey. “Those have always been the main reason for our success, but the Great Park facility gives us a huge opportunity in south county, not only for hockey but also for figure skating.
“As soon as we open registration for a Learn to Play Hockey class, it sells out.”
Hutchison estimates as many as 12,000 youth have gone through the four-week Learn to Play Hockey class in the past decade. That program includes free gear, paid for by longtime Anaheim Ducks Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry.
The NHL also launched an initiative, in part modeled after the Learn to Play program, called the Little Ducks that provides youths a six-week opportunity to learn the game as well as providing gear for $250.
From there, The Rinks offers a 16-week hockey initiation class, which is an entry point to in-house hockey. At any given time, the introductory programs include 300 skaters, Hutchinson said.
Great Park ICE’s opening has coincided with in-house hockey participation growing to nearly 700 players. That allowed Hutchinson and his team to separate program practices into geographic regions - West (Lakewood and Westminster), East (Anaheim and Yorba Linda) and South (Irvine) – thus reducing travel times for families. Games are scheduled on a rotating basis at the various locations.
“That has been very well received and has contributed to the growth,” Hutchinson said. “Our resources allow us to build from the bottom up, which has always been our focus.”
Make no mistake, the Great Park’s opening, coupled with the rising levels of play in youth hockey throughout California, will make the Irvine facility a destination.
“It’s state of the art,” said Alex Kim, the Jr. Ducks’ director of player development and 16U AAA coach. “Teams are coming in to play here now – Arizona, Colorado, for example. That didn’t happen before.”
Great Park ICE’s impact on the ADHSHL also will be profound, commissioner Matthew Blanchart said.
“We wouldn’t have the luxury of growth without the new facility,” he said. “We didn’t add any teams last year because we would have been short on ice. With four new sheets of ice, that helps us grow, gets us back on the path we wanted. It’s where everyone wants to play.
“The model for our high school league is for most games to be played at one facility. That used to be Anaheim ICE, now it’s the Great Park. It’s great for scheduling. People know where the games will be and can plan for it.”
The building also allowed the Lady Ducks to host the Tier I Nationals in April and come full circle in their 20th season.
NEXT: A landmark night at the NHL Entry Draft further puts the Jr. Ducks on the map, while the Lady Ducks begin their second decade as the West’s premier girls program.