Part II: 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.
This is second 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.
The happenings in Vancouver, British Columbia, on the night of June 21 rubber stamped the Jr. Ducks as one of the premier youth hockey clubs in the United States.
Yes, the club had sent 10 teams to the Tier I USA Hockey Youth Nationals since 2015, and yes, seven Tier II teams had accomplished the same feat since 2013, but having two homegrown players selected in the first round of the NHL Entry Draft was another story.
When the Philadelphia Flyers selected Cam York with the 14th overall pick, he became the highest-drafted California-born and –trained NHL selection ever. When longtime Jr. Ducks teammate and fellow defenseman Ryan Johnson (Craig’s son) was taken by the Buffalo Sabres with the 31st overall pick, it made the duo only the fourth and fifth Californians ever picked in the first round and first to predominantly play for the same club.
“Two first round picks … incredible,” The Rinks Vice President Art Trottier summed up.
It was another signature event in a season full of them for the offspring of the Anaheim Ducks in 2018-19.
Since the Jr. Ducks decided to wade into the AAA waters, the program has experienced wild success – from the Nationals appearances to CAHA titles to winning tournaments and league titles in the NAPHL and Tier 1 Elite league. Last year, Slava Demin, now at the University of Denver, became the first homegrown Jr. Duck to be an NHL pick, when Vegas selected him in the fourth round.
“A lot of the credit goes to Craig and Alex,” Trottier said. “When we made the commitment, they really got behind it and helped grow it. When we purchased Westminster we had enough ice to dip into Tier I. We always were a grass-roots program.
In Craig Johnson and Alex Kim, and many other of the program’s coaches, the Jr. Ducks have men with extensive ties to college and junior hockey and a wealth of playing experience.
For example, the 2001 birth year group primarily played for Johnson – a longtime NHL player and U.S. Olympian – and Scott Niedermayer, a Hockey Hall of Famer.
“The credit for Cam and Ryan’s development goes to Craig and Scott. They did a fantastic job,” Kim said. “How they developed that group of players is a model for what you’d want to do to develop players.”
Lady Ducks Director of Coaches Kathy McGarrigle, who also coached York during his in-house years, said another strength of the organization is it allows players to develop at their own pace.
“I remember Cam at 6 or 7, and we had to keep moving him up in The Rinks’ in-house program because he was such a natural,” she said. “Contrast that with Ryan, who was a good player, but he wasn’t a superstar as a Pee Wee. He stayed here through 16s.
“It’s a testament that you don’t have to leave to continue developing. The sky is the limit. It’s awesome to see both of those kids get the opportunities they have now and knowing they weren’t chasing after a different club every year. They wore the same sweater.
“Every parent can take something from that. Be calm, don’t be a hockey mercenary, just enjoy the journey with your child. Cam and Ryan had a lot of good guidance. Craig didn’t push Ryan when he wasn’t there yet.”
Then there are the Jr. Ducks’ 21 Division I college commitments in the past five years … and counting. York will play at Michigan this fall, while Johnson is headed to Minnesota. Dozens more are at Division III schools, and the Jr. Ducks are well represented in the junior ranks as well.
“We’ve been fortunate to have a lot of good families to work with,” Kim said. “The players bought in to what our coaches are teaching them.
“When the Tier 1 Elite Hockey League opportunity came up (for the 2015-16 season), that was a big reason our kids got more exposure to the next levels. It took time to forge relationships with those programs and teams in the USHL, the BCHL, the NAHL and college hockey. We have a ways to go, but we’re on our way.”
On-ice skill development is one thing, and the club’s advancement numbers bear that out, but Johnson and Co. emphasize the soft skills as well.
“That’s the biggest thing,” Johnson said. “You want to develop good people, and then you want to develop the hockey player, make them better.
“All of these kids who are committing are really good people.”
The Rinks Hockey Director Rick Hutchinson pointed out another benefit of players such as York, Johnson and Annie Pankowski - who captained Wisconsin to an NCAA title and then helped Team USA win a gold medal at the World Championships just weeks later - ascending to the sport’s highest levels.
“I remember coaching Cam when he started. Annie started with us when she was 6,” Hutchinson recalled. “What they’ve accomplished, it’s nice to see it pays off.
“The other benefit is it shows parents and kids it all starts at the same place. They’re examples of what’s possible.”
THE LADY DUCKS TAKE FLIGHT
To say the Anaheim Lady Ducks have come a long way since they began in 1999 might be the understatement of the year.
Twenty years later, the club has helped more than 125 girls make commitments to play college hockey, seen an alumni win an Olympic Gold medal (Cayla Barnes) and another recently win NCAA and Women’s World Championship titles in the same month (Pankowski).
“Given where the program started, it’s unbelievable there are so many Southern California girls playing Division I and Division III hockey,” Trottier said. “The Lady Ducks have done a phenomenal job growing girls hockey.
“The development camps they’ve had the past 6-7 years, bringing in college coaches, really shows a commitment to girls hockey, as do their trips back East to play in tournaments and visit colleges. They’ve really made a name for themselves.”
The seeds were planted when the then newly opened Disney ICE in Anaheim played host to Nationals in 1998.
“We hosted girls Tier I Nationals in 1998, which prompted us to start a girls program in 1999,” said McGarrigle. “Now 20 years later we held Nationals again in a brand new, amazing facility. It all came full circle.”
The LDs started with roughly 30 girls in that first season. This coming season, they will field 15 teams, and between travel and in-house teams they have at least 10 times that many girls playing.
“When you look back at Year 1 or 2, I had Annie Pankowski and her older sister Ali in our 8U in-house program,” McGarrigle said. “You see the infancy of our program and the start of development for someone like that, they’ve seen similar paths.
“We’ve grown roughly 20 percent a year for 20 years. The 125 plus girls who have gone on to play in college, that’s a lot for a club that started with 30 girls. Look at the girls playing D-I. There are elite girls on the National program. We’ve seen all of that grow together, not the least of which culminates in our program icon.
“Annie always makes time to give back to the program. Kids meet her and get inspired by her. Maybe we’ll kick start a new generation.”
It doesn’t end with hockey, however, a theme consistent across all of the programs – whether the Lady Ducks, the Jr. Ducks or the high school league.
“The academic opportunities that have come out of hockey have been incredible,” McGarrigle said. “There are always those moments when a player calls me and says, ‘Hey coach, I committed to School X. That’s super cool. But equally as cool is I have kids – I call them kids but they’re in their 20s – call and say I just passed my medical boards, I just got my PhD, I just got my license to do physical therapy. Another girl is a doctor at USC Medical Center. The list goes on and on.
“Hockey is a sport for life, but within that it presents a huge upside for other areas of life because of the commitment and discipline it takes to play the game.”
NEXT: Santa Margarita’s third national title in five years – and second in a row – further cements the ADHSHL’s reputation.