OTHER STORIES IN THIS SERIES
Part III: Santa Margarita’s third national title in five years – and second in a row – further cements the ADHSHL’s reputation.
This is third 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.
A decade ago youth hockey in many states, California included, had a retention problem. Players who weren’t at the Tier I level began to leave the game as they entered high school.
The Ducks proposed a solution – high school hockey. What started with one team (JSerra High School) in 2008 added another (Santa Margarita) a year later. By the 2011-12 season the Anaheim Ducks High School Hockey League was formed. This season, the ADHSHL will ice an astounding 52 teams. In other words, there are opportunities for nearly 1,000 players to continue to play – for their local high schools, no less – that didn’t exist a decade ago.
“I don’t think anybody knew the high school league would have this type of success,” ADHSHL Commissioner Matthew Blanchart said. “We were going with what student-athletes and families wanted. It turned into this thing that keeps growing. JSerra winning state (in February) was a big deal – Five Points Arena was packed.”
Santa Margarita winning three USA Hockey High School National Championships in five years, including the past two, also hasn’t hurt the league’s profile. That was one of several signature moments in a 2018-19 season full of them for the youth hockey offspring of the Anaheim Ducks.
“That was huge because of all the coverage they got in Los Angeles and our market,” Blanchart said. “All of that helps.”
It’s also evidence of a rising level of play across the board in the league.
“Not only is the high school hockey environment growing, but our level of play is growing,” Blanchart said. “Our teams that go to tournaments around the country all do very well. Teams no longer take us lightly.
“Our Thanksgiving tournament will have a dozen Canadian teams come in and be scouted by a lot of (NCAA) Division I schools. Overall there will be upwards of 50 teams at it. It’s eye-opening for their teams and our teams.”
Reaching this point has been a process, said Craig Johnson, the Santa Margarita coach who also serves as the Jr. Ducks' director of coaches.
“The first time we traveled we were almost looked down upon,” Johnson said. “Now when we travel, people show us more respect because we have three national championships. Any time you can win something like that, it’s good for the state, good for the ADHSHL and good for high school hockey in general.”
SOMETHING FOR EVERYONE
If the curve one is grading on is providing ongoing opportunities to play hockey and obtain the physical, mental and emotional benefits of team sports, then the Ducks’ offspring get an A.
The Ducks and their branches of youth programs have impacted tens of thousands of boys and girls, this despite the fact the programs still are in their relative infancy.
“California is a state where we love sports, we love activity and we’re a melting pot of cultures from elsewhere and over the generations,” Lady Ducks Director of Coaches Kathy McGarrigle said. “When someone with the NHL background Craig has stays in the area and gets involved, it helps to coalesce people that have that desire to compete at the high school level. So he takes that by the reins and gives kids another option to play, not just at the elite level.”
Added Jr. Ducks Director of Player Development Alex Kim, “Look at high school hockey. The job Craig has done at Santa Margarita helped put that league on the map. Matt Blanchart and Art have really grown that thing. Look at what Kathy has done with the Lady Ducks, it’s incredible. You have all of these components working together toward the same goal – growing the game.”
Johnson played in Minnesota, the State of Hockey, through college. He said he sees some similarities with the state of the sport in Southern California. “There is a really good community out here. A lot of people care about the game, they respect it and they work hard at growing it. You can see that love for the game growing.”