Growing up just off the Southern California coast, Beau Bennett was often faced with a difficult choice: Spend the afternoon at hockey practice or it the beach?
Such choices were the biggest challenge for a hockey-loving kid growing up in a non-traditional hockey area like Gardena, Calif., which is nestled between Los Angeles and Long Beach. The second biggest challenge, Bennett said, was finding a sheet of ice.
To get ice, it's really expensive. For an hour it would cost $650 (compared to $280 for an hour at Coal Street), Bennett said. We had some good rinks, but they were really far apart.
And those challenges used to be even greater. It wasn't until Wayne Gretzky was traded from the Edmonton Oilers to the Los Angeles Kings in 1988 that hockey in Southern California was rejuvenated. Fan interest grew and, just as important, so did the number of kids who wanted to skate.
The trade created a hockey hotbed in a region known for surfboards and sand.
As far as hockey in California, you really saw a jump in interest when Gretzky came down, Bennett said. Those birth years, from 1988 to the mid-90s, when Gretzky was there, those are the kids that grew up with it in California.
At age 20, Bennett is one of those kids.
Skating in his first pro season with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, the former first round pick grew up playing hockey, but not on the ice.
He started on the pavement, playing roller hockey beginning at 4-years-old. In Southern California, roller hockey is the equivalent of pond hockey in Canada.
While many Canadian kids grew up skating on farm ponds or makeshift ice rinks in the backyard, Bennett's childhood was a bit different -- it was spent on asphalt, not ice.
Roller hockey was my main sport until I was 16. My parents made an area for us to play in the backyard, he said. My friends and I practiced a ton every day.
Because roller hockey wasn't as regimented as playing organized ice hockey, kids in Southern California developed their skills in a different manner.
It's something that Penguins head coach John Hynes noticed during his years leading the U.S. National program, which attracted many players from non-traditional hockey areas.
They play roller and street hockey and not in these organized leagues where everything is so competitive and they play game after game, Hynes said. The kids from non-traditional hockey areas, a lot of times, they have a lot of skill and hockey sense that comes from playing on the street. It's an environment that's more skill- and talent-based.
Bennett agreed, and said to play ice hockey in southern California required a lot of commitment with travel and daily practices. Roller hockey, he said, was more about fun and less about winning.
We'd do stuff like stickhandling in the backyard. That's where I worked on my stick skills every day after school for years, Bennett said. It was just a free-flow game. Roller hockey was something I loved to do.
The fun aside, as Bennett grew into a teenager he realized that there wasn't a future in roller hockey. When he was 16, he made the switch to playing on the ice.
At 17, he joined the Penticton Vees of the British Columbia Hockey League for his first taste of junior hockey.
For the first time, Bennett skated on the ice every day of the week and he combined the skills he learned on the asphalt with those he was now developing in an organized setting.
He had his sights set on becoming a pro, and just as important, parlaying hockey into an education -- which he got while playing for the University of Denver for two years.
But back home, ice hockey always faced stiffed competition from other interests that only Southern California could offer.
They were interests that even Gretzky couldn't compete with at times.
The biggest challenge was there were so many other things you could be doing. The weather was always nice and you didn't have to be locked in to going to the rink, Bennett said. You have the beach. There are some days where you just have to get to the beach because it's beach weather. You have to maintain your focus, and that's the biggest challenge with playing hockey in California.
Hynes said the Kings' Stanley Cup win last season should trigger another hockey wave through California, much like Gretzky's trade. He added it's just one component that has boosted hockey in non-traditional areas, including the NHL's expansion to warmer climates, such as Arizona and Florida, along with USA Hockey's emphasis on growing the games in new areas.
The end result, he said, is kids getting noticed outside of the traditional hockey hotbeds.
Once those kids get to their draft age, you have the USHL, WHL or the U.S. National program. Once they get into that, they're going to progress to a situation where they won't be overlooked, Hynes said. They get recognized as much as anybody else, regardless of where they're from.