THESE SURFERS CAN SKATE : Southern California Youth Hockey Team Fares Well Against Midwesterners

Times Staff Writer

When some teen-age hockey players from Southern California pushed a host team to the wall in a tournament a couple of years ago at Minneapolis, there was more than slight disbelief.

But when the visitors won in overtime, 3-2, it was too much for players and fans from a hockey hotbed like Minnesota.

Shouts began to ring out, "Surfers go home!"

One man's ire, though, can be another's inspiration.

"We were getting pictures taken and our kids were yelling 'Surfers? We showed 'em.' " recalled Gary Lyons, one of the California club's directors.

"But I said, 'Hey, if that's what they want to call us, why not? We got the game, let's take the name.' "

The idea snowballed. Businessman Lyons checked with Marvel Comics in New York to see if his club could borrow a Marvel hero, "The Silver Surfer."

"They said OK on the name, and we're using the character on our jerseys this year," he said.

And this season, the Silver Surfers took their new image back to the Midwest to prove that their previous performance was no accident. Most of that Bantam team, 14-15 years old, are now first-year Midgets, 16-17, and played in two tournaments in the Chicago area.

They started to get some of the same old static, but again taught some people a lesson.

With overlapping schedules at rinks more than 20 miles apart, logistics were a problem. One morning the Californians played a tough semifinal in the Chicago Super Midget tournament, beating previously unbeaten Team Ohio, 5-2. Then they raced to the other rink to open the Johnson's Sporting Goods High School tournament against Lake Forest.

"We got there with half our gear still on," Lyons said. "They were nearly finished warming up. They took one look at us and you could tell they saw an easy mark--surfers already tired from another game."

In 2 1/2 minutes the score was Silver Surfers 3, Lake Forest 0, and the lotus eaters went on to swamp the Illinois team, 9-1.

The Surfers lost the final in the high school tournament to a team from Canada, 6-2. "They had five 19-year-olds and four 20-year-olds on the squad," Lyons said.

There were no Canadians in the Midget tournament, but they cast a shadow.

"When we beat Illinois, 5-4, in the opener, some people called it a fluke," Lyons said. "After we blanked Wisconsin, 4-0, they started saying, 'These guys are for real!' But then they wanted to know, 'You got Canadians on your squad?'

"I said, 'No, some of these boys have been playing for us for seven years.' "

Team Illinois got its revenge in the Midget final, edging California, 3-2, but the Silver Surfers came home with second place trophies from both tournaments.

How do they do it?

Jack White, a former Canadian who has conducted a year-round hockey clinic here for years and coaches the club team at UCLA, offered three reasons.

"There's some good coaching here," he said. "We stress the basics and yet make it fun. I hear in Canada they're worried about kids dropping out, and they're starting to try some of our ideas.

"Then there's a strong base of figure skaters here, so the rinks can stay open all year.

"Another thing is that back East, a kid gets cabin fever after a winter of hockey and wants to get out in the sun come spring and do something else.

"Kids here can skate all year and turn to the sunshine whenever they want."

The advantage young players have in the Midwest or back East, White said, is numbers, which leads to more and better competition. "You're likely to see 500 boys try out for a team in Minnesota or New England," he said. "Here it could be as few as 25."

Despite the program's success, California hockey players have a lingering identity crisis at home. It's hard for some sports fans to believe that Southern Californians playing for top college teams, for example, are not transplanted Easterners or Canadians.

The ups and downs of the area's pro team, the Los Angeles Kings, may do little to convince doubters that there is genuine hockey interest here, but the Kings are the tip of an iceberg whose size and substance is impressive by the standards of any northern city.

The fact is, at least 10 Southlanders now on Division I scholarships paid their dues on youth teams like the Silver Surfers. And among major universities of California, where hockey is still a club sport, many players also come from local rinks.

Some of the Division I players have even been drafted by the National Hockey League. Robert Mendel, who is playing for the University of Wisconsin, was tapped by Quebec in the fifth round last year, the highest ever for anyone from California.

Mendel recently returned from the Soviet Union, where he played in the World Junior Championships and made the all-tournament first team.

Eric Lamarque, at Northern Michigan University, was picked by Boston in the 11th round, and Mike de Carle, at Lake Superior State College in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., was chosen by Buffalo in the supplementary draft.

Two of de Carle's college teammates, Ken Martel and Brian Corso, are also fellow Southern Californians.

Another Southland trio is on the roster of a little-known Division I team right here in California, at United States International University in San Diego. Mike McGrath, a defenseman, is captain of the squad; Dana Orent is a goalie, and Matt Lundgren a forward. A relatively small school, USIU maintains a Division I hockey program against heavy odds, due in large part to the recruiting efforts of coach Brad Buetow, once the coach at the University of Minnesota. Other Division I players include Greg Dallas, who plays for the Air Force Academy, and Charlie Heinrich at Michigan Tech.

In Canadian Junior A hockey--which supplies the National Hockey League with more of its players than the colleges do--there are four other Southlanders, Mike O'Hara, Chris Nelson, Jason Maxwell and Steve Bogoyevac.

UCLA, USC, Caltech, UC Irvine, Cal State Fullerton, Cal State Northridge and a new team from Cal Lutheran play club hockey in the Southern California Collegiate Hockey Assn., which this year has expanded to include Stanford, California and Arizona State. The Irvine roster now includes players from Golden West College.

There's also a professional hockey circuit, the Pacific Southwest Hockey League, which is based in Fresno and includes three teams from the Los Angeles area and one from Fresno.

Only games in Fresno draw paying customers. The L.A. area teams are the California Blackhawks, the Los Angeles Bruins and the Burbank Jets and they play at rinks in West Covina, Culver City and Burbank.

In addition to many players drawn from youth hockey in California, the PSHL have veterans such as Vic Venasky, who once skated with the Kings, and others who have played professionally in the minors. The PSHL is generally known as semipro or Senior A hockey.

Some, like Venasky, keep their hand in with various pickup teams, referred to as old-timers' or huff 'n' puff hockey because members play into their 60s and sometimes even 70s. That usually is one of the most unseen evels of hockey, but several times a year the more ambitious among them go to colorful tournaments as far away as Hawaii and Spain. One of the most popular is held annually at cartoonist Charles Schulz's rink in Santa Rosa.

Getting back to youth hockey, Los Angeles has not one but two parallel leagues, in hot competition for talent and ice time, though they are currently engaged in one of their frequent efforts to work out a merger. The Silver Surfers' Lyons is a commissioner of the Los Angeles Hockey Assn., and Gino Vella is a commissioner of the Southern California Amateur Hockey Assn.

Both men are board members of the California Youth Hockey Assn., (CAHA), which in turn is affiliated with the Amateur Hockey Assn. of the United States. CAHA also includes leagues in San Diego and Northern California.

Vella, serving as second vice president of CAHA, has been a key player in getting the Kings to take an interest in youth hockey here.

"CAHA is applying for a matching grant from the Amateur Athletic Foundation and the Kings are donating 10,000 free tickets," Vella said. "With an average value of $10, that's worth $100,000 right there. The various clubs sell the tickets and all the proceeds will be used to develop youth hockey. The Ice Skating Institute of America (rink operators) will donate 100 hours of ice time for clinics.

"We expect to raise at least $65,000 with the Kings' help, and hope to get that amount from the Amateur Athletic Foundation. Janie Buss, Jerry's daughter, has really been a friend. She's overseeing the program."

Part of the funds, Vella said, will be used to make a film promoting youth hockey, to be produced by Jack White, who works at Hanna Barbera.

White plays hockey with a celebrity team that gets invitations to all kinds of encounters. They may be spread out all over the country, doing TV interviews or working on film locations, but those who are available converge on the rink involved--some flying in just for the game.

"Celebrity Allstar Hockey" boasts such luminaries as Michael Keaton, who learned hockey from White to make the film, "Touch and Go." Others, like Richard Dean Anderson, Alan Thicke, Michael J. Fox and John Bennett Perry, played hockey back East or in Canada before embarking on entertainment careers.

The squad also includes former hockey pros Dennis Hull and Stan Mikita of the Chicago Blackhawks, and Mike Eruzione, captain of the gold-medal winning 1980 U.S. Olympic team.

White's clinic, "Hockey Basics," is conducted three times a week all year. He was the first to coach Eric Lamarque, his stepson, and was also one of the early mentors of Rob Mendel. He predicts that Mendel is one of two or three who will make either the next Olympic team, the NHL or both.

The others?

"Well, I'd have to say Eric is a strong possibility," he said.

White and Ralph Smith, a local scout for a Seattle-area Junior A team, agree that the third spot would probably go to de Carle.

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