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HAVE STICK, WILL TRAVEL

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

How appropriate for Darren Partch to stop a fight between two Ventura Mariner teammates practicing at Easy Street Arena.

And why wouldn’t he?

It’s natural the 19-year-old from Agoura Hills would act like a protective parent, considering he helped put Ventura on the ice hockey map.

For five years, the Mariners--two-time Western States Hockey League champions--had to prove they belonged in the same class as other, more prolific junior B hockey programs in North America. Although Ventura won a league championship before Partch came along, they were largely ignored by scouts.

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It was the well-traveled Partch who made coaches in the United States and Canada start to say, “Yeah, I’ve heard of the Ventura Mariners. They had that one kid, right? What’s his name? Darren something, right?”

The 6-foot-1, 170-pound Partch not only led the Mariners to the WSHL championship in 1999, he set records with 63 goals, 69 assists and 132 points.

“He doesn’t have to try hard offensively to score goals,” said Sean McGillivray Sr., the Mariners’ general manager.

Like many athletes, adversity has played a role in Partch’s life.

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Last February, Partch signed a semipro contract with the Waterloo (Iowa) Blackhawks of the junior A U.S. Hockey League while he and the Mariners were contending for the WSHL title. The WSHL and USHL recognized the signing, which signified a promotion for Partch.

“It’s definitely a step up,” Partch said. “It’s very common to sign your junior A contract while still playing with your junior B team. They have to come out and scout you. It’s a well-known goal for most junior B programs to prepare you for the next level.”

But the move to the next level didn’t start as planned for Partch or the Blackhawks. He contracted mononucleosis, forcing him to miss the preseason. He barely made it back in time for the regular season debut, three days before the Blackhawks hired new Coach Scott Koberinski.

Returning to health, Partch seemingly had found his niche. He was selected to the USHL all-star team as an alternate. He was chosen USHL player of the week for Oct. 3, scoring four goals in two games.

Despite the accolades, Partch and Koberinski didn’t see eye to eye.

“We have separate personalities,” Partch said. “Maybe [Koberinski] didn’t like my attitude. It could have been any number of things.”

Waterloo played the Mariners twice in November in Simi Valley.

“It was my homecoming,” Partch said. “My dad wanted to meet Koberinski. . . As soon as Koberinski heard my father mention my name, [Koberinski] just turned and walked away without saying a word.”

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But the Blackhawk coach remembers it differently.

“His father and I met after the game in the Simi Valley hotel parking lot, where [the Blackhawks] stayed,” Koberinski said. “His father even told me he would come out to see Darren play soon in Waterloo.

“Now don’t get me wrong, [Partch] is a very gifted player offensively. It just came to the point where we had too many skilled offensive players. Darren and I just have different philosophies. I didn’t want for him to ruin his chances--playing time-wise that is.”

The Trade

After 15 games with Waterloo in which he had 11 goals and two assists, Partch was traded Nov. 18 as part of a three-team deal, going from the Blackhawks to the Lincoln (Neb.) Stars to his current team, the Dubuque (Iowa) Fighting Saints (8-16-2).

“It was for his own good,” Koberinski said.

Said Partch: “I didn’t fit in at Waterloo. Koberinski traded me for his old defenseman at Lincoln, Josh Singer.”

Koberinski said the trade had nothing to do with him having coached Singer.

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“Trades happen all the time,” Koberinski said. “You never can predict the exact moment.”

Dubuque Coach Brian Gallagher was happy to acquire Partch and doesn’t consider him a liability. Gallagher said Partch, like all players, needs to mature.

“I like him,” Gallagher said. “He’s a very outgoing kid. Very likable. I can’t wait for him to return to our lineup.

“His skating needs work. He needs to work on his quickness from the point.”

Gallagher, who first saw Partch earlier this year with the Mariners in the junior B national championships in Blaine, Minn., said Partch also needs to improve his defense, but is quick to add, “He makes up for his lack of defense with his offense.”

Partch acknowledges his deficiencies on defense.

“It’s coming along,” he said. “It’s something I am working on and it’s the one thing I need to become a complete player.”

The Beginning

Partch began playing hockey at age 5 with the Thousand Oaks youth league team of the Southern California Amateur Hockey Assn.

“I was playing roller hockey in front of my house when my friend just dragged me to try out,” he said.

McGillivray, coaching director for the Thousand Oaks youth hockey league, said Partch showed early signs of being a prodigy.

“Even at that age, Darren had tremendous hands,” McGillivray said. “It was very difficult for defenders to take the puck away from him.”

Partch remembers his first year in organized hockey. During a league ceremony to recognize outstanding players, Partch turned to his coach and inquired about his trophy.

The coach laughed and told Partch he would not get a trophy that year; he would have to earn it.

“I started to cry,” Partch said. “I thought I was deserving of some sort of prize.”

For the next eight years, there would be no prizes. Partch instead dealt with being cut from the bantam AA team. He rejoined the lower-tier bantam AAA team when he was 13.

In 1994, Partch’s family relocated to Las Vegas when he was 14.

It didn’t take long for Partch to find an outlet for his hockey skills, playing in a Las Vegas youth league for a year. From Las Vegas it was back to the Conejo Valley, this time with the Partches settling in Agoura.

Partch tried the Thousand Oaks youth hockey league one more time. At 15, he made the bantam A squad, the top division before junior B hockey. He also made the bantam A all-star team.

From there, it was off to Banff, Alberta. For two years, Partch played by invitation for the city’s prestigious ice hockey academy team called the Flying Icemen. He graduated from Banff Community High.

He returned home to Agoura in 1996 and tried out with four junior A teams without success.

At 18, Partch was forced to play for the Ventura Mariners. His timing couldn’t have been better. The Mariners were coming off a 15-23 season in which their leading scorer, Matt Bothwell, had 57 points.

The opportunity was there for Partch to have a breakout 1998-99 season. He represented Ventura in the King of the Hill tournament all-star game and led the league in scoring.

As Partch and the Mariners built respect among their peers, the hockey community took notice. Marc LeBlanc, coach of the New Mexico Ice Breakers, considered the high-scoring Partch public enemy No. 1.

“He is basically the best junior B player I have ever seen,” LeBlanc said. “Man, he’s just a fun player to watch.”

Cole Barron, Partch’s best friend and former teammate at Ventura, says Partch is a great guy to have around the locker room, especially when morale is low.

“He’s always joking around to get our spirits up,” Barron said. “As far as his hockey ability goes, he’s a very good puck handler. A great passer. An awesome playmaker.”

The Future

Partch’s immediate goal is to play for a Division I college program, preferably on the West Coast, on scholarship. But he realizes one more year in Dubuque or with another junior A team may be required because of his lack of experience.

Tavis McMillan, assistant coach for the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, agrees.

“He may need to challenge himself more before he goes to the next level, which would obviously be a Division I college,” said McMillan, who first saw Partch when the Mariners played the Fairbanks Ice Dogs of the WSHL.

“He’s an extremely talented player. His instincts for the game are superior, especially at his age. However, I have to see him succeed at the junior A level before he can go off to college.”

In the past, professional prospects would usually come straight out of junior hockey programs, bypassing college. Things have changed.

“It’s quite normal for prospective professional players to attend college first,” McMillan said.

If Partch had his wish, he would be on a campus by the fall of 2001.

“My goal is to just go out on the ice and put the puck in the net,” he said. “Wherever that leads me, so be it.”


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