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Orange County’s high school hockey league gets into spirit

The cinder-block locker room is little bigger than a gas-station restroom. Squeeze in 15 high school hockey players and their sweat-soaked equipment, and it smells about the same too.

Yet Megan Browning, the team’s freshman goalie, can’t think of any place she’d rather be.

“Just because you play hockey doesn’t mean you have to act like a boy,” Browning explains as she checks her makeup and adjusts the twin braids in her hair. “I wear pink. I’m still girly. But when I come to the rink, I get intense.”

A goalie with mascara under her mask isn’t the strangest thing about this high school locker room tableau. More unusual is where the Orange Lutheran dressing room is located: in the bowels of a skating rink in the heart of Orange County, an area known more for surfboards and palm trees than slap shots and power plays.

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“It’s not a joke,” insists former NHL goalie Guy Hebert, one of four former Ducks coaching in the five-school league, the only high school hockey league in Orange County and one of just three in Southern California, according to organizers. “The kids work hard. The talent pool here is better than people think.”

It’s a pool even the NHL has recently started to tap. In last June’s draft, four of the first 78 players selected were born in Southern California, a substantial haul considering that over the last 14 seasons just eight natives of the area have made their NHL debuts.

Given the boost the state’s broad and well-organized prep programs have provided to other sports — California has sent far more players to the major leagues, the NBA and the Olympic team than any other state — the success of high school hockey could help the area become a regular stop for NHL scouts.

“The players have to come from somewhere,” says Ducks Chief Executive Michael Schulman, who helped found the high school league 2½ years ago.

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Building a pipeline to the pros wasn’t what Dave Pauluzzi had in mind when he first pitched Schulman on the idea of a prep hockey program. All he really wanted was a chance for his son Joe, then a freshman at JSerra Catholic High School in San Juan Capistrano, to play his favorite sport in the school colors.

“They get to experience the sport of hockey like other student-athletes have with football, basketball, baseball, to represent something you live every day,” says Pauluzzi, the 49-year-old CEO of a diagnostic pathology laboratory who still has the sweater he wore playing for Notre Dame College Prep in suburban Chicago three decades ago. “Sports are a big part of the high school life.”

Since no other high school in Orange County fielded a hockey team, JSerra spent its first season traveling nationally and to Canada to find opponents. The Ducks helped Santa Margarita start a varsity program the next winter and this season the league spread to three more private schools when Orange Lutheran, Anaheim Servite and La Verne Damien started programs to compete against the JSerra and Santa Margarita JV teams.

The Ducks, who administrate the league, also provide uniforms and help defray the cost of equipment and other things. Schools play 12 regular-season games at the NHL team’s practice facility, The Rinks-Anaheim ICE, followed by a playoff tournament that concludes with a championship game at the Honda Center, the Ducks’ home ice, in late February.

On a recent Saturday afternoon the grandstands rising from the rink looked no different than those that commonly flank high school football fields on brisk fall evenings, with proud parents watching the games through the viewfinders of their video cameras while cheerleaders, wearing bright ribbons in their hair and too much makeup on their faces, huddled together to stay warm.

The league — officially, the Anaheim Ducks High School League — is not sanctioned by the California Interscholastic Federation, meaning the sport is a club activity. But that’s a distinction regularly overlooked on the campuses, where players go to class wearing hockey shirts and jackets emblazoned with the school logos, and where weekend results are announced by the administration each Monday morning.

For many of the players, who grew up competing in either roller hockey or ice hockey on travel teams, the feel of Friday night lights on the Saturday afternoon ice is what makes the high school game most attractive.

“That’s the best part about coaching. Just the pride and the respect and the whole high school thing here is amazing,” says Orange Lutheran Coach Jason Marshall, a former Ducks defenseman: “For the first game all the fans were dressed up in Orange Lutheran gear.”

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Adds Ron Dietz, whose son played youth hockey before joining the fledgling Orange Lutheran team as a freshman this season: “That school spirit is there. There’s a definite difference in the high school atmosphere at the games.”

It’s that spirit and atmosphere that make high school hockey so compelling. Although several strong youth hockey programs in Southern California enjoy national prominence, Dietz said his son’s travel team typically played before small, quiet crowds mostly made up of parents. The Orange Lutheran games, on the other hand, have drawn hundreds of fans from all sectors of the high school community.

And if that continues, the atmosphere alone could keep some of the area’s best players at home once they reach high school age.

Emerson Etem, a first-round pick by the Ducks in last year’s NHL draft, grew up in Southern California and would have attended Long Beach Wilson High had he not had to leave the state at 14 to play prep hockey in Minnesota.

“I’m happy with my decision,” he says. "[But] if Wilson High had had a program, I would have stayed home for sure. It would have been a lot of fun.

“If you put high school hockey into a place like Wilson, it will definitely be a popular thing.”

The level of play in the Ducks’ league, especially at the junior varsity level, mirrors that of a typical high school sport. Some of the players, such as Dietz’s son Parker, are confident and talented. Others on the winless Orange Lutheran team are unsure of themselves and seem to have trouble staying upright.

“Those are the kids that improved the most,” Marshall says, smiling.

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And they’re learning lessons that go beyond hockey. Like sportsmanship.

When Browning, the tough and talented goalie from Orange Lutheran who leads the league in saves, was knocked out of a recent game against JSerra after a collision in the crease, JSerra sophomore Zachary Mamie immediately volunteered to take her place.

“Even though we’re technically enemies, we still care about the other team,” Mamie said in reference to Browning, who also received text messages and e-mails of support from players throughout the league.

As more schools join the league — Art Trottier, vice president of the Rinks, has talked to Lakewood High about membership and recently made two visits to La Puente Bishop Amat — the hope is that hockey will lure athletes from more mainstream sports such as football and soccer, improving the level of competition.

“I don’t think there’s any better athletes than the kids in Southern California,” says Trottier, who played his high school hockey in Michigan. “They’re great athletes and kids pick up the sport pretty quick.

“I hope to sit here 10 years from now and say ‘This is great. Our building is sold out. Every Saturday there’s 700 people watching six or seven high school games in a row.’

“The atmosphere is unbelievable. It really is.”

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

The Anaheim Ducks High School Hockey League concludes its regular-season schedule with games at 2 and 3:40 p.m. Saturday; Jan. 22; and Jan. 29 at the Rinks-Anaheim ICE, 300 W. Lincoln Ave.., Anaheim. Admission is free.


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