Of the 16 teams battling in the NHL playoffs, Montreal is the sole Canadian squad. The paucity of playoff teams from north of the border is in stark contrast to the three hailing from California: Anaheim, Los Angeles, and San Jose. In other words, all of them.
To explain the heyday of West Coast hockey, Helene Elliott of the Los Angeles Times joined Bill Littlefield.
BL: What has the Golden State done to deserve such hockey riches?HE: I know, aren’t we lucky? And we’ve also had a very good winter, which I know is probably a sensitive topic with you up there in the Northeast.
BL: Let’s move right along from that.
HE: It’s just kind of been building over the last few years. I mean you look at San Jose, they’ve been a power and a contender for six, seven, eight years. You look at the Kings, they won the Cup in 2012, went to the conference finals last year. The Ducks won the Stanley Cup in 2007. They finished No. 1 in the West this year.
I always laugh when people say, “Oh, West Coast hockey hahaha.” It’s not West Coast hockey. It’s good hockey that happens to be played on the West Coast.
BL: On Thursday night the San Jose Sharks thrashed the L.A. Kings 6-3. You and I have chronicled the Sharks ebb and flow in recent years. Will 2014 see a playoff frenzy for San Jose?
HE: You know, I always have one rule: never pick the San Jose Sharks to win anything.
BL: So you’re not going to break that rule this year?
It’s not West Coast hockey. It’s good hockey that happens to be played on the West Coast.
BL: The Sharks and Kings are facing each other as a result of the NHL’s tweaking of its playoff format. What changes were made and how have they affected this year’s first-round matchups otherwise?
HE: This year for the first time the NHL has wildcard playoff teams. And I think it’s really kind of amusing that the two wildcards in the East are the two teams that moved over this season from the West to the East. To my mind that just emphasizes how good Western teams are and how much better they are than the East.
It’s also a different format, in that there are brackets and it stays pretty much within the division. There are people who like that. They think it creates some more intense rivalries. Everything I’ve seen in terms of interest and web hits and TV ratings has been very good, so maybe they’re onto something.
BL: Does the recent success of these California teams translate to more young Californians taking up ice hockey?
HE: Oh, absolutely. There’s a kid on the San Jose Sharks, Matt Nieto, who’s from Long Beach in Southern California. The Ducks have a kid named Emerson Etem who also grew up in Long Beach. You see a lot of kids from Southern California playing in colleges, in the Canadian Junior ranks. As the Sharks and the Kings and the Ducks all continue to have success, I think that will only influence more kids to take up the sport.
BL: So what you’re saying is, if everybody had an ocean across the USA it wouldn’t matter because the kids would want to play hockey anyway.
HE: Instead of Surf City it will be Hockey City. Yeah, I mean there are great athletes here in Southern California and Northern California. We’ve always produced a lot of figure skaters. And why not hockey players?