Before there was ever a thought of the NHL, even a college scholarship, Craig Johnson grew up in Minnesota dreaming of playing for his high school team.
Hockey is not just a sport in Minnesota, it’s a rich cultural tradition reinforced by the steady crop of elite talent produced each year.
Had you told Johnson, who went on to play in the NHL for almost 20 years, that he'd eventually be coaching his son's hockey team in the sunny locale of Southern California, he may have wanted to get his ears cleaned.
“It’s been unbelievable,” Johnson said of the explosion of interest in hockey in Southern California. “It’s hard to get ice now.”
The fervor for hockey is on the upswing. The outdoor game between the Ducks and Kings at Dodger Stadium last season stoked the flame. As did the seven-game series between the two clubs in the 2014 postseason.
“That playoff series between the Kings and Ducks, you could really see the passion for the game out here,” Johnson said. “Those flags on top of the cars, they're usually [for the] Lakers. But during that time, it was Ducks flags and Kings flags.”
Johnson thinks that rivalry will retain its fierce competition, especially with the offseason additions made by Anaheim, namely acquiring Ryan Kesler via trade.
Kesler's presence will give the Ducks more depth down the middle -- a necessity if they want to match up against the defending champs. Last spring, that might have hamstrung the Ducks in the series against L.A.
"[Last] year, just looking at it from a fan's standpoint, the Ducks had to match up [Anze] Kopitar with [Ryan] Getzlaf and that's a matchup the Kings didn't really mind," Johnson explained. "Adding Kesler will allow Kesler to go against Kopy and give Getzlaf a little more freedom. It's a tough league. Those three California teams, it's a murderers' row."
The 42-year-old Johnson now coaches his son on the Santa Margarita Catholic High School hockey team in the Anaheim Ducks High School League and has seen the sport catch fire firsthand.
Though the St. Paul, Minnesota native played only one season for the Ducks in 2003, he spent plenty of time in SoCal while playing for the Los Angeles Kings from 1996-2003. He saw the genesis for the sport’s growth begin then and has seen the participation take off from there.
“I remember when I first came out here in 1996, when I was traded, the [Wayne] Gretzky impact was huge for hockey out here,” Johnson told ESPN.com in a telephone conversation. “When Wayne Gretzky first came out here, maybe 2,000 to 3,000 kids were registered to play hockey. Now, we're sitting in California with 24 to 26,000, somewhere in there.”
Of course it has not hurt to have two elite teams in the area, separated by less than 31 miles and boasting what has become a captivating rivalry.
Johnson has a divided house with a 13-year-old son, Ryan, who is a Ducks fan and a 16-year-old son, Eric, who is a Kings fan. He said the Ducks’ Stanley Cup championship in 2007 gave a huge boost to the hockey cache in California. Now, with the Kings winning in both 2012 and 2014, the buzz seems to be reaching its apex.
"You go to schools now and kids have Ducks jerseys on or Kings jerseys," Johnson said.
As a result of the increased interest and participation, the skill level and quality of competition has grown tremendously.
“The level is definitely rising now,” Johnson said. “More and more kids are playing because of the success of the Ducks and the Kings.”
Johnson has seen the Ducks’ high school league he coaches in grow from just one team with 16 players to a recently expanded five-division league of 41 teams with more than 1,000 players. Kids are having a blast, representing their high school and finding something new to play in addition to some of the other traditional sports.
Johnson has witnessed baseball players, lacrosse players and soccer players convert to hockey, putting their skills on ice as part of a growing trend.
“What we try to do with the young players is ensure they play multiple sports,” Johnson said, “which is great for their upbringing and development. It’s hard to grind out a sport 12 months a year.”
More and more players are coming out of California -- Beau Bennett, Emerson Etem, Matt Nieto, to name a few -- but the area still has strides to make before establishing itself among the other hotbeds across the U.S., places such as Minnesota and Massachusetts.
Johnson said he'd love to see schools such as the University of Southern California or University of Arizona establish hockey programs. Unfortunately, most good college programs are on the opposite coast. Scouts don't frequent California as much and kids have to take on tons of travel to participate in the sort of showcase events that could lead to a scholarship.
But a local program could change matters.
“Until this happens, it’s hard,” Johnson said. “Most of these schools are on the East Coast.”
Still, hockey has taken root in Southern California and it's there to stay.