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Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Kings of the Ice Hope for a Shot at the Pros

By Emily Gill

Parking at the Toyota Sports Center is extremely intimidating. Not only is the lot full of glamorous high-end cars, but many of the spaces are marked indicating that they are reserved for professional athletes, members of the Lakers or the Kings. But it is also home to the Los Angeles Jr. Kings Travel Hockey Club. The Center itself looks almost like a warehouse: a big gray building with “Toyota” written in red. The entrance is under a blue overhang, up a few flights of stairs, and passed a roller rink on the left. The place is busy. Parents chatting, waiting on the front steps; kids playing, done with their hockey practices or figure skating classes. As soon as you walk through the set of big glass doors, you can already feel the temperature drop.

To the left through huge glass windows, one of the ice rinks is one story down. To the right, the Kings' boardroom, adorned with enlarged photos of prized team members in action. After you pass the first rink and the boardroom, slightly to the left is a large dividing corridor with a high ceiling, and only glass as walls, so both rinks are in full view.

Heading downstairs toward the rinks, the temperature drops dramatically. It is literally a refrigerator, keeping the ice rinks frozen. The mixture of ice and sweat lingers in the air. Frozen sweat smells a lot like mildew or the produce section of a grocery store, but more musky. One of the locker rooms is located opposite the Olympic rink. This is where the Jr. Kings AAA 16 boys are getting ready for their dry land practice. The room is lined with a benches and an overhead shelves. Black athletic bags, skates, sticks, and gear is scattered everywhere. Clearly, teenage boys are the inhabitants of this locker room. On the back wall, is a TV. What's on? Hockey, of course. The boys are almost frozen as I, a girl, walk into their locker room. Noticeably uncomfortable, they stand in awkward silence as I am introduced.

Dry land practice is held on a driveway behind the sports center. There, the boys meet with their personal trainer, Chad. Chad is young, tall, and fit. Yet, he is bald. His mannerisms are very stiff and athletic, and he seems almost military-like. As the boys emerge, little by little, from the locker room, dressed in black shorts and tee shirts, they set their water bottles on the curb, form a circle, stretch, and begin practice. After they have finished stretching, Chad explains that for the next 30 minutes, they will not stop moving. They will run to stations involving a medicine ball, push ups, Russian lunges, 2 ladders, jump rope, karaoke step over little, yellow bars, and remain in constant motion the entire time. The half hour drags on. The boys slowly fading, beginning to pant, and put less effort into their tasks: tripping over the karaoke step station, walking or stopping when Chad turns his back. After the thirty minutes is over, the boys think they are done. They hope they are done, but they are not. They get about five minutes of a break, then they are lined up across the width of the driveway and instructed to sprint to the end and back. With thirty second intervals, they repeat the task nine more times. Around the sixth sprint down, one of the boys exclaims, "I'd rather be in the fucking holocaust."

Sweaty and exhausted, they drag themselves back to the locker room to get ready for the next portion of practice that takes place on the ice. About thirty minutes later, they emerge, little by little again, seemingly, yet impossibly re-energized. Their body mass appears to be doubled with all of the padding that they have just put on: helmets, neck guards, shoulder pads, elbow pads, gloves, padded pants, and shin guards, to name a few. The two goalies don even more padding: a chest and arm protector, a blocker on the hand that holds the stick, and a catch glove on the other, and huge goal pads on their legs, extending over the knee, causing them to walk more awkwardly, but allowing them to block more shots. All of their jerseys have the Kings’ emblem, but the colors are assorted. The “D’s” or defensive players usually wear black, other players wear gold, white, or red, depending on their selected scrimmage teams. Skates on, sticks in hand, they all set out on the ice. After an hour and a half of running drills like 3 on 3 scrimmage, and skating lines, to a soundtrack provided by ACDC and Rage Against the Machine, they make one last sweaty trip to the locker room for a shower.

They go through this grueling routine three days a week, and make the trek to and from El Segundo each time; some players living two or more hours away. And they do it all for the love of hockey. Most of these boys have been playing since they could walk or skate. At this point, hockey is their life. They eat, breathe, and sleep hockey. It's what gets them up in the morning, it's what they'd rather be doing. Hockey is what drains their parents' bank accounts and gas tanks. Its "hockey, hockey, hockey." Pretty much all of the Jr. Kings still hold onto the childhood dream of one day playing in the NHL. Being on this team is a stepping stone on the path to the NHL, so the players' hopes are still high. After two years on this team, at seventeen or eighteen, they can move up to the 18 AAA level. From this level, they can be scouted by college hockey teams or junior league teams. Both of those teams feed to the NHL.

In order for the boys to play on this team, they, and their parents must make a series of sacrifices, major ones being time and money. Gear alone is extremely expensive: a cheap pair of skates costs around $600, a stick starts at $200. It costs a lot to just be a member of this league, not to mention, the plane tickets to away games in places like Detroit, Dallas, and Quebec. Players must also make sacrifices in their personal lives regarding school and friends, and how they spend their free time.

When it comes to academics, most of the players have a very laid-back view. So much hockey can definitely become a distraction, even an excuse to avoid school. When I asked how all of this involvement in hockey affects him academically, number 13, Zach Pochiro, responds, "Oh my god, you picked the right person for that. Grades...well, I don't really care about grades. I know it's something you should care about, but, like today: I ditched school to go to the Staples Center, and shoot pucks on pro goalies. Like why would I go to school when I can go to the Staples Center!?" Zach moved from Las Vegas to El Segundo for the hockey season. For him, hockey comes first, and school second. Number 1, Donny Oldreive, has a slightly more dedicated, but similarly lax approach to school: "I do online school back home, in Canada, because the curriculum down here is so much different. But I just get to wake up and do whatever on my computer. I’m just pretty average, you know. And I don’t usually do better, sometimes I’ll do worse, but just usually keep it there without trying."

The players also make sacrifices regarding their social lives. "Social life? Uuh, I don’t have any social life,” says Donny. “I guess hanging out with some of the guys on the team, I hang with them sometimes. But other than that, no, it kills me, I don’t get to see anyone. I haven’t met too many new people outside the guys, outside the rink, so it sucks. I definitely don’t have a social life anymore, other than my cell phone and facebook." Since their lives revolve around hockey, and since they basically live at the rink, this is where the boys’ limited social lives take form. Their groups of friends consist mostly of team members, since, as Zach explains, that because hockey in Southern California "is not very popular, no one really comes out. All my friends are back home, but all of my friends here are on the team. Especially this team, we screw around a lot.."

The sport of hockey is infamous for aggression and injuries, but none of these players seem phased whatsoever. Some parents won’t invest in braces because the risk of a mouth injury is so high. Number 10, Connor Fererra has had four or five concussions from playing the sport,

but that isn’t enough to stop him from playing. Zach lists off his past injuries with a sense of pride, "I've broken both of my collar bones, I've dislocated my shoulder, I've broken my wrist, I've broken hands, from catchin' the puck or somethin', torn my groin, I've never gotten stitches though! A lot of people have to get stitches like right under their chin, but I never have. No blood for me, just broken bones." As a goalie, Donny is probably a little less prone to those kinds of injuries, but in hockey, getting hurt at one point is almost inevitable. "Oh yeah, actually, last week I injured the bottom of my heel, that’s probably as bad as it’s been, you know. The doctor said it’s just like , fat that covers the bone in your heel, and I just damaged it really bad. So I couldn’t even walk for a few days, I didn’t want to skate. But other than that I’ve been lucky I don’t get injured that easily. I try to do a good warm up so I don’t get injured, you know…"

Zach explains that there hasn’t been much fighting this season, but “it does break out. I'm not afraid to, and if I have to, I will. I think it's kinda fun though. Adrenalin's going, it doesn't really hurt cause you've got the cage on. Fighting is nothing I'm scared of.” Even seemingly mild, well-mannered Donny admits to engaging in fights. "Yeah, if you ask the guys in the locker room, they’ll probably tell you a few stories already, and I’ve only been here for four months. I like to get in fights. I get a little dirty, I sort of get a temper when I’m in the net." Wearing all of their padding can also give the players a sense of invincibility, giving them more freedom to trash talk and throw punches without painful consequences.

Donny in the net.

This particular group of boys is notorious for their practical jokes. From hiding each others’ gear in the locker room, to tying up gym bags and blaming Spiderman, they are definitely a creative bunch with a sense of humor. Donny retells some of his favorites: "Taylor Bargar got two pieces of bread and put peanut butter on them, and then he ran into Connor Ferrera’s hotel room, and he just slapped them around the sides of his head. It was great. And then when we were in Detroit, there was a lot of snow, and a lot of people got snow dumped on them while they were sleeping, so those are some good ones. I’ll remember those, that was creative stuff." Zach also recalls the snow dumping in Detroit as a favorite. Even though they are in a serious league with serious goals, they are still 16 and 17 year old boys; and it’s admirable that in all of the pressure that’s put on them, they find ways to be just that.

Spiderman attacks the boys' locker room

For this team, another notoriety is their penalties. "Some of them spend more time in the box than they do on the ice." Players get penalties any time they make any form of illegal contact with a player on the opposing team. It can be physical, like tripping, slashing, hooking, charging, elbowing; they can even be penalized verbal misconduct, if heard by the referees, and determined to be unsportsmanlike. Usually a player is sentenced to the penalty box for two minutes, leaving their team one man short for the time being. Other teams know of the Kings' weaknesses, and have learned how to aggravate specific players into penalties, giving them the advantage over the Kings. "If we could just stay out of the box, we would be unstoppable."

Its a Saturday afternoon in mid-February, the season is dying down, as it is getting ready to come to a close. This year's state's playoffs are being held in Escondido. The Jr. Kings "snuck in the back door," as one hockey dad pointed out, filling the last qualifying space by default, behind LA Selects of Lakewood, Heat, and the Gulls of San Diego. On Friday morning, in round one, the Kings were defeated by LA; but in the afternoon, they came back to beat the Heat in the second round of playoffs, 6 to 4. Their game today determines if they will accompany LA, and go on to play in Alaska next weekend for regional’s. The rink in Escondido, home of the Gulls, is definitely not as large or glamorous as the home of the Kings, but it is equally freezing inside, and it smells similarly of frozen sweat and mildew. The place is packed with friends and family of the players, as well as other players, dressed in suits, scoping out possible competition.

Team Huddle

Already, 15 minutes into the game, the Kings have 4 or 5 penalties, and the Gulls have already scored against them. But with 13.9 seconds left in the first period the Kings sneak in a goal, starting the second period in a tie. Not even a full minute into the second period, number 88, Jordan Sanders is sent to the box for slashing, leaving an opening for the Gulls to score again one minute later. Five minutes in the Kings get back to back penalties: number 5 Taylor Bargar get sentenced for 2 minutes, accused of fighting. Then, number 11, Liam Stewart is sent to the box for unsportsmanlike conduct i.e. calling the referee explicit names. He is sentenced for an intense 10 minutes, leaving another window of opportunity for the Gulls to score; and giving them the lead 3 to 1. The third period is ultimately uneventful, both teams struggling to make a goal, neither succeeding. With one minute and forty-four seconds left in the game, the Kings finally succeed, bringing their score to two. Their confidence a bit restored, they attempt to score again, but time runs out, and the Gulls beat the Kings 3-2.

It’s a disappointing end to a season That‘s had its ups and downs. “We thought we beat the best team, the LA Select, and we had some really good games at one point,” says Donny. “But its mostly been up and down. We’ll win a few, lose some, we really just needed to stop tying games. But other than that, you know, I expected to maybe be a little more consistent. You know, there’s some really skilled guys on this team, and I expected to play well with them.” “It’s sad because you never know if you’ll ever get to see some of these guys again, and you’ve spent so much time with them, and then it all just ends,” says Zach, who will be returning to Las Vegas at the end of the season. Donny will return to Ontario, and many of the guys will be joining different teams. It is depressing, but doing this for so long, they are accustomed to making and fast friends at the beginning, and then watching them go at the end. Old friendships will be missed, but new ones will be made next season, and seasons to come.

Another step toward the NHL dream has been completed, bringing some players that much closer to their goal. "Right now I want to play major junior hockey,” says Donny, “which is the highest level of juniors you can play, until you’re like twenty years old. I’ve talked to some teams like United States Hockey League and The Western Hockey League, and Ontario Hockey League. Then maybe get a scholarship, go to school, and play hockey. You know its kinda childish, but I still want to play in the NHL one day, you know once you’re in juniors you never know.." Zach discusses similar plans when asked about his goals. "The goal since I was a little kid was to go to the NHL, and it's not gonna change. I mean, why would it change? What, are you gonna settle for college? You gotta go big or go home. But yeah, the NHL, that's what I wanna do. Pro's the goal, it doesn't matter how you get there, as long as you get there. That's the goal."

Reporting Notes:

Q&A with Donald Oldreive

Q&A with Zach Pochiro

Q&A with Jordan Sanders

Observation of practices and games

Discussions with parents, siblings, and friends

NHL Classics on the NHL Network

Slap Shot (1977) directed by George Roy Hill

In the Crease (2006) directed by Matthew T. Gannon and Michael Sarner

Facebook profiles of players

Hockey 101: www.njyhl.org/pages/hockey101/101_basics.html

Team website: http://www.lajrkings.com/TeamMain.php?selTeam=MD16AAA


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