April 7, 2005

Southwest Creates New Hockey Breed

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Thanks to Bruce McNall, two of the three finalists for the Hobey Baker Award are from Occupied Mexico.

The Hobey Baker is college hockey’s answer to the Heisman — given since 1981 to the best collegiate hockey player in America.

Occupied Mexico is generally our Southwest — from Texas to California. It gets its name because some folks down there are still a tad upset with President Polk. They still consider Polk’s foray into Mexico the most immoral invasion of another country this side of Hitler’s incursion into Poland.

Bruce McNall is the one-time Los Angeles Kings season-ticket holder who — with nothing more than smoke, mirrors and a piggybank — bought the Kings franchise in the mid-80s. He then “borrowed” millions of dollars so he could bring hockey legend Wayne Gretzky to LA. Gretzky’s mere presence led to a hockey explosion throughout the Southwest.

Though he wound up doing a little time for his financial indiscretions, McNall left a lasting legacy that is paying off today. The Hobey Baker finalists include a Texan — Cornell’s own David McKee — and a Californian — Brett Sterling of Colorado College.

For those readers unfamiliar with the Hobey Baker Award, so was David McKee.

“It’s kind of surreal,” McKee said. “I had never even heard of the [Hobey Baker] back home, but now I understand what it means.”

If McKee wins the award, he will be Cornell’s first. Only two years ago, another record-smashing goaltender — David LeNeveu ’05 — was among the top three finalists. The year before him, San Jose Sharks draft pick Doug Murray ’02 made the top-ten cut. And in 1987 — a year before the Great One’s arrival in Inglewood — Cornell’s Joe Nieuwendyk ’86 was named a Hobey Baker nominee.

Sterling comes from Pasadena, Calif. Since McNall brought Gretzky to town, more than 30 new rinks have been built in Southern California. Ironically, it was on possibly the worst pre-Gretzky rink in town that Sterling played youth hockey — a square-dance figure skating rink inside a convention center.

Unlike the pond hockey alums of rival colleges, Brett perfected his dekes and slap shot at outdoor roller hockey rinks. By the age of 16, the former Pasadena Maple Leaf had been discovered and swooped up by the most prestigious amateur hockey development camp in the nation. Yet, today’s Division I leading scorer still refuses to relinquish his roots.

“It’s a great honor just to be nominated for [the Hobey Baker], but coming out of California is that much more special,” Sterling said. “Walking from 80 to 90 degree weather into a nice cool rink used to be the most refreshing feeling in the world.”

While Sterling’s commute to the rink boasted palm trees and Pacific Ocean breezes, McKee honed his skills amongst the cacti and sweeping deserts of Irving, Texas. After a successful stint with the Dallas Jr. Stars during high school, McKee played for the Texas Tornados junior team before arriving at Cornell. A campus hero on the ice and consummate gentleman off, McKee’s nomination for the Hobey Baker only surprises people who have not seen him play — and perhaps those who have only read his hometown byline.

Now, McKee has accustomed himself to the dredges of life in an upstate New York hockeytown. But his memories of the Lone Star state remain vivid.

“One of the things I miss the most about hockey in Texas is driving to the rink in 60-degree weather in a convertible with the top down,” McKee said. “It was a huge commitment, but it has certainly paid off.”

Sterling and McKee’s uncanny devotion to the game in the face of epic surf, reggae music and some of the most beautiful women in the world has turned the heads of college hockey’s wizened old guard. These days, it’s no longer a surprise to see names from southern and southwestern states cropping up all over college hockey rosters. The WCHA All-Conference teams boasted three Southern California natives: Sterling, Denver forward Gabe Gauthier and Wisconsin sophomore Robbie Earl. The times are changing, and the rest of the country is beginning to take notice.

“It’s interesting to see how many elite players are coming from southern states,” fellow Hobey nominee Marty Sertich said. “I mean, Brett played roller hockey growing up. He gets a lot of heat coming from California, but he’s leading the country in scoring. You can’t really argue with that.”

Hockey players from the southern states are indeed a unique breed. A communal goal unites the ragtag misfits carrying gear bags under the sweltering sunshine. A dream universally shared by the athletes of Lakewood, Calif., Exeter, New Hampshire, and Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan: to make it in the sport they love. It is a quest for recognition, a battle to buck the stereotype, a vision of sold-out arenas glowing under brilliant spotlights. It is a counter-culture movement of its own; a revolutionary takeover of the game once reserved for those of frigid upbringing.

In 2002, a leaned McNall became a free man. A few months later, Gretzky — who had been waiting for McNall’s release — allowed his jersey number to be retired by the Kings. It’s people like McNall and Gretzky who first opened the path for ice hockey in the land of blue skies and the Beach Boys. And with bright young stars like Sterling and McKee challenging every norm hockey purists hold dear, it’s clear the sun will continue to shine on anyone who plays the game — no matter how tan.

Kyle Sheahen is a Sun Senior Editor. The Ultimate Trip appears alternate Thursdays this semester.

Archived article by Kyle Sheahen