Flames vs. Ducks: Anaheim's success helps grow local hockey scene during battle with Calgary

It’s a town historically known more for its mice than its Ducks, but Anaheim is shaping up to be an emerging hotbed of hockey in California’s Orange County.

It’s a town historically known more for mice than Ducks, but Anaheim is shaping up to be a hotbed of hockey

Ducks fans make their way to the Honda Center in Anaheim for Game 1 of second round playoff action against the Calgary Flames. The arena is located a few kilometres east of Disneyland and hosts everything from the Ducks to the Dalai Lama. (Karen Rocznik)

As the Anaheim Ducks prepare to once again lace up for battle in the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs against the Calgary Flames, thousands of hockey fans will make their way to the team's home ice at the Honda Centre.

Surrounded by palm trees, lying under a hot blazing California sun near the Santa Ana River, the arena is a short a 10-minute drive from Disneyland. It is also situated right across from the Angels Stadium of Anaheim, where thousands more gather to watch the No. 1 sport in town: baseball.

Still, there is a dedicated hockey fan base here — and it's growing. 

Jamie Bacon and her friends have been following the Ducks since the team's inception in 1993. Back then, it was a Disney-owned franchise called The Mighty Ducks of Anaheim. 

"I grew up watching hockey, we watched the Mighty Ducks movies, that's how we fell in love with them and I played roller hockey growing up," said Bacon.

But some say southern California's unofficial introduction into the NHL dates back to 1988, when The Great One — Wayne Gretzky — was traded from the Edmonton Oilers to the Los Angeles Kings. 

Ducks fan Jamie Bacon, centre, and friends Kourtney Willett, right, and Anthony Munsell hamming it up at the game. (Karen Rocznik)

"I'm also a big Gretzky fan, I still hate the Kings," she joked. "But you have to respect Gretzky and [former L.A. Kings] Luc Robitaille, Rob Blake — you respect those guys."

Rick Hutchinson made the move to Anaheim from Boston back in the '70s. He's now the director of hockey at the RINKS, Anaheim Ice. The facility is the Ducks' practice ice and part of an expansive collection of seven ice and roller rinks around Orange County offering learn-to-skate programs and hockey leagues for every age group and level.  

"Twenty years ago, hockey was just terrible in southern California," Hutchinson recalled. "But now, there's a push from the grassroots to make it better and develop players."

A big part of that push began in 2005 when Henry Samueli and his wife Susan took over ownership of the Ducks. 

Hutchinson says he saw the franchise embrace youth hockey.

"The Ducks started programs that allowed us to succeed. There are now camps for every age group and scouts from colleges and junior hockey that are keeping an eye on our players."

Still, Hutchinson says the fan base can be fickle.  

"It definitely depends on whether [The Ducks] are winning or losing. But they see the sport is here and there is a community turning Californians into committed fans."

Hockey players Cole, far left, and brother Brett take in a Ducks game with parents Scott and Teresa Leingang. ( Karen Rocznik)

Not just committed fans, but committed players as well. Cole Leingang, 18, lives in Pasadena, about 55 kilometres from Anaheim, but frequently make the trip to the city with his Midget A-level hockey team the Pasadena Maple Leafs.

He said people are often surprised to hear he plays hockey.

"You're seen as a very, very tough person, more than any other sport, because it takes a lot more dedication for hockey, because you can't really go out and play hockey randomly if you want." 

But some do, and not just when they're kids either. 

At 27, Blake Mulcahy is trying out hockey for the first time. Two weeks ago, he joined a beginner adult hockey league.

Never too old to start. Blake Mulcahy, right, started playing hockey in Anaheim in a beginner adult league two weeks ago at age 27. (Karen Rocznik)

"I always watched as a kid, but I never had the guts to go out and skate, I guess I was afraid I'd fall. It's been interesting to say the least," said Mulcahy about his fledgling hockey experience. 

He admitted attracting people to the sport has not been easy, even to a second round playoff game as evident on Thursday night's match-up against the Calgary Flames where hundreds of empty season could be seen from the stands. 

"You have season ticket holders that don't want to deal with the large crowds and the traffic coming in," said Mulchay. "The traffic is downtown in the OC and LA is terrible, worse than any place in U.S. and it's on a weeknight and people work. [Hockey here] is up and coming, it's not going to get to that level [where it is in Canada] because there are so many other sports going on. But, if we take the Stanley Cup this year, people will say, 'OK, we're here for the long haul.'"

A haul that might net more fans and more players. 

In January, the AHL announced that five NHL teams — including the Kings, Ducks and San Jose Sharks — will move their top minor-league clubs to California.

And for fans like Bacon, this shift in the California hockey landscape is nothing but exciting. 

"It's a time to educate the younger players, the guys coming up and a chance to get more cities involved. I love hockey. I love what's going on here."