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CALIFORNIA KNOWS HOW TO HOCKEY

Thursday, 03.22.2007 / 4:54 PM / Features
By Thomas LaRocca  - LAKings.com Staff Writer
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CALIFORNIA KNOWS HOW TO HOCKEY
If ever there was a Family Feud question that went along the lines of, "Something you think about when you think of California."

The top two answers would probably be Hollywood and beaches.

If one of the contestants offered up "professional hockey player," Feud host John O'Hurley would probably say, "survey says," and a giant X would appear on the screen.

It is California after all, home of actors and surfers, not hockey players.

The frozen ponds and snow of the East Coast and Northern parts of the country are replacedby surfboards and sunshine here in Cali.

But all of that is changing.

Case in point, the Los Angeles Kingshave hadtwo California-born players on their roster this seasonin Gabe Gauthier and Noah Clarke.

"There are going to be a lot of solid southern California kids," Kings head coach Marc Crawford said. "Hockey is really taking off out here. I envision there is going to be a day when there is a Southern California kid that is a captain here, that there is a goaltender here. There is going to be a Southern California kid that is a leading scorer here. That is where the sport is taking off to.

"The more people we get turned on to, the more that take a look at the Noah Clarkes and the Gabe Gauthiers and say 'you know I could be like them and play the sport professionally.' That will really help the sport grow."

All told, there have been 20 NHL players, born in California, two have played for the Kings. Clarke became the first California born kid to score for the Crownshirts when he lit the lamp on March 12 vs. Edmonton.

Appropriately enough, the left winger's first NHL goal was scored at STAPLES Center in a 5-1 Kings win.

"I have been wanting to score that first one for a while," Clarke said. "To do it at home, in front of family and friends, was really incredible. I saw that red light go on and it was all good after that."

But the road from La Verne, Calif. to the NHL was a long one for Clarke, filled with early mornings and long road trips for hockey games as a youth. He would play high school hockey at Shattuck St. Mary's, a hockey factory in Faribault, Minn., and then play in the United States Hockey League (USHL) with Des Moines Buccaneers of the United States Hockey League in 1997. In his rookie year, he produced 49 points, including the game-winning goal in the title game of the Gold Cup, the United States Junior championship. His play earned a scholarship to Colorado College in 1999.

After his freshman year, Clarke was drafted in the ninth round by the Kings (250th overall) in the 1999 NHL Draft. Clarke would complete his eligibility at Colorado scoring 63-113=176 in 164 games, joining the Manchester Monarchs (AHL) for the end of the 2003-04 season and making his debut with the Kings on Dec. 16, 2003.

Playing in that first game was a dream come true," Clarke said. "They interviewed my parents my first game. I still have the tape."

Over the last five years, Clarke has split time between the NHL and AHL, seeing action in 19 games at the NHL level, 12 of which were this season as were his first two career goals, while scoring 80-107=187 in 249 games at Manchester.

"Noah is a great skater and has a good understanding of the game and great vision," Crawford said of his evaluation of the two Californians on his roster. "He possesses a real good understanding of positioning and those sorts of things. Gabe is a very talented offensive player. He protects the puck extremely well and has good ability to make plays in tight. He has good rink vision and is more of a power play guy."

Though their scouting report might differ, Gauthier's story is nearly the same as Clarke's.

Gauthier started playing when he was four years old in Norwalk, Calif.

"As soon as I stepped on the ice I fell in love with the game," he said.

Gauthier started playing in the mite division and as he continued to improve, his age group wasn't really challenging, so he started playing with the 15 year olds when he was 10, leaving home at 14 to play high school hockey at a prep school in Massachussetts. After three years of junior hockey in British Columbia, Gauthier earned a scholarship at the University of Denver.

In fact, during Gauthier's freshman year, he would cross paths with the senior Clarke and his Colorado College hockey team. The two Universities met four times in 2002-03, with Clarke prevailing each time. (4-3 W on Dec. 4, 6-2 W on Dec. 7, 2-0 W on March 6 and 4-2 W on March 7).

Though Clarke holds the bragging rights from the head-to-head victories, Gauthier would win the NCAA Championship in 2003-04 and 2004-05. Gauthier would finishhis collegiate careerscoring64-86=150 in 162 games at Denver joining the Monarchs this season, tallying 13-19=32 in 57 games at Manchester.

The he got the call,making his NHL debut on March 11, 2007 at Dallas.

"He is still very overwhelmed," Gauthier said of his father, who had season tickets for the Kings most of Gauthier's childhood. "He cannot believe this is happening right now. He put a lot of effort into me being a hockey player and kept me in the game and always believed that I would one day make it here."

After going scoreless in five games with the Kings, Gauthier was reassigned to Manchester on March 23.

But Kings fans have not seen the last of him.