Ice hockey has never been more recognizable in Orange County than it is today.
Another successful season by the Anaheim Ducks lured in a new wave of fans over the last few months, and two Stanley Cup titles by the Los Angeles Kings in the last three years just added to the sport’s local appeal.
Ice hockey continues to gain traction at the youth level as well, and last month Mater Dei became the latest high school to form a team. The Monarchs cemented the move by hiring T.J. Miller as the program’s first head coach. He’s ready to take advantage of the increasing popularity brought on by the success of the local NHL teams.
“It’s made the high school league just explode over the last few years,” Miller says.
The Monarchs will join four other Trinity League teams with ice hockey programs: Santa Margarita, Orange Lutheran, JSerra and Servite.
“I think we have the players to compete,” says Miller, who got his first on-ice look at his new team last weekend.
Santa Margarita was the first Orange County high school to form a team, taking the ice for the first time in September of 2009. In March, the Eagles won silver at the high school national championships, beating a team from hockey-rich Minnesota to reach the finals.
“It just goes to show how big the game is out here,” says Miller, who grew up in Placentia. “A lot of states back east, they don’t give California credit for even playing hockey, let alone being competitive at a national level.”
Before coming to Mater Dei, Miller coached the Corona Norco Stingrays, another member of the Anaheim Ducks High School Hockey League (ADHSHL). He played at Northern Michigan University and spent time in three North American professional leagues before venturing into coaching.
He was asked to interview for the new coaching position at Mater Dei—an honor in itself—but the opportunity was even more appealing logistically.
“I live in Yorba Linda and I was driving out to Riverside four times a week for practice,” he says. “One practice every day would take four hours out of my life, driving to Riverside and back, trying to get through the 91 freeway.”
The biggest challenge remains ice time, as Orange County has just a handful of rinks that can accommodate a team, and the increase in adult leagues has put an even bigger pinch on availability.
“There’s just not enough rinks right now,” Miller says.
Miller is hoping the California Interscholastic Federation, the state’s governing body for high school sports, will soon sanction ice hockey as a sport, which will provide better oversight and organization.
A move by the CIF to sanction the sport might also open the door for a school like Mater Dei to build its own rink, which would give the Monarchs and other high school teams more access to ice time.
With the Kings in the process of starting a high school league similar to the Ducks, and the San Jose Sharks already overseeing a league of their own, the need to sanction the sport has never been higher.
“If I had to guess, I would think that would be in next five to seven years,” Miller says.