Saturday, June 26, 2010 | 2:15 p.m.
Jason Zucker's first skates had wheels. The 3-year-old kid learned the fundamentals of hockey not on a pastoral Canadian pond, but inside a roller rink in the stifling heat of Las Vegas.
Zucker didn't touch ice until he was 6, following his older brothers onto an air-conditioned hotel sheet. Twelve years later, he pulled on a Minnesota Wild jersey Saturday as a second-round NHL draft selection _ the first player ever drafted from Las Vegas, the sprawling desert gambling mecca that had exactly three ice rinks at last count.
"I might be the first, but I won't be the last," Zucker said.
Although the NHL's expansion into the Sun Belt over the past 20 years was blamed for part of the NHL's financial woes and talent depletion, the first fruits of that move might have ripened during the two-day draft at Staples Center. Americans were in unprecedented demand at the NHL draft this weekend, starting with a record 11 U.S. citizens chosen in the first round.
And these young Americans aren't just from Minnesota and Massachusetts, either.
"Hockey has really started changing," said forward Andrew Yogan, the NHL's first Florida born-and-trained draftee, chosen early in the fourth round by the New York Rangers. "I'm just excited to be the first one, and hopefully I'll open up a couple of doors for the guys after me. There's a lot of hockey talent in South Florida, and people don't know it yet."
The momentum from the impressive U.S. victory at the World Junior Championships in January has extended into the draft, with a record-tying 21 Americans chosen in the first two rounds.
And fittingly for the first draft in Los Angeles, the first-round American choices at Staples Center included Pittsburgh Penguins choice Beau Bennett _ the highest-drafted Californian in NHL history at No. 20 _ and Long Beach's Emerson Etem, chosen by his near-hometown Anaheim Ducks at No. 29.
Both of those blue-chip prospects surfed when they weren't skating, yet still developed into elite teenage talents. Every NHL team has taken notice of the evolving game down south _ particularly the clubs whose junior programs fostered this talent.
"When we started out here, we would only see players coming up in inline hockey," said Kings Hall of Famer Luc Robitaille, who moved to Los Angeles in 1986. "Now, kids are on skates from a very young age, and they're facing good competition from a very young age. In L.A., in San Jose and everywhere, they have almost everything in place to play hockey through their whole lives."
Yogan skated for the Florida Junior Panthers and had a Pavel Bure poster on his wall growing up before moving north as a teenager to play in the OHL.
Zucker was a stick boy for the IHL's Las Vegas Thunder during that league's heyday in the 1990s, and he spent the last few years with the Los Angeles Hockey Club and the U.S. national team.
"West Coast hockey is getting on the map here," Zucker said. "Not just the West Coast, but everywhere in the U.S. is on the rise."
USA Hockey said 11 Americans had been selected in the first round, while the NHL only gave credit for 10, tying the number of Americans chosen in the first round in 2006 and 2007. Defenseman Cam Fowler, the Ducks' pick at No. 12, was born in Windsor, Ont., but was raised and trained in the Detroit suburbs.
Semantics aside, the American first-round choices included an impressive number of high-caliber NHL prospects, including goalie Jack Campbell to Dallas at No. 11; defenseman Derek Forbort to Los Angeles at No. 15; left wing Austin Watson to Nashville at No. 18; and rugged defenseman Jarred Tinordi to Montreal at No. 22.
And then there's Bennett, the Gardena native who attended high school in Cerritos, Calif., before playing juniors in Penticton, B.C. He has a 20-year-old brother playing for Penticton's rivals in the same league.
"I come from not the most well-known league, too, so it's even more rewarding that people noticed me," Bennett said. "Being in L.A. for the draft, being with my friends and family, it's an amazing experience."
Etem played for Medicine Hat in the bigger WHL, but grew up in Los Angeles' in-line hockey culture. He spends the offseasons making a daily trek by bus, train and skates from Long Beach to Venice to train with NHL fitness guru T.R. Goodman.
Bennett wasn't expected to go ahead of Etem, who fell all the way to No. 29, where the Ducks grabbed him. Although he grew up 20 miles from the Honda Center, Etem has never attended a Ducks game.
"There's a new wave of California skill," Etem said. "I think it's about the coaching being done here. There are big things going on. I'm just grateful to be a part of it."