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High school hockey teams break the ice
Jeff Miller column: JSerra and Santa Margarita are 'trailblazers on a new path,' and having fun while doing it.
ALISO VIEJO — The places can be marked by monuments, the people by statues, the events by anniversaries.
And then sometimes history just happens, and that's enough all on its own.
"There were tons of people there," JSerra High's Zac Russell said. "It was an insane environment."
They skated out in opposing directions and contrasting colors and moved to opposite benches, this first-time occurrence an ice-breaker as much as a ground-breaker.
"We've had a good launch now," Russell's coach, Dave Karpa, said. "We want to build on this."
They played three periods of ice hockey unlike three periods ever played before. These were the first matching high school teams from Orange County.
"It was a surreal experience," Santa Margarita's Danny Boutoussov said. "We really did feel like trailblazers on a new path."
The first game — and by first we do mean of all-time — happened Sept. 26 at Anaheim Ice, a 5-2 JSerra victory. The two teams, the only ones currently representing O.C. high schools, met again Oct. 17, a 4-4 tie.
They are part of a program sponsored by the Ducks, with patches on each sleeve. JSerra is coached by Karpa, a former Duck. He is assisted by Guy Hebert, another former Duck. Santa Margarita is coached by Craig Johnson, yes, also a former Duck.
Though struggling at the start of their NHL season, the Ducks are a prep power play, with plans to expand this program to include more schools, both public and private. As for the Ice Lions and Eagles, they've been equipped with everything but webbed skates.
They are building this imported sport in the most basic and meticulous of ways — one ice cube at a time. Kids have played hockey in Orange County for years, just not in the colors of their high school.
JSerra debuted last fall, playing mostly against area club teams. Santa Margarita joined the Ice Lions this year.
"Hockey in Minnesota is like football in Texas," said Johnson, who grew up in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, all of which eventually freeze over, right? "I watched the Gophers and the North Stars, but the team I really watched was the high school team. I wanted to be out there with those guys."
When Johnson played in the state championship game back home, nearly 20,000 fans attended. The Ducks could fit 20,000 into their home arena only if they first sold out and then invited 1,000 pregnant women and counted each one as two.
Here's another comparison to consider: Ice time in Minnesota, where the winter highways are one red line short of being usable rinks, might be $125 an hour. Those 60 minutes here costs closer to $400.
Yet another contrast: There is no such place as Surf City, Canada.
"Where I grew up it was minus-20 and minus-30," said Karpa, who was born in Saskatchewan, a moose-infested land located, we believe, just north of Venus. "People weren't showing up at the rink in shorts and flip-flops.
"But these kids here, they get it. They really want to play hockey. This is their No. 1 sport."
Their stories are similar. Started playing at age 4 or 5. Began in roller hockey, eventually moved on to ice. Played in house leagues, then on traveling teams, then couldn't believe it when someone said the school was forming a team.
Even at JSerra, well into their second season, the Ice Lions still are becoming an acquired taste.
"Not a lot of people knew about it last year because we didn't really have anyone else to play," said Russell, a junior forward. "Now S.M. is playing and everybody wants to beat S.M. at our school. So everybody's fired up."
That first game between the two teams carried even more weight than just history. Santa Margarita dedicated this season to two students, Zach Raffety and Mark Motley, who were killed in an auto accident in the spring.
After an on-ice presentation, a banner bearing their names and the words "Forever Eagles" was lifted to the ceiling at Anaheim Ice.
"This team bonds more," Santa Margarita freshman Max Kilkuts said. "This is more of a team, you know? Everyone's closer. We all sit together during lunch at school. It's all good."
Boutoussov, a sophomore with the Eagles, epitomizes what this program is about. His parents are Russian but did not grow up playing hockey. His father, Dmitri, discovered the sport the way most of us discovered Simon Cowell — on TV.
The Ducks were playing the Red Wings when Dmitri realized his three sons should be playing hockey.
"I guess he had an epiphany," said Danny, the oldest Boutoussov boy. "I have two younger brothers (Paul and Mikey). Hopefully, they'll follow me and play ice hockey at Santa Margarita."
As for pops, Dmitri attempted to take up hockey, too, opting for the roller version. But he soon threw out his back and benched himself.
"Now he can just watch us," Danny said. "That's his hockey. He has to live through us."
It's not an altogether terrible fate, a father in Southern California left with no choice but to watch his son make hockey history.