The Anaheim Ducks made a little bit of history on Thursday when they announced the signing of Ryan Lasch to a two-year contract. In signing with Anaheim, Lasch became the first Orange County born-and-bred player to join the organization. Aside from being a momentous occasion for Ryan Lasch and his family, this is a huge deal for not only the Anaheim organization, but also Southern California hockey at large – not so much because it’s rare for a Southern Californian hockey player to have this kind of opportunity (it’s growing more and more common, in fact), but more so because, if he can crack the line-up, he’ll prove to be a marketer’s dream.
A native of Lake Forest who attended Trabuco Hills High School, Lasch is a highly skilled, if undersized scoring winger who was a stand-out at St. Cloud State in Minnesota. Over the course of his four years at St. Cloud, Lasch became the school’s all-time leading scorer, finishing his collegiate career with 79 goals and 104 assists for 183 points in 161 games. A Hobey Baker Award finalist in 2007-08, Lasch was never drafted and never offered a contract by an NHL club, and so as many diminutive but skilled players opt to do, Lasch decamped for Europe. After spending the 2010-11 season with Sodertalje SK of the Swedish Elite League, Lasch packed his bags once again, moving to Finland to play in SM-liiga (the Finnish Elite League), for the Lahti Pelicans. (You may recognize the Pelicans from some of their ridiculously awesome commercials.)
As a Pelican, all Lasch did was lead the league in points during the regular season with 62, lead the league in points in the playoffs with 16, and help land the Pelicans a spot in the league championship before ultimately falling to JYP Jyvaskyla. For his troubles, Lasch was honored as a SM-liiga first team All-Star (along with Duck prospect Sami Vatanen), as well as becoming the recipient of a rare non-NHLer invite to the World Championships in Helsinki, where he suited up for Team USA along with Bobby Ryan, Cam Fowler, and Kyle Palmieri (who all three, no doubt, put in a good word to Bob Murray). So it’s been a bit of a whirlwind year for the SoCal Kid, but his work is far from finished. With the Ducks facing major questions on their 2nd line and in desperate need for some secondary scoring, Lasch just might, with a strong training camp in September (or whenever the new CBA is ratified [knock wood]), have a chance to do what no other Orange County native has ever done – suit up for the hometown Anaheim Ducks. So, what does this say about the state of youth hockey in Southern California, and in Orange County specifically?
Well, more than anything, it supports a growing trend.
You see, it’s not really anything new to have elite-level players coming out of Southern California and cracking NHL line-ups. Rancho Palos Verdes native Richard Park was hailed by many scouts as the best 12-year-old they’d seen in a long while, and had a cup of coffee with the Ducks in the late 90s before moving on to have a respectable journeyman career (currently with Pittsburgh). Chris Chelios spent much of his teenaged years in San Diego (where he formed an effective shut down unit with a nasty velociraptor, a lumbering triceratops, and the GEICO caveman). More recently, Bobby Ryan lived in El Segundo and played for the Junior Kings (with Ryan Lasch, incidentally) from the age of 10, until he left for Owen Sound as a 16-year-old. Emerson Etem, a Long Beach native, was picked 29th overall in 2010 by Anaheim, and in his final year of Junior eligibility led the WHL in goals by a wide margin. Beau Bennett, of Gardena, became the highest-drafted Southern California-born player when Pittsburgh selected him with the 20th overall pick in 2010 – so, you see, it’s not exactly a new phenomenon, but where the signing of Lasch differs is that he’s an Orange County native on the cusp of suiting up specifically for Orange County’s hockey team – Lasch and the Ducks are keeping it in the family, so to speak. At the risk of sounding like a cynic, from a marketing standpoint, this is huge for the Ducks and the state of youth hockey in Southern California.
To attempt to put this in perspective, I was born in 1987 (the same year as Lasch), in Orange County, to parents who knew next to nothing about hockey. Two years later, Gretzky was traded to Los Angeles, and suddenly, hockey was hot. In 1992, the NHL granted Anaheim and Disney an expansion team. Cut to: 1993-94, and all of the kids on our street (ranging from the ages of 4 to 10) would spend our summer nights playing street hockey (Game on!), chanting, “Mighty Ducks! Mighty Ducks!” (I’ve got the video evidence – don’t make me prove it). By the time I was 8, I was playing organized hockey, at 10 I started playing for club and travel roller hockey teams (against Ryan Lasch, incidentally) and by the time I got to high school, there were roughly 12 schools with Varsity-level roller hockey programs competing in a league against each other. (By that time, however, all of the elite players, like Lasch, had left to play at prep schools, in Junior A in Canada, or in the USHL.) Nowadays, the Anaheim Ducks own and operate most of the rinks in the Orange County area and run high school hockey leagues for both roller and ice hockey. They also oversee Learn To Play initiatives that put kids in skates for free and teach them to love the game. The end goal, no doubt, is to make for a scenario by which elite level players don’t have to move to Canada, or back East to continue to develop their game – at least, it should be. And with the Ducks, Ryan Lasch will no doubt play a part in continuing to inch toward that attainable reality.
While current owners Henry and Susan Samueli can’t really take credit for most of the above, since purchasing the Ducks they have gone above and beyond in their efforts to grow the sport locally, and specifically at a youth level. What they ultimately understand is that by investing in youth hockey in the Orange County area all they’re really doing is investing in their own product. By putting kids in skates and handing them a stick (all for free, no less), they’re creating potential life-long fans who will turn right around and proceed to pump more money into the Ducks. Now, (and again, I’m not trying to be cynical) they’ve got their man to build an entire marketing campaign around. “If Ryan Lasch can play for the Ducks, so can you!” It’s fantastic. Not to diminish Lasch’s on-ice accomplishments (his resume certainly proves he deserves a shot – and why not with the Ducks?), but one can’t help but to wonder just how much his untapped marketing potential factored into the Ducks pursuing and ultimately signing him. He’s got the skill and the backstory. Now he’s just gotta make the team.