By Cara L. Dempski
GLENWOOD CITY — Most people from southern California would probably not call spending an entire day outside in sub-zero weather a fun day.
But those people are not part of the West Ranch High School Hockey Club, based in Santa Clarita, California.
Glenwood City native, and Santa Clarita resident, Jason McNamara was impressed with how well the 15-person team – and the parents – handled the cold conditions for a few games of pond hockey.
“For a bunch of Californians, I was pretty impressed,” McNamara said. “There was not a lot of whining.”
The entire McNamara family, Jason, Melinda, and children Jack and Moriah, led the team convoy out to Glenwood City on January 5 after playing to a 5-5 tie against Eden Prairie the day before. Sixteen-year-old Jack is a sophomore at West Ranch and plays on the hockey team.
McNamara’s father, Larry, is a member of the Forest Ridge Hunt Club in the Town of Forest, where the Wildcats spent a free day of their week-long trip to the Midwest for a tournament in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, playing on the solid pond ice. Some of McNamara’s family members and friends, and those of his wife, Melinda, were present at the Club to welcome the players and their families to Wisconsin.
When the Wildcats weren’t playing a game or three of three-on-three hockey, they were taking turns riding the snowmobiles brought in for the out-of-state visitors to try out. The only way McNamara and the coaches could get the players off the ice at the end of the day was by repeatedly telling them it was getting too dark to play.
“Everyone just loved it. Some of the parents brought their skates, and it was pretty cool to see fathers playing along with their sons,” McNamara stated.
Between the games and the snowmobile rides, Ross’ Locker provided a catered meal for about 50 people, and McNamara’s friends and family in the area – including McNamara’s stepmother Debbie and mother and stepfather Jennifer and Terry Kyle, and his mother- and father-in-law, BettyJean and Jerry Smith – provided dishes to share. It turned into a truly Midwestern event: a potluck meal. Many of the young players commented they were surprised the food was all home-prepared and had not just come from a store.
“Someone said at the end of the day that the boys wouldn’t remember half the games they play this season, but they will remember this day for the rest of their lives,” McNamara said.
McNamara is a big believer in high school sports, and was a hockey player when he was in high school. Which was tricky, since Glenwood City did not have a hockey team.
Instead, he played with the Baldwin-Woodville Blackhawks. In fact, his senior year of high school, McNamara was team captain for all three sports teams he played on: football, hockey and baseball. He credits high school sports with forming him as an adult.
“A lot of who I am today is due to playing high school sports,” he explained. “I want other kids to have those same experiences and opportunities.”
McNamara wanted to offer the boys at West Ranch the same opportunities to learn and be active that he had when he was in high school, so he started doing research on starting a team.
When McNamara first started looking into having a team in Santa Clarita in 2014, the Anaheim Ducks NHL team sponsored a league of high school clubs. The Ducks had started a league in 2007, and had grown from one school to 55 in the seven years of its existence. McNamara initially thought about approaching the Ducks to join the league, but serendipity led him in a different direction.
At the same time McNamara was studying the Ducks’ league, the Los Angeles Kings, another NHL team, were also studying the league. When the one-time Wisconsin resident approached the Kings about forming a club in Santa Clarita, the Kings finally took the plunge. The Kings’ League was started in 2015, and the West Ranch Wildcats are currently the only prep hockey team in Los Angeles County.
There are seven teams in the league, though the Wildcats are the only “pure” team, since all 16 players on the roster are students at West Ranch High School. The other teams are “district” teams made up of players from multiple different schools.
Since starting their first season in 2015, the Wildcats have accrued a 19-15 record.
A Midwestern experience
The 2015 – 2016 season was a successful one for the Wildcats, who wound up second in their league. McNamara said the coaches wanted to build on the team’s playing abilities and players, and so they are aiming for state and national tournament play for the 2016 – 2017 season.
West Ranch is 12-2 so far this season, but McNamara, who serves as the club president, said the team will play upwards of 45 games this season. The tournament in Eden Prairie was part of the club’s plan to build a good team and good players while moving toward heavier, more competitive match-ups.
The team flew to Minnesota the evening of January 3 and took up residence in a Bloomington hotel for the week. The first piece of the Wildcats’ Midwestern experience came courtesy of former University of Minnesota hockey coach and NHL player Bill Butters.
Butters has retired from coaching and playing the game, but runs a series of hockey camps around the country as part of Hockey Ministries International. A few of the Wildcats attended Butters’ Santa Clarita camp a few years ago, and he kept track of them. Eventually, Butters was tapped to serve as a program advisor for the Wildcats.
He took the team to the University of Minnesota’s Mariucci Arena on January 4 for a two-hour practice and tour. Butters helped run the practice session, and then took the boys to meet current U of M hockey coach, Don Lucia.
The West Ranch club played Eden Prairie, one of Minnesota’s top high school hockey teams, later that evening.
Thursday found all 50 Californians driving out to Western Wisconsin for a day playing outside.
“My brother brought his ice shack to use as a locker room and warming house,” McNamara said.
Many of the parents later told him they would not mind relocating to Wisconsin because of the beautiful area around Glenwood City and the friendly, caring people. The parents joked with McNamara after arriving at the Hunt Club.
“They said ‘we knew we were getting close because the roads just kept getting smaller,’” McNamara laughed. “They had fun and met a lot of new people. I wouldn’t be surprised to see some ongoing friendships and relationships come from this.”
The entire group headed back to the hotel after it got too dark to play to prepare for the following day.
Since the West Ranch team is only in its second season, this is its first trip to Eden Prairie for a tournament. In addition to the first-night tie with the host school, the Wildcats took on teams from South Dakota and Canada.
“We had to apply last fall to play in the tournament,” McNamara explained. “And that is when I started planning our Midwest experience.”
The Wildcat Club president went on to explain that there were 16 teams in the tournament, with eight teams in one of two divisions. The A division teams were the more competitive teams, while the B division teams were less so. The West Ridge players were in the A division.
The Wildcats played two games on Friday, beating Sioux Falls, South Dakota, 6-5 that morning, but losing to Thunder Bay, Ontario, later that evening. The team from Thunder Bay would go on to win the entire tournament after winning all of its games.
On Saturday, the West Ridge club played to a 4-4 finish against a team from Brookings, South Dakota, forcing a five-minute overtime period. The Wildcats eventually lost the match-up in a shootout. The final game the Wildcats played was against the South Dakota Flyers. McNamara said the game brought a proud parent moment.
“In front of all the Wisconsin family and friends, Jack scored the winning goal with only 25 seconds left to play,” McNamara stated. “He won player of the game for it.”
The younger McNamara scored on a slapshot from past the blue line that sailed into the top right corner of the net for the score.
The Wildcats are back home now, but McNamara said he has still heard team members and parents talking about the good time they all had in the Midwest. He hopes the team will be able to play another tournament in the region again next year.
“Jack has always been able to go skating or play on the pond, I think the other guys were looking forward to it and would like to do it again,” McNamara finished.