In 1967, Los Angeles got its very first hockey team: the Los Angeles Kings. Part of a 12-team National Hockey League (NHL) expansion, this was the first time a professional hockey team would call Southern California home. It was a game changing moment for hockey.

A huge gamble, many wondered if a game saved for the cold winters of Canada and northern United States could ever make it in the sunny world of Los Angeles. Over five decades later, the number of NHL teams in Southern California has doubled; in fact, hockey has become one of the fastest growing sports in the region, especially in the world of high school sports.

One pivotal trade changed everything. On Aug. 9, 1988 the Los Angeles Kings traded for the greatest hockey player of all time. Wayne Gretzky or “The Great One” became a Los Angeles King.

Regarding his arrival in Los Angeles and its effect on hockey, Gretzky said, “One of the things I said when I got here [L.A.] was that there are a lot of great athletes here. Baseball, basketball, football. We’ve got to get some of those kids interested in ice hockey.” Gretzky continued with, “That will get those kids saying, ‘I want to go watch hockey games. I want to go see the NHL.’ Then we could have this vision and goal for hockey being played in L.A.”

Because Wayne Gretzky came to Los Angeles, the game of hockey exploded not just in California but across the entire sunbelt of the United States. Southern California now had two NHL teams that kids from L.A. could watch. As more teens became exposed to hockey, many wanted to play themselves.

Currently, the Anaheim Ducks High School Hockey League has 32 teams combined with the 17 teams from the Los Angeles Kings High School Hockey League, all of which participate  in ice hockey as a school funded sport. Additionally, there are approximately 130 high schools that offer club hockey to their students. This is a far cry from the four high school hockey teams that existed in 1988.

Not only are these hockey teams abundant, but they are successful as well. Most recently, Santa Margarita High School from Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif., won the Division I USA Hockey National Championship, defeating teams from much more traditional hockey areas like Minnesota, Michigan, and New York.

Hockey will continue to grow as the Ducks and Kings have become committed to their communities and the growing game of hockey in their region. Both NHL teams have “Learn To Play” programs every year that get kids interested in hockey and high schools in the area have become increasingly interested in ice hockey as more students have shown an interest in the sport.

The high school hockey program has been instrumental in this unprecedented growth due to its accessibility and affordability compared to the traditional club hockey model that was the only option for so long in California,” said Burke Myers, the assistant coach of the Bishop Amat High School hockey team.

“Many players in high school that had never played before, but wanted to learn, didn’t have the chance due to the highly competitive nature of the club hockey system,” Myers continued. “With the high school League, new players are welcomed and encouraged. It offers a developmental league for new players in addition to the Varsity and Junior Varsity divisions.”

The high school hockey league programs in Southern California have provided so many students with the opportunity to try hockey, which is not a traditional sport in the area. The game has seen exponential growth and will continue to flourish in Southern California as more kids experience the game in a fun and affordable way.