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From the floor to STAPLES Center, Royals find success

 

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It was déjà vu for the Santa Barbara Royals on Sept. 24: a shutout win versus the Kern County Knights.

While this one was not at the STAPLES Center — the home of the Los Angeles Kings, who administer the 10-team Los Angeles Kings High School Hockey League (LAKHSHL) — Santa Barbara’s 5–0 regular-season home opener still featured all but four of the players who won the league’s inaugural championship over the Knights at the iconic LA venue in March.

Coached by former Boston Bruin and Los Angeles King Steve Heinze, the Royals consist of students from San Marcos, Dos Pueblos and Santa Barbara high schools. The crew racked up a 14–0–0–1 record during their maiden season before winning the LAKHSHL title 4–0 over Kern County.

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“I absolutely love it,” the former pro said of coaching the teenagers. “The biggest part is that I get kids who are willing to work hard and listen. It’s my first experience coaching at this level, but it’s been nothing but positive, good reactions from the kids, and we’re just enjoying each other.”

Fans packed the second-floor bleachers at the one-year-old Ice in Paradise venue in the neighboring city of Goleta to cheer on the Royals for their home opener and watch the unfurling of the giant banner commemorating the 2015–2016 team and its finals win. Royals gear was on sale, a silent auction was offering a signed jersey from Kings defenseman Drew Doughty, and tickets to a raffle were collected in the cup of the Royals’ championship trophy.

Long before they were in high school, many of the Royals played roller hockey together in Santa Barbara, and first took to the ice several years ago in Oxnard — 40 miles away at what was then the closest available ice rink. The Royals played their first “home” game there before Ice in Paradise finally opened 12 months ago, after years in the works.

“We had this great group of kids who all of a sudden were going to have no place to play, and it was just like destiny,” Heinze said. “The rink got built, the league got formed, and the Oxnard rink closed — all in the same six months.”

“It’s really cool just to be able to say I play at home,” added Royals team captain Chris Ewasiuk. “My friends can come out and watch me now; it’s the first time that’s ever happened.”

Twice a week, the Royals are on the ice practicing, with another two dryland sessions thrown in.

“We try to sneak in any extra ice or tournaments we can, but that’s the program right now,” Heinze said.

The players’ shared history and chemistry paid off earlier this year when Santa Barbara entered the playoffs ranked first in what was then an eight-team league.

“We’ve never had anything like it,” defenseman Ryan McMullen said of the championship game. “We’re excited that it came together in one of our last years in high school.”

The Royals lost only four players in the time between lifting the trophy inside the STAPLES Center and blanking the Knights for the second consecutive time. Five more joined the squad in their place.

“We’re pretty much the same team,” said alternate captain Collin Del Bonis. “We’re all still on the same page.”

That means that along with championship experience, season two comes with high expectations — something that doesn’t faze the players.

“We’ll take it game by game,” defenseman Jack Johnson, last year’s league MVP, said. “And obviously, the championship is our end goal — for sure.”

Roster spots are still available on seven varsity and junior varsity teams in the LAKHSHL. Players interested in joining can call (310) 535-4472 or email hockey@lakings.com.

Photo/Steve Solomon

— Sam Goldman