Talented California trio will represent United States at 2018 Winter Olympic Games
As hat tricks go, this is an impressive one for California.
In Cayla Barnes, Jonathon Blum and Ralph DeQuebec, the state has a member of the United States’ women’s, men’s and Paralympic teams for the 2018 Olympic Games in PyeongChang, South Korea, which start Feb. 9.
All three are defensemen, but they represent three completely different, but growing, aspects of hockey in the Golden State.
Barnes, who is just 18, is a prodigy in the women’s game – the only U.S. player ever to win three consecutive gold medals in the Under-18 Women’s World Championships. She was five games into her freshman season at Boston College when the Women’s National Team called her to join them this past fall.
Blum, who turns 29 at the end of January, is the first California-born and California-trained player to be selected in the first round of the NHL Draft (23rd overall by Nashville in 2007). He won a Memorial Cup with Vancouver of the Western Hockey League, was the CHL’s Defenseman of the Year and captained the U.S. World Junior team in 2009. He’s currently playing for Sochi (Russia) in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL).
DeQuebec, 34, has the least international experience in hockey, but is an incredible story of how he got to this point. While serving as a bomb disposal technician in the Marines in Afghanistan in 2012, he was injured by an improvised explosive device (IED) and ultimately, had both of his legs amputated above the knee.
He took to sled hockey so well that in 2014, he became part of the U.S. National Development Sled Hockey Team despite being 31 at the time. His Olympic dream came into focus that year as well.
“The moment I witnessed the boys win gold in Sochi in 2014,” the Purple Heart recipient said. “I didn’t know a lot about hockey, but I knew one thing – what I witnessed was amazing and I wanted it ever since.”
So the San Pedro native set out in pursuit of his goal with a determination honed by years in the Marines.
“We received the highest levels of training and depended on each other,” DeQuebec said. “The only major difference with hockey is even though we’re preparing for battle, no one is supposed to die.”
Hockey added a new – and needed – dimension to his life after his injuries.
“There is so much more to hockey than what the average person sees on the ice,” he said. “The camaraderie, chirping, locker room atmosphere and the team-first aspect is exactly what I craved after being injured.
“It made me feel like I was back with the boys – because I was.”
For all of Blum’s accomplishments and accolades, he never fathomed playing in the Olympics (and joining fellow Californians Jim Warden, 1976, and John Blue, 1988) would be possible despite 110 games in the NHL with Nashville and Minnesota. From 1998 until midway through 2017, the men’s hockey tournament at the Olympics was largely stocked with veteran NHL players.
“Being from Southern California, I never thought of playing in the NHL or winning a Memorial Cup or getting drafted,” he said. “I played hockey because I had fun and met a lot of friends through it.
“I didn’t know what the Memorial Cup or World Juniors was when I was 14. I’m sure kids now know more than I did what’s out there, and we’ve had lots of guys from California reach the NHL or play in the World Juniors as the game has grown. I didn’t know anything.”
A full season in the American Hockey League, followed by five more seasons bouncing between the AHL and the NHL was enough for him. So Blum left North America to continue his pro career in the KHL in 2015.
As he has at every level, the former California Wave player thrived because his high skill level and high hockey IQ translate well on any size ice surface, particularly the larger Olympic-sized ones found throughout Europe. USA Hockey reacquainted itself with Blum over the summer.
“This past summer, I got a call from Jim Johannson (Team USA’s GM), who asked where I was playing this season,” the Ladera Ranch native recalled. “He said I was on the radar for an Olympic spot, one of 100-something guys.
“At that time, the NHL was going one day and not the next.”
Not until he was invited to participate in the Duetschland Cup in early November was Blum convinced he had somewhat of a chance. He was one of three Californians, joining Robbie Earl and Ryan Lasch, in Augsburg, Germany.
“The Deutschland was the only pre-scout evaluation the team had and getting invited was a big step – I knew my chances would increase,” Blum said. “I was having a good season and had good seasons the past couple years.”
That Barnes became the third California-born and California–trained female selected to an Olympic team (joining Angela Ruggeiro, 1998-2010, and Chanda Gunn, 2006) was not a surprise, but the timing of how it went down was.
She was invited to a camp for the Women’s National Team earlier in 2017, but was sent home. A three-time USA Today Prep All-American for her work at New Hampton Prep School in New Hampshire, she assumed the next step was to begin with her college career at Boston College.
Much to Barnes’ surprise, the National Team contacted her in October and asked her to join the team in training in Florida in advance of November’s Four Nations Cup. Even then, it was not a given she would make the team.
The Eastvale native, who played for the Anaheim Jr. Ducks, Lady Ducks, LA Hockey Club and LA Jr. Kings as a youth player, didn’t know for sure until USA Hockey officials met individually with the women who didn’t make the team before telling the 23 who did shortly before the Jan. 1 announcement of the teams.
“It was bittersweet to see some teammates let go,” she said. “But it’s been a dream of mine since I was little. It’s a bit overwhelming, but also exciting for my family and me.
“I thought I could be considered someday, but you never know. I wasn’t expecting it this early. I thought I’d go through college and have a good shot in 2022.
“It was an exciting turn of events.”
Barnes’ selection also gave her pause to not only think about where she’s come from, but where the game is going in California.
“I reflect on it a lot,” Barnes said. “I had a lot of great, impactful coaches. There are a lot of other players from the state doing great things and hockey is continuing to grow. I hope this isn’t such a rare thing in the future.”
In addition, Los Angeles native Brandon Kozun, whose family moved to Calgary when he was 10, will play for Team Canada, while San Jose Barracuda captain John McCarthy and Stockton Heat defenseman Cody Goloubef will play for Team USA.
Photos: DeQuebec/USA Hockey; Barnes/BC College Athletics; Blum/Deutscher Eishockey-Bund
— Chris Bayee
(Jan. 25, 2018)