JUNIOR LEAGUE HELPS LOCALS BECOME HIGH FLYERS VALENCIA-BASED TEAM GIVES PAIR A CHANCE AT BIG-TIME HOCKEY.
VALENCIA - Todd Stelnick and Coby Robinson don't have to travel far to pursue their dreams of playing professional hockey.
Stelnick and Robinson, both enrolled at Santa Clarita high schools, represent the area on the Valencia Flyers, a Junior B-level hockey team in the Western States Hockey League.
Not all of the Flyers are local. Left wing Warren Rubinoff is from Chicago and Clay Arnold originally is from Alaska but now lives in Bakersfield.
The Flyers, who are sponsored by the newly opened Valencia Ice Station, didn't join the league until late June. They replaced the now-defunct Ventura Mariners, a Simi Valley-based team, and are among four expansion franchises in the six-team league.
The Ice Station barely had been open six months when the opportunity arose for the facility to field a Junior B-level team.
Ice Station director of hockey operations Larry Bruyere admits he was apprehensive about the idea at first. The facility, which has helped make skating and hockey among the Santa Clarita Valley's fastest-growing activities, struggles to squeeze in enough ice time for existing high school and youth leagues, and Bruyere was concerned about taking on too much too soon.
``I wasn't sure if we were ready, but I figured there's no time like the present,'' he said.
The WSHL season began three weeks ago. Valencia is off to a 2-2 start.
The regular season runs through early March, with postseason extending into mid-April.
``Everybody knows you,'' said Stelnick, a Saugus High senior. ``I'm playing in my home town and I'm showing people what Valencia is all about.''
Last Saturday, Stelnick was the hometown hero in the Flyers' first-ever home victory. He had one goal and two assists in a 5-1 win against San Diego.
``It brings a lot of attention to the community and it brings a lot more attention to hockey,'' said Robinson, a Hart High senior.
Robinson, who played for the Mariners' Junior B team last season, said playing closer to home has made life easier for him. He no longer has to commute 45 minutes each way from his Newhall residence to Simi Valley.
The Flyers' first two home games last weekend drew crowds in the hundreds, Bruyere said.
The 20-and-under B-level league features players who are seeking to advance to the Junior A level - from which the National Hockey League drafts many players - and earn college scholarships.
One Flyer is expected to be on the move soon. Eric Bowen, an Atlanta Thrashers draftee from Taft High in Woodland Hills who suffered a shoulder injury four weeks ago at the team's NHL training camp, was added to the Flyers' roster last weekend for the two-game home series against San Diego. A Montana-based Junior-A team is seeking to acquire him, however.
The Flyers will hate to lose Bowen, but seeing him advance is part of the team's objective.
``That's our goal,'' Bruyere said, ``to give players exposure so that they can advance to higher levels.''
Flyers coach Ryan Rockabrand said the team's younger players benefited from having the opportunity to play with Bowen. But other NHL prospects likely are to pass through the area; the Flyers and other Junior B teams are expected to make moves once the Junior A teams finalize their rosters.
Rockabrand expects the league's presence in the Los Angeles area will help create more interest in the sport, and will give local players a chance to advance their careers.
``It's always difficult for 18- and 19-year-old kids who don't make the cut at the Junior A level to find homes,'' he said. ``Establishing a Junior B team here on the West Coast is really good for their growth.''
Valencia Flyers goalie Coby Robinson gets to play near friends and family, a rare treat in junior hockey.
John Lazar/Staff Photographer