By Nick Hart
Take a trip down to sunny southern California and you’ll find a city that boasts sandy beaches, the colorful architecture of Balboa Park, as well as the stunning sights of Sunset Cliff. Discovered by the Germans in 1904, they named it “San Diego”, which, of course, in German means “ice hockey haven”.
No, there’s no way that’s correct. Scholars maintain the actual translation was lost thousands of years ago, but don’t tell that to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins defenseman Chad Ruhwedel, whose love for hockey was born while he was growing up in San Diego. In fact, Ruhwedel is the first and only San Diego native to play in the NHL
While southern California might seem like a bizarre place for hockey to take root, Ruhwedel’s passion for the game started similarly to most kids who wind up cherishing the sport. He just strapped on some skates, stepped on the ice, and knew it was something he wanted to do time and time again.
“I just tried it out, tried skating, and I wanted to go back,” Ruhwedel said. “My parents did a good job of keeping me with it, letting me do whatever made me happy. I did a ‘learn to skate’ first, then actually learned how to play the game, and it all snowballed from there.”
Ruhwedel’s father is a U.S. Marine Corps veteran, and so work had the family bounce around different locations around the country until they finally settled in San Diego when Ruhwedel was young. Ruhwedel remembers being about five-years-old when he started skating regularly, and stayed in southern California for the entirely of his youth hockey career.
Today, the Penguins’ locker room has four players from the Greater Toronto Area, three from Minnesota and three from New England. So San Diego sort of really sticks out on the roster sheet compared to the more “traditional” markets. Even though the area isn’t perceived as a hockey hotbed, Ruhwedel contends that his hometown and the state as a whole shouldn’t be discounted.
“Hockey’s more popular in California than people think,” Ruhwedel said. “When I was young, I had three rinks within 15 minutes of my house. Now there are probably five. There are a lot of people interested, a lot of people skating. It’s still tough to get ice time.”
Ruhwedel also grew up at a time when the game was booming in the region. Wayne Gretzky was playing for the Los Angeles Kings and, shortly thereafter, the San Jose Sharks were born and hockey came to Disney Land with the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim (Ruhwedel’s team of choice growing up). The NHL’s commitment to growing the game in the area paid off with a generation of hockey players from California infiltrating the top junior, collegiate and pro ranks, a movement Ruhwedel was a part of and he sees continuing through the next decade.
“California’s definitely coming in strong with a lot of good players and they keep coming,” Ruhwedel said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if they had a lot of Division-I college hockey programs there in the next five to 10 years. It’s just getting so popular.”
He attended school all the way across the country at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell, but if a college program in the Pacific Coast states had been an option at the time, he would have seen it as an easy choice to keep his talents in the region.
“It would have been tough to turn down, that’s for sure,” Ruhwedel said. “Arizona State has one now, and it won’t be long before USC, UCLA, Stanford and the like all get on the bandwagon and pick up hockey programs. I loved it in New England, but being from the west coast, it’d be pretty hard to turn down a Pac-12 conference team.”
Though he never did get to play at a school on his side of the country, he can still rest his laurels on the fact that he’s the one and only person from San Diego who has played in the NHL. While he doesn’t expect to hold that distinction for long, he’s excited that he can say he holds the title right now and led the way for future San Diegan hockey stars.
“I’m very proud of it, but I have to thank so many people that helped me get to [the NHL],” Ruhwedel said. “My parents, my coaches, friends and family that made it all possible. Without them, there’s no way it happens. But now that it did, yeah, it’s really cool. I’m really fortunate to have that honor.”
You stay classy, Chad Ruhwedel.