Ever since Ice in Paradise opened in Goleta seven years ago, a new sports community has bubbled up that goes wild for ice hockey, and now their varsity-level high school team, the Santa Barbara Royals, are headed to the league finals after winning 16 games in a row.
The team, made up of players from high schools all over the county — Santa Barbara, San Marcos, Dos Pueblos, and Santa Ynez — participates in the Los Angeles Kings High School Hockey League, which includes teams from El Segundo, Burbank, and Las Vegas.
Head Coach Steve Heinze, a 12-year NHL veteran and a member of the 1992 Olympic hockey team, is board president of Ice in Paradise and credits the team’s success to the close-knit community that has developed since the center opened in 2015.
Many of the current players learned the sport through the youth program, the Santa Barbara Ice Hawks, and now volunteer to coach the younger kids or teach skating on their off time.
“These kids have known each other for a long time and really have each other’s backs. It shows in how they play,” Heinze said.
That is certainly true for the four sets of siblings playing together this year: Kennedy and Calvin Frisell and Reese and Johnny Niemela come from San Marcos, brothers Nick and Colin Bowman are from Santa Ynez, and Daniel and Jack Finneran go to Dos Pueblos.
Kennedy, in her senior year, is not only one of the league’s top defenders — earning Player of the Week earlier this season despite suffering a concussion from a big hit — but she does it all while monitoring her diabetes and playing in full-contact competition in a league with almost all boys.
Heinze said that his approach to coaching is a far reach from the hard-nosed, old-school hockey coaches he had in the pros. Instead, he and his assistant coaches John Ewasiuk and Will Hall try to tailor the coaching to each kid. Heinze believes this worked well on a team with first-year freshmen and two teenage girls. “Some need the hug, some need the carrot, others the stick,” he said.
The Royals have won every game except their opening one last September. In their final regular-season game, they shut down the highest-scoring team in the league, the Burbank Cougars, 1-0, leading freshman goalie Jack Finneran to be named Player of the Week.
On Saturday, March 5, the Royals won the league semifinals, where they lit up the scoreboard for a 6-2 win over the El Segundo Strikers in front of a packed house at Ice in Paradise. The Royals’ younger players showed their speed and stick work, keeping the visiting team on their heels for all three periods. Sophomore Eli Heinze, Coach Heinze’s son, scored twice and assisted on the team’s final goal to put the game away.
Senior captain Noah Kangas is a force on defense and one of the team’s senior leaders, along with Nick Bowman. Bowman, who is also the league’s Student of the Month for February, is a member of the National Honor Society, maintains a 3.83 GPA, and is planning to play hockey next year at Liberty University.
The center has a program that helps pay for equipment for kids that want to try out for hockey, the Young Norqs, named after beneficiary Jack Norqual, who serves as the board’s chair. Norqual and the late hockey bigwig Ed Snider played a major part in funding the facility in 2015, and the two rinks at Ice in Paradise bear their names.
The Royals won the Los Angeles Kings High School Hockey Championship back-to-back in 2015-16 and 2016-17, and would secure their third title with a win on March 13 against the West Ranch Wildcats, the only team to beat the Royals in the first game of the season, 6-2. Since then, Santa Barbara has played West Ranch twice, winning 3-2 in November and 5-1 in their latest matchup just three weeks ago.
The championship game will be at Crypto.com Arena in Los Angeles on March 13 at 1 p.m.