San Diego has produced a bevy of professional athletes in just about every sport imaginable … save for hockey. So far only Chad Ruhwedel, currently a defenseman for the Pittsburgh Penguins, is the only San Diego native to play in the National Hockey League.
But that might be changing in the near future.
On Monday the Gulls signed a pair of players to amateur tryout agreements (ATO): center Mitch Hults and forward Austin Ortega. If Hults needs help finding his way around America’s Finest City all he needs to do is ask the other new guy.
Ortega is an Escondido native who grew up playing for the San Diego Jr. Gulls and then the Anaheim Jr. Ducks. He ended up going to school at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, one of the top college hockey programs in the nation.
His senior year Ortega led the National Collegiate Hockey Conference in scoring and he has a flair for the dramatic. Ortega, who’s only 5-8 and 170 pounds, tied the NCAA all-time record with 23 career game-winning goals. He was also a four-time Academic All-Conference selection.
Hults signed a two-year entry-level contract with the Anaheim Ducks (the Gulls parent club). At Lake Superior State he led the Western Collegiate Hockey Association in assists last season.
In case you’re curious, an ATO is a type of contract for players who are leaving college and attempting to turn professional; are done with college; or are graduating from the junior leagues. Ortega and Hults will practice with the Gulls on Tuesday and might be on the ice for San Diego’s showdown on Wednesday against the first-place San Jose Barracuda at Valley View Casino Center.
The Gulls’ magic number to clinch a playoff spot is just three points. Depending on how other games go around the American Hockey League on Tuesday, it is possible San Diego could have a chance secure a place in the post-season with a Wednesday win on home ice.