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Sunny San Diego was a hotbed of hockey talent for local colleges

BC’s Thatcher Demko (wearing goalie pads), BU’s Nikolas Olsson (at left of Demko), and Harvard’s Tyler Moy (behind Demko) played together on the San Diego Rangers youth team.Susanna Moy

They grew up on sunshine, flip-flops, regular trips to Southern California's best beaches, and the incessant, seductive whir of a Zamboni.

Tyler Moy and Thatcher Demko, reared on San Diego hockey from the time they were classmates at Children's World KinderCare, are on rival campuses these days. Moy is at Harvard, Demko at Boston College, and Nik Olsson, another buddy from their old neighborhood, is a winger at Boston University.

"I don't remember a lot about preschool, obviously,'' said Moy, the Crimson junior center, thinking back to when he and Demko were finger-painting 4-year-olds, "but I think we had nap time together.''

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"I just remember always having Tyler around,'' added Demko, one of the nation's top Division 1 goalies. "Back to like when we were 5 years old, we'd be at his house, shooting pucks in the backyard, playing on the same teams all the time. He's always been part of my life.''

Oh, and wait, there's more. Alec McCrea, a freshman defenseman at Cornell, played on many of the same San Diego-based youth teams as his pals. And yet another of their San Diego soulmates, Chad Ruhwedel, played three seasons at UMass Lowell and is now a defenseman for the Rochester Americans, the Sabres' AHL affiliate.

In a college sport that for generations was stocked with kids almost exclusively from New England and the Midwest, hockey's talent pool has grown profoundly in the last 20-plus years, influenced in large part by the National Hockey League's expansion across the Sun Belt states. Kids in California, Texas, and even Florida now compete regularly for the same coveted Division 1 scholarships that were the apples of kids' eyes in suburban Boston, Detroit, and St. Paul.

Amid that overall growth, the talent surge from San Diego is remarkable. Last February, the Globe ran a story about how unusual it was for three Charlestown pals — Jimmy Vesey (Harvard), Matt Grzelcyk (BU), and Brendan Collier (NU) — all to play in the Beanpot. Overlooked was the fact that the same could be said of Moy, Demko, and Olsson, three kids who played on the same San Diego tournament teams as squirts, eventually to be windblown some 3,000 miles east to continue their careers in the Hub of Hockey.

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"I wouldn't have known what to say,'' said Olsson, 21, when asked what his response might have been if told a decade ago that he, Moy, and Demko would play Division 1 hockey in Boston. "I probably didn't even know where those schools were. None of us had been exposed to high-level hockey. So I guess I would have asked, 'What's Division 1?' ''

Joe Bertagna, the former Harvard goalie who is now commissioner of Hockey East, noted recently that his playing days of the early '70s reflected how Boston-centric the sport was for just the goaltending position. Bertagna grew up in Arlington. Dan Eberly, from Needham, tended the NU net. Ned Yetten, from Waltham, did the same for BC. Ed Walsh, from Somerville, was a BU tender.

No telling who will be the goalies in the 2016 Beanpot, but it's possible three schools will go with California stoppers: Demko for BC, Ryan Ruck (Coto de Caza) for NU, and Merrick Madsen (Acton) for Harvard.

"It really is reflective of the whole recruiting culture,'' said Bertagna. "It's because pro hockey has grown, and where pro hockey has grown, youth hockey has sprung up in those areas, and that has introduced some great athletes.''

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A father out front

As for San Diego in particular, Demko, Olsson, and Moy all agree that Moy's father has had a profound influence on the sport's development at the youth level. Randy Moy, who grew up outside Detroit and was a forward at Western Michigan, came to San Diego in the late '70s to be an assistant coach with the then-Division 1 hockey program at US International.

"Truthfully, I didn't know where San Diego was,'' said Moy, who spent most of the past 15-plus years coaching youth hockey in and around the Scripps Ranch section of San Diego. "I knew it was in California, but I didn't know if it was north, south, or in the middle. I just knew it was a chance to coach D1 hockey and get my master's degree for free.''

Soon after Tyler was born in 1995, dad quickly had him enrolled in learn-to-skate classes.

"I was the only 3-year-old in there,'' recalled Tyler, who was drafted this past June by the Nashville Predators, "and I was also the only kid wearing full hockey gear. Everyone else was wearing skates, mittens, and gloves.

"I had the full helmet, the shin pads . . . and good thing. I was falling a ton.''

Tyler Moy has three goals and three assists in 10 games this season for Harvard.Gil Talbot

Demko grew up a short distance from the Moys' home, and began skating at roughly the same age as Tyler. With only a few rinks in the area, and roller hockey vastly more popular among San Diego kids, ice hockey proved a common bond between the two pals at Children's World.

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"Tyler and Thatcher were so happy that they each knew someone who actually played the game,'' said Randy Moy.

Soon began the senior Moy's full immersion into teaching the boys and growing the youth game in San Diego. Olsson, who lived slightly to the north in Escondido, came along a little later, and for some years was enticed to play in bigger, more expensive programs in Los Angeles.

To this day, there is somewhat of a tug-of-war between the development programs in San Diego and the bigger, often pricier programs in both Anaheim (home of the NHL Ducks) and LA, where Wayne Gretzky's arrival with the Kings in 1988 gave the youth game a huge booster shot.

"I've had a front-row seat to all of this, since coaching Tyler as a baby,'' said Moy. "I've always felt, if you want to go up there and play in the more prestigious tournaments, and play on a better team, and spend a lot more money, then feel free to do that. But if you are doing it because you feel it is better for your development, then that's not true.''

A key issue for San Diego kids playing in LA, noted Moy, is that they must commute up to four hours, round trip, three or four times a week. Better, he feels, that they remain home on the ranch and use those hours playing games and developing their skills.

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"I think Tyler and Thatcher and Alec McCrea are excellent examples of what I believe in,'' said Moy. "Now, Nik was with us at times, too, but he spent time in LA programs and he's ended up with a successful career, too. But there are plenty of others who went up to LA and didn't do anything. So it's a constant battle for top kids.''

By Demko's eye, the senior Moy has been sort of a Pied Piper, deserving of ample credit for the development of the sport in a nontraditional hockey area. Tyler, said Demko, "was the definition of a rink rat,'' tagging along with his dad wherever the senior Moy coached. Kids such as Demko, Olsson, McCrea, and others were eager to follow what Coach Randy had to say.

"I would say Randy had a huge impact on Tyler's life, my life, Nik Olsson's life, and really the entire hockey community in San Diego,'' said Demko, who was selected by the Vancouver Canucks in the 2014 NHL draft.

Thatcher Demko is 13-2-1 this season for Boston College.Matthew J. Lee/Globe staff/Boston Globe

The beach boys

In the boys' grammar school years, recalled the senior Moy, he often had use of only a half-sheet of ice for practice sessions. The boys in those days played in-house hockey, squaring off against each other on different teams in the same league, then banding together on tournament teams that the senior Moy often took to play in neighboring states.

During an interview at Harvard's Bright-Landry Center, Tyler Moy used his SmartPhone to show a Globe reporter a picture of one of those teams, taken following a Squirt AA tournament win at Pike's Peak, Colo. All the boys are 9 or 10 years old, and Demko, in goalie pads, is stretched out at the bottom the photo, with Olsson and Moy within arm's reach. A proud Randy Moy is among the coaches in the back row.

"A special group of kids,'' said the elder Moy. "I had no idea how special it would at the time. We had one practice a week, half ice, and that was it. But we'd enter these tournaments, and keep winning. I think it's quite remarkable, because we kept beating teams that had a lot more kids to choose from.''

"That photo brings back some really good feelings,'' said Olsson, now in his sophomore year at BU. "Those were the years we would go to a tournament and you wouldn't necessarily be focused on the game the next day. You could go in the hallway at the hotel, play mini-sticks with the other guys on the team. It was mainly about fun.

"Obviously, it's still fun today, but you could be playing mini-sticks till 10 p.m. and then play in the tournament the next day without any troubles.''

When back in California for the summers, Demko, Olsson, and Moy often will skate together in the morning, rising some days at 4:30 a.m. for an early sheet of ice. Dry-land workouts end late in the morning, and then they usually head to some of the fine Pacific beaches to spend the afternoon.

"We'll be in the water for hours,'' said Demko. "When the sun goes down, we pack up and everyone's, 'OK, see you same time tomorrow. Pick you up for practice.' ''

Back home for the holiday break, the boys will be together again for what has become a traditional game on Christmas Eve morning. They will meet at their favorite rink in Escondido, and like old house-league days, divvy up teams for a two-hour tournament among themselves.

A few days later, they'll all board flights east to resume their careers in Hockey East and the ECAC.

"Pretty cool,'' said Tyler Moy, "to think we all came from the same place, and we all ended up in Boston.''

Nikolas Olsson has three assists in 11 games this season for Boston University.Barry Chin/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at kevin.dupont@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeKPD.