The “C” that adorns Ethan Somoza’s sweater stands for captain, but it could also stand for something else: Californian.

Somoza is the 58th captain in Bemidji State men’s hockey history, and he’s believed to be the first to hail from California.

The senior forward leads the Beavers with four points from three goals and one assist through the first five games of the 2020-21 season, including his first career three-point game last Friday at Minnesota State.

So how exactly did someone from the Golden State wind up playing college hockey in northern Minnesota?

Roller rink roots

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Bemidji State senior Ethan Somoza (9) celebrates his goal in the second period against Michigan Tech on Dec. 12 at the Sanford Center. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)
Bemidji State senior Ethan Somoza (9) celebrates his goal in the second period against Michigan Tech on Dec. 12 at the Sanford Center. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)

Somoza’s hockey career began by lacing up a different sort of skates.

Growing up in Simi Valley, 40 miles northwest of Los Angeles, roller hockey became Somoza’s entrance into the sport.

“When I was around 6 years old, I started playing roller hockey actually,” said Somoza, who still participates in roller hockey tournaments during the summer. “My friends from school played roller hockey and I wanted to try it. I liked it, and so I started playing roller hockey for about two years. Then I transitioned over to ice hockey and kind of just went from there.”

As for ice rinks, those aren’t so easy to find in California.

In Minnesota, you can expect to find a rink in just about any town, but that’s not the case in a place where it rarely drops below freezing. Luckily for Somoza, there was a rink just around the corner.

“Fortunately for me, I live about five minutes from an ice hockey rink,” he said. “But typically the hockey rinks, in Southern California at least, are pretty spread out about 45 minutes apart from each other. There’s not a bunch of them all close to each other like here in Minnesota.”

Suffice it to say, hockey is not the most commonly played sport where Somoza grew up.

“Our high school didn’t have a hockey team, obviously,” he said. “I was playing travel hockey. Most of the kids at my school played either football or were on the baseball team or the lacrosse team.

“I wasn’t ever really a part of my school’s sports, and then I’d always be missing class to go to hockey tournaments. Not a lot of people really understood it, but it was my thing and I loved hockey, so I didn’t mind that other people didn’t understand it.”

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Hockey isn’t completely foreign to Southern Californians, and it’s still growing.

Wayne Gretzky’s trade to the Los Angeles Kings in 1988 is widely credited with spurring interest in the sport around the region, as have the Kings’ two Stanley Cup victories in the last decade.

“That really got California into it,” said Somoza, who is actually a New Jersey Devils fan because he was born in the Garden State. “I think a ton of people really started to like hockey and watch the Kings a lot more and started to put their kids into hockey. There’s definitely been a huge growth in hockey in California.”

With no college hockey programs in California, Somoza found a home in a state that reigns supreme in terms of producing players. Minnesota is the home state of 204 Division I men’s hockey players in 2020-21, according to College Hockey Inc.

But California is near the top of the list as well with 34 players, the ninth-most of any state.

In the future, could Somoza see players like himself staying home to play college hockey?

“I think that would be awesome to get some of the schools to have D-I hockey programs there, like UCLA or USC,” he said. “I think those would be awesome schools to get hockey at. … I would love to see that in the future.”

Make no bones about it, Somoza is glad to be wearing the green and white of Bemidji State.

“Bemidji was my first choice. I was verbally committed to Bemidji for several years before coming here,” he said, “and I never had a doubt in my mind that this wasn’t the right place for me. This has been my home for a while and I love it here. I don’t regret coming here.”

Northern exposure

Bemidji State senior Ethan Somoza is one of 34 Californians playing Division I men's hockey this season. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)
Bemidji State senior Ethan Somoza is one of 34 Californians playing Division I men's hockey this season. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)

Bemidji isn’t the first northern locale Somoza’s hockey career has brought him.

In order to play junior hockey, Somoza had to leave his home state.

He first landed in Alaska, where played two seasons for the NAHL’s Fairbanks Ice Dogs, before spending his last two junior seasons playing for the USHL’s Bloomington Thunder in the milder climate of Illinois.

“My first year away from home in Fairbanks, Alaska, was really different than California,” Somoza said. “It was really cold there and it took a little bit of time to get used to, but I got used to it and I loved playing there.”

Somoza experienced another culture change once he arrived in Bemidji for his freshman year with the Beavers in 2016-17, one that he’s certainly embraced.

“Everyone here in Bemidji and Minnesota, they know everything about hockey here,” he said. “Anyone you talk to is interested in what’s going on with their team here in town or what’s going on with the Minnesota Wild.

“That’s just such a hot topic of conversation here compared to back home where you’re a little bit more unlikely to spark conversation about hockey with someone in California. But it does happen once in a while.”

While most of the BSU roster consists of Minnesotans and Canadians, Somoza shares his nontraditional hockey upbringing with one other Sun Belter: Nevada’s Brendan Harris. In fact, the two were teammates on a AAA hockey team in California for one season as teenagers.

Now in the midst of his senior season, Somoza has proven himself worthy of the captaincy he inherited from Tommy Muck and Adam Brady.

“I think last year I was a little bit more of a lead-by-example kind of guy on the ice, not as vocal,” said Somoza, who was an alternate captain last season. “I kind of let Tommy and Adam do the talking. And then this year I stepped into the captain role and I’ve been a lot more vocal in the locker room and kind of tried to follow what they did.”

Being a captain in a normal season is one thing, but serving that role during a pandemic comes with its own set of challenges for Somoza.

“There’s been ups and downs this season, obviously, with not even knowing when we’re going to start, and then finally starting and having games canceled,” he said. “I think just the challenge of keeping the team even-keeled and not getting down when we have games canceled, or if we don’t know if we’re playing or not. Just trying to keep everyone with positive energy in the locker room and keep everyone excited to come to the rink every day.”