OAKLAND -- When it comes to Bay Area ice hockey, the San Jose Sharks have developed a loyal, passionate fan base, and the first-year, minor league San Francisco Bulls filled a void during the recently ended National Hockey League lockout.

Few, however, harbor visions of the Bay Area as a hub for recreational, youth or developmental hockey.

Though the number of Bay Area youth hockey clubs might pale in comparison to the number of those in colder parts of North America, they do exist. Take, for instance, the Oakland Bears Hockey Club, which holds its practices and home games at the Oakland Ice Center.

The Bears compete in the Northern California Junior Hockey Association and accommodate players in six age groups ranging from Mites (8-under) to Midget 18 (17-18).

"For my son, it's everything," Jose Ascencio said while watching son Andres score a goal for the (11-12) Pee Wee division Bears in their Jan. 12 home game with the Tri-Valley Blue Devils.

For the Ascencios, like many others, hockey is a family sport. In addition to Andres Ascencio, 12, brothers Pepito, 13, and Ludwig, 18, also have taken to ice hockey. So has younger sister, Linda, 7.

"They never want to be late getting here," Jose Ascencio said. "They could be here all day."

After emerging from their locker room in uniforms patterned after those of the Boston Bruins, the Bears take to the ice for their warm-ups. Once the game begins, the play takes on a pleasant ebb and flow as the teams go back and forth on the ice (the visiting Blue Devils ultimately won 5-3). Young as they are, it quickly becomes clear that these players aren't exactly fledglings.

"The level of skills and strategies that you can teach at young ages is greater than some other sports," Bears Pee Wee division coach John Nadzam said. "A lot of the kids get the hockey bug. They love it."

One of Nadzam's players, 11-year-old Nathan Chin, of Piedmont, started playing hockey some 41/2 years ago.

"(Hockey) gives him discipline, challenge and (the experience of) working as a team," Eliza Chin said of her son. "It's probably the thing he's most passionate about."

Hockey similarly has helped teammate and captain Dennis Franklin in many aspects of life.

"This has been huge in terms of his time-management discipline," Melinda Yee Franklin said of her son, a seventh-grader at Head Royce School. "He knows he has to do well in school to play hockey. He also likes to play lacrosse and golf, but hockey is his favorite."

For teams such as the Bears, preseason practice begins as early as July. The regular season, including league and tournament play, begins in late August or early September and consists of around 30 games. That amount increases for teams that make the playoffs, potentially keeping players in action into April.

Coming up this weekend, the Bears travel to a tournament in Lake Tahoe. As in the case of youth sports in general, travel provides a learning experience beyond the sport itself.

"Dennis has traveled to Chicago and Boston (for hockey tournaments)," Yee Franklin said. "(Hockey) has really opened up the world to him."

Hockey appeals in other ways, too. Despite the contact inherent to the sport and the slap shots that sometimes get airborne, hockey is relatively safe as players take the ice in full pads and wear helmets with masks.

"Compared to soccer, for instance, the number of head injuries is low," said Emily Teachout, hockey manager for the Oakland Ice Center.

Among Bay Area athletes, ice hockey might not enjoy the popularity of football, basketball, baseball or even soccer. On the flip side, this gives hockey players a special status.

"I think it's a great source of pride to play something a little different from everyone else," Teachout said.

Moraga resident Tadd Koziel, father of 11-year-old Pee Wee player Nolan Koziel, concurs.

"When (Nolan) goes to school, he's probably only about one or two who play (hockey)," Koziel said.

"Hockey's a pretty tight community, a pretty tight culture," Nadzam added. "It's a passion, it's a lifestyle. The respect for the game, the passion, is unparalleled."

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