He played just one season as a backup goalie for the Bakersfield Condors, but that was more than enough time for the team -- and town -- to cast a permanent spell on author and celebrity journalist Ken Baker.
His affection for the area runs so deep, in fact, that the city figures prominently in two of Baker's four published books: "They Don't Play Hockey in Heaven," the 2003 chronicle of his life as "professional hockey's oldest rookie," and the recently released "Fangirl," a young adult novel that follows the techno-fueled romance between an average teen and Bieber-esque pop star.
Baker will be at Barnes & Noble on California Avenue Friday to sign copies of "Fangirl," no arm-twisting necessary.
"I love coming up the Grapevine and down into the valley," said Baker in a phone interview Monday. "I always feel like I can breathe and relax. There's something about that expanse of the southern valley there. It can be so beautiful and breathtaking sometimes.
"It's two hours from Los Angeles but it can be a world away. I just love that about Bakersfield."
Baker -- who writes about celebrities as chief news correspondent for E! News -- makes the trip north from his Los Angeles home at least once a year, more if he has his way.
His affinity for the city derives from a combination of things: enduring friendships with Condors personnel past and present like Jamie Cooke, Matt Riley and Kevin Bartl, and the resemblance he sees between Bakersfield and his hometown of Buffalo, N.Y.
"They're both working-class, middle-class cities. I think Bakersfield has a similar place in how it's set in California that Buffalo has in New York, and for that reason, I think there's something I feel comfortable with there."
And so Baker returned, both figuratively and literally, to sketch out his novel's protagonist: an everyteen preoccupied with pop culture and social media whose background and world view are distinctly Bakersfield.
"I could have set it anywhere. I wanted the girl to be from a smaller town, but not too small. I also wanted her to be kind of an average girl that people could relate to. I feel that, to me, Bakersfield is that kind of place."
A local family provided Baker with much of the inspiration for his main character and her mother, and several familiar settings pop up throughout the novel: Gosford Road, Rabobank Arena, the Oaks neighborhood and the Frito-Lay plant northwest of town. The author even picked up the idea for a minor plot point while in town doing research.
"I was sitting in Starbucks waiting for someone, so I grabbed a Californian and started reading the local news. There was a big story about a marijuana farm bust. I had no idea this was becoming a problem in the valley."
While Baker may have had to get reacquainted with Bakersfield, the nature of his work as a celebrity journalist makes him uniquely qualified to explore one of the book's major themes: the price of fame exacted on young stars in a world obsessed with celebrity.
"If a teen, with their parents' approval, enters that world, they're walking into this intense crucible," said Baker, who has interviewed dozens of young celebrities over the years. "What they don't realize is that once you turn it on, it's very difficult to turn it off. There is a price to pay. One of those is the price of privacy and intense media scrutiny. And it's very difficult."
Still, the central focus of the book -- first love -- is accessible to everyone, even a married father of two who may seem an unlikely choice to write from the perspective of a 14-year-old girl.
"It was a daunting thing to dip into this," Baker said. "But the texting, techno aspects of the story aside, if you fell in love for the first time in the '70s, '80s, '90s or 2012, that feeling is what I wanted to capture."
Hockey and life lessons
Meanwhile, Baker is pleased to report that his first book, "Man Made: A Memoir of My Body," is about to become a feature film, starring Elijah Wood.
The indie comedy, whose working title is "Late Bloomer," follows Baker's journey through puberty -- at age 28 -- after the removal of a benign tumor on his pituitary gland.
"If anything, it changes your biochemistry so much that it changes the way you're experiencing your physicality.
"I had solved those problems by the time I got to Bakersfield. Hockey was an ultimate celebration of that."
With his medical problems behind him, Baker was eager to pursue his boyhood dream of playing professional hockey. Around 2000, he looked up Jamie Cooke, a college friend who was playing for the Condors.
"I cold-called the team and tried out. I started the season before, and then moved there (for the 2001-02 season).
"It was a magical time for me."
Though Baker's official association with the team lasted just a season, he managed to mine enough insights to write a book about his experiences and still considers himself an unofficial Condor, catching at least one game a year and offering his advice and expertise with promotional campaigns, including the team's recent tongue-in-cheek offer to sign Justin Bieber to a contract.
He's excited he'll be in town to catch the Condors' home game against the Stockton Thunder and is even bringing a friend from L.A., who insisted on tagging along after putting up with Baker's incessant talk about Bakersfield.
"My book about my time with the Condors could have been called 'Everything I Ever Needed to Know About Life I Learned in Hockey.' My daughter is a goalie like I was. If all I got out of writing that book is that I get to share those insights with my daughter, how cool is that?
"I'm a very sentimental person, and it's a very sentimental book."