From Gilbert to Glendale, Mite to Jr. A, the ‘Union’ has the Valley’s puck scene covered
There are philosophies that hold a place in the lexicon of almost all good coaches, and at the top of every up-and-coming team’s goals: Always keep improving, and never sit satisfied with where you were yesterday.
So it’s hardly a coincidence, then, that those same mantras could be applied to how the Arizona Hockey Union (AHU) – one of the state’s most prominent youth hockey operations over the past two decades – has looked at its own future as a pillar for the sport in the desert.
“We’ve been a strong program for a very long time,” noted Shawn Babin, the organization’s vice president at-large, who coaches multiple AHU teams in the West Valley and has been part of the organization for the better part of 15 years. “And with a lot of what we’ve done the past few years, we keep getting stronger.”
Strength for the Union is measured in a number of ways.
On the one hand, AHU and its parent organization, Arizona Hockey Clubs (AHC), continue to be at the forefront of the Southwest’s tournament scene – with the Phoenix Presidents’ Day Invitational and AHC Thanksgiving Shootout seemingly more popular than ever, and the AHU Icebreaker Invitational in a growth mode of its own.
Additionally, while the Knights are set to field nine East Valley-based youth teams out of AZ Ice Gilbert this year, the program enters year two of its West Valley complement – this season made of nearly a half dozen squads – playing out of Glendale’s Gila River Arena, home of the NHL’s Arizona Coyotes.
And while AHU remains the only Arizona-based program to claim its own in-house Junior A program in the Phoenix Knights, both the East and West Valley counterparts, to boot, have put a premium on building from the bottom up, starting with adding more Mite teams to the roster – all while emphasizing player and coach retention above almost all else.
“From year to year, one of the things that Arizona Hockey Union has done really well is supported the growth of the game at the youngest levels,” added Jason Evahnenko, a long-serving AHU coach and administrator based in the East Valley. “All of this gives us a really stable foundation looking ahead.”
In the driver’s seat
A year ago at this time, Babin admits there was maybe a tiny bit of trepidation about how the AHU West Valley teams would fare in year one across town from the mostly-East Valley-based Knights program.
Make no mistake, it wasn’t a matter of commitment or competitiveness, but rather getting handed the “keys to a Porsche,” as Babin puts it.
“It takes a little while to get comfortable behind the wheel,” said Babin, referring to his team playing their home games at the home of the Coyotes. “We’re a year in now and we’ve learned how to drive it.”
After fielding four teams out of Glendale last year, the Knights upped the ante to five West Valley squads in 2015-16 – adding a new Mite unit to a contingent that spans all the way Midget 16U on that side of town.
“Last year went really great,” Babin said. “We have a really good relationship with the arena. The best part is we’re giving kids another place to play. It gives choice without having to travel far all the time, especially for these kids who live on the West side.”
Babin said the allure for teams visiting from out of state to have a chance to play a game or two at the Gila River Arena has served AHU well and added at the Knights are the only youth program in the entire country to call an NHL arena its day-to-day home rink.
According to Babin, the AHU’s Valley-wide success, however, is more than just about the bells and whistles of a building that just so happens to house 18,300 seats. Rather, it’s about fielding competitive – yet supportive – teams out of both Glendale and Gilbert.
Today, nine AHU youth teams – including a pair of Mite squads – call AZ Ice Gilbert home. The junior team is based out of Gilbert, too.
Chris Walker, a former youth player within the organization before playing himself for the junior program and now the Knights head coach and general manager, said the camaraderie between the Junior A Knights and the younger players, especially those first-year Mites, has always been unique to the AHU organization. It’s also been natural, he noted.
“It’s actually been really easy to make that connection,” said Walker. “A lot of the Mite parents are actually host families for us. Growing up in this program myself – as a youth player, then a junior player, I know how close-knit it’s been. We want to make sure we keep that going.”
From the ground up
Through all of its various stages of evolution over the years, it could be argued that perhaps the most impactful – looking another 15 years into the future, at least – is taking shape at AHU this season.
This year, the Knights are fielding three Mite teams and three Squirt teams. The goal is to get players to jump in while they’re young and still raw, fit them on the right team, with the right coach, and keep those squads together all the way through Bantams and Midgets.
“It’s amazing not starting at the beginning every single year with a new group of kids,” Evanehnko explained.
As the coach of the East Valley-based Bantam AA Knights, Evanehnko would know. His team started together as a Squirt B team five years ago, and is now made up of a core group of about 10 players who have been together for that entire half-decade.
“Any time you can start bringing up kids together and teach them the same concepts and same team strategies – and you can continue to coach that from year-to-year – it allows you to take that next step every year, too,” said Evanehnko. “You’re not starting at the beginning every single year with a new group of kids. It allows you to get started that much faster each season.”
Babin said that East Valley or West, keeping kids under the same coaching tree as they move up will pay the ultimate dividend in the end.
“If they stay together as a corps group and stay with the coach, they get better both as a team and as individuals as time goes on,” he said.
Added Evahnenko: “We have a unique opportunity to coach such a dynamic group of kids from a young age, and keep them together. We are making sure we accomplish that.”
— Brett Fera