AHU’s investment in youth development paying dividends from Mites through Junior A
Just as the state playdowns were wrapping up for the older players, the Arizona Hockey Union Mite players were engaged in their own battle.
Mite teams from all over the state took the ice for the last Mite Jamboree of the year on March 24-25, hosted by the Flagstaff Youth Hockey Association. What made this jamboree different from the others was that there would be one team that would skate away with it all and be crowned state champions.
That team was the AHU Mite White Knights.
Entering the final tournament of the season, Mite White, led by head coach Bruce Willis, was looking to continue the successes they had during the 2017-18 year.
Led by third-year players Brayden Willis, Lucas Ishu and Wyatt Porter, Mite White was able to put up a perfect 6-0 record in round robin play. Entering the playoffs, they knew they would have to remain perfect in order to continue on. And they did just that, securing three more wins to get to the championship game versus the Arizona Bobcats.
With solid goaltending from Reagan Rivera and defensive leadership from Porter, the Knights were able to cap off a championship season with a 4-1 victory over the Bobcats.
According to Porter, “We have to protect our goalies and when we do that, we have fun and we win.”
When asked how he thought the tournament went, Ishu replied by saying, “It was awesome.”
Brayden Willis led the charge for the Knights with 18 goals and 10 assists in 10 games. Assisting on many of Willis’ goals were Ishu and Porter.
“Lucas and Wyatt are fun to play with and when we play well, we are pretty good,” said Willis.
Looking to keep their winning ways going, Mite White, now eligible to play full-ice games, recently traveled to Colorado entered the DU Pioneer Classic hockey tournament for graduating Mites.
The first game pitted them against the Colorado Spartans. They were outplayed early but were able to come back from multiple two-goal deficits. Ishu played the hero late in the game to tie it up and the Knights won it in a shootout by a 7-6 score.
The Knights went undefeated the on their way to the finals where they faced the Colorado-based Krivo School of Hockey Elite. In a hard-fought game, Mite White came out on top yet again by a score of 3-2, winning the second tournament in two weeks, and first of their three-day-old Squirt careers.
White’s weekend in Denver was very successful. Not only did they win the tourney, but they gained a tremendous amount of growth.
“For it being our first full-ice experience, our kids settled in to the full ice very nicely,” said Bruce Willis. “Each player contributed to the success of the team, each having some contribution. We were again led by the usual suspects, Brayden Willis, Lucas Ishu, Wyatt Porter and Ethan Standley, but the combination of Colton Dean and Reagan Rivera in the net truly was the backstop to the championship.”
When asked to what he attributes his team’s success to, Willis responded that it was a team effort.
“I can attribute the success of our team as a whole to the dedication and the work ethic of not only the children, but the families of the children,” said Willis. “The commitment of time, energy and money by the families involved is a huge reason why these kids are successful. That being said, I truly believe that our team was successful this season was because the kids worked hard, listened and ultimately, had fun. As a staff, we were able to keep practices fun while teaching not only hockey skills but life lessons, such as being accountable for your actions and doing things that help the team more than individuality.”
Growth of AHU
AHU prides itself on the growth they have produced.
Fielding teams from Mite to Midgets, as well as an in-house Junior A team, the Phoenix Knights that play in the Western States Hockey League, the development of the players is evident at every level.
Knowing that all players develop at different rates and in ways, AHU coach-in-chief Kurt Goar understands the importance of having the right coaches in place.
“To grow hockey in Phoenix, we must as coaches be committed to developing players the right way,” said Goar. “We have hand-picked our coaches to ensure that the skills and techniques taught on the ice are the skills and techniques that will further a player’s game.”
The Union has done this with hometown native Colten St. Clair, a Gilbert native and 2016 NCAA Division I national champion with the University of North Dakota, as the head skills coach. Bringing an elite-level mindset to the organization is something St. Clair is elated to give.
“The goal of the program is to develop the entire person as the focus is on building lasting character, both on and off the ice,” said St. Clair. “The game of hockey is about the team and learning to work within the strategies and team concepts while also recognizing the creative aspects that come with the game.”
A common problem for any team is that there is never enough ice time during the season to hit all areas of a player’s development. From learn to skate to the NHL, players are continuously seeking out camps, clinics and classes to fine-tune the different facets of their game.
Arguably the most important of these skills is skating. Holly Harrington, AHU’s power skating director and coach, breaks it down into the simplest form.
“If you can’t skate, you can’t play,” she said.
“The idea is to sharpen these skills to the point of perfection, where skating correctly becomes a habit,” Harrington said. “Once you achieve this level of expertise, the rewards become numerous. You will notice speed, power and quickness as well as the hidden benefits of confidence, endurance and versatility.”
Harrington has also been working with Mite-aged players for the better part of 20 years and enjoys their endless bounds of energy and willingness to try. She mentions that the most important thing to consider when coaching Mite players is that it needs to be fun so that the players can develop the love for the game.
“In my opinion, the most important thing that Mite/Squirt players need to embrace is the act of competition,” said Willis. “It is my belief that if there is never any resistance, then there is never a chance to improve. Children need to learn how to compete, no matter what they are competing for. It is a life lesson that I truly enjoy helping with.”
It’s tough to argue that based on the amount of success AHU has had.
So what is the driving factor for the growth of AHU’s players?
Harrington notes that the coaches are just as excited as the players in achieving the season’s goals. She believes they are successful because they set realistic goals.
Willis believes that a relationship of trust between the players, coaches and families provide great value when it comes to the player development.
“Family support of the child and the coaching staff goes a long way when it comes to the success of the team,” Willis noted.
— Bryan O’Sullivan
(May 7, 2018)