Arizona inline hockey – led by IHAAZ – continues to emerge as a popular, growing sport
Erik Dahl of the Jr. Wildcats will be the first to tell you the Inline Hockey Association of Arizona (IHAAZ) is in as good of shape as ever.
Programs are growing and success is being enjoyed across the board by teams in all six age divisions and interest in the league is extending beyond the state line of Arizona.
“The league is continuing to grow,” Dahl said. “This year we had a San Diego team at one of our tournaments. Last season, we had some teams from Albuquerque and we’re hoping that maybe they’ll be able to come back.”
The Jr. Wildcats are a perfect example of the growth the league has enjoyed. This season was the first in which the program had four teams, fielding teams in the 8U, 10U, 12U and 14U division.
“We’ve grown every year,” Dahl said. “Having this many teams created some long tournament days for our coaches, but they were able to work with each team to improve them dramatically from the start of the season to the end.”
The Knighthawks are thriving as well and came away with championships in the 10U and the 14U age divisions.
“At the state finals, all of our teams were clicking and working together as a unit,” said Brent Proud, the head coach of the program. “Teamwork is what makes things work and it’s great to see a true team effort from all.”
The Knighthawks have been instrumental in growing interest among girls as well as they fielded their first ever all-girls team this past season.
“These girls improved more than any other team in all of IHAAZ,” Proud said. “I am sure everyone can attest to that. The Ladyhawks have inspired so many people and young girls to want to play the game. We plan to make this happen again next season with coaches Ali Era and Anthony Ray at the helm.”
One of the keys to success for the Knighthawks program as a whole is that it emphasizes the importance of not relying on just one or two players to succeed.
“We will never be a group that operates only on individual success,” Proud said. “We teach our kids the importance of being a team and each player has their role in the unit. You can’t remove the alternator from the car and expect it to work. The same goes with our players. If you take away one, things get tough.”
Havasu is the midst of a transition period and dealt with a great deal of adversity, but made the best of its situation.
“Injuries to key players in our Midget division caused our young players to step up all year,” said Havasu head coach Bill Beckman. “We fought Mother Nature all year long and she washed out a majority of our practices. Our program is in a transition period and we are hoping for new players and parents to help solidify the future of our program.”
The Prescott Storm, which won the 8U state championship, was pleased with the overall direction its program moved in this season.
“The season went really well,” said Storm head coach Freedom Nolan. “The players definitely enjoyed the addition of another tournament weekend. Any chance to play more hockey is great.”
Three of the players in the Storm program are girls and compete with the LadyHawks as well.
The AZ Royals have made strides as well. They won the 14U A division state title and its AZ Royals White team claimed the Midget division crown.
“Overall, the 2017 IHAAZ season was a good one for our Royals teams,” head coach Nick Boyarsky said. “The true test of an IHAAZ team is running the gambit of each festival’s floor and how teams must adjust their game play accordingly. Our three teams have shown very well on tile floors, but struggled when it came to play on concrete floors like Prescott and Yuma have.”
Every team in the league made improvements and seeing progress from the start of the year to the end is what every coach wants to see, whether a season ends with a championship or not.
Proud was certainly pleased with the strides his Knighthawks program made over the course of the season.
“Our players improved tremendously,” Proud said. “Dustin Jans, myself and our coaches all feel every kid gained the skills of learning life lessons that they can take with them in every aspect of their life whether it’s a job interview, being under pressure at school, handling struggling times or anything that may come their way. Win, lose, blood, sweat and tears, whatever it is, hockey is the greatest game in the world and it teaches kids a ton.”
Boyarsky noted a lot of ice hockey players often give roller hockey a shot and make strides in that sport. He was pleased with what he saw from the players that made that transition.
“Without recreational leagues to pool from, the Royals is an outlet for ice hockey players to try out roller hockey with minimal travel costs and in a competitive but fun environment,” Boyarsky said. “There’s always a learning curve for those new to roller hockey to figure out the slight differences in the two games. This season, like most others, we got better as we went on.”
Nolan believes one of the biggest improvements the players in his program made was that they gained more knowledge about the game itself, knowledge that will benefit the players going forward in their hockey careers.
“Each team really showed continued improvement with skating, passing and working together as a team,” Nolan said. “I hope the players also gained a better understanding of the game and what it means to be a part of a team. I also hope they had as much fun playing as we did watching them all season.”
Dahl said his players took big steps forward as well, both on and off the floor, and enjoyed the experience a great deal.
“The experience our teams all got this year was learning to work through adversity and overcome obstacles,” Dahl said. “Some of our teams were short players and other players adapted and overcame. An important goal of our club is to teach our kids some life lessons along with having fun playing hockey. I think they all grew as players and as people this season.”
The Dust Devils enjoyed their experience as well despite the adversity it faced at times.
“We were able to welcome some players from out of town to join our teams this year and they were very much a part of our success,” Beckman said. “The 14U team had a huge win in overtime at the Prescott tournament to give us the 14U B championship. That was a highlight of our season.”
It won’t be long before the next season is underway and all signs point to continued growth of the highly successful league.
“We’ve seen an explosion in growth of our rec program and we’re planning to have four full teams again next season,” Dahl said. “For the first time in our history, we’re probably going to have to cut some people at tryouts at a couple of our age levels. That’s always hard since we really want to give everyone a chance to play who wants to, but at this level, it’s so competitive that we really need the best of the best.”
Dahl adds the popularity of the sport continues to rise.
“The popularity of the sport is growing and more and more people are starting to see that inline is a great way to continue building hockey skills for ice players in the offseason,” Dahl said.
— Brian Lester