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Gilbert native St. Clair back home, takes reins of Phoenix Knights WSHL team

 

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This time one year ago, Colten St. Clair was soaking in the culmination of his NCAA Division I career at the University of North Dakota with a national championship.

These days, the Gilbert native is back home and preparing for his first season as the head coach of the Phoenix Knights junior team in the Western States Hockey League (WSHL).

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During the 2016-17 season, St. Clair served as an assistant coach. He’ll continue in his role as the skills coach for the Arizona Hockey Union (AHU).

“Last year was a tough year for the organization as far as wins and losses go,” said St. Clair, who is just 24. “Growing up and playing in Arizona, I think the Arizona Hockey Union thought I would be a good fit for here with my passion for the game and my willingness to put in the time and effort. That’s the route they wanted to take and I’m a fresh face here, so that helps to bring in players and things like that.

“I’m honored and humbled to accept this position. I am a young coach, but I strive to move players to the next level and want to make the players better.”

“We believe Colten will have the ability to attract players to the program as we continue the rebuilding efforts that began last season,” added AHU president Stacy Shupe. “He has experience in the top-most elite levels, the USHL and NCAA D-I, where many of our players aspire to reach. We believe that experience will translate to strong coaching for our players.”

As a youth player, St. Clair skated for the Chandler Jr. Polar Bears (Mites), Phoenix Firebirds (Squirts through Bantams under Scott McGovern and Kenny Moffatt) and P.F. Chang’s (one year of 18U AAA under Jim Johnson). He was then drafted by the United States Hockey League’s (USHL) Fargo Force and skated in the USHL as a 16-year-old and played there for three years before starting at North Dakota in 2012.

St. Clair said playing his career at an elite level will lend itself to his coaching style, as well as learning on the fly this past season. Playing for coaches such as Johnson and later, Dave Hakstol at North Dakota, can only be a benefit for St. Clair as he’ll look to find success and the right players for the Knights in the WSHL next season.

“There were certain times last season where you take a positive calm and realize that, ‘Hey, this worked out’ and then there were other things that happened that I would change,” St. Clair said. “You start thinking about those things and how you would do things. I’ve played for a lot of great coaches and was very fortunate in my career. I think I’ll take a little bit of each coach that really worked well and kind of just fit it into my style. When you’re playing, you really only worry about yourself and the guys you’re playing with. Now, you’re in charge of 25-plus players and sometimes your coaching style will work and sometimes you need to take a step back, reevaluate and figure something else out if it’s not sticking to the team.”

And while player recruitment is seemingly a year-round situation, especially when it comes to junior hockey, St. Clair is looking forward to talking to prospects and filling them in on the positives to playing for the Knights.

“Right now, it’s kind of slow and a lot of kids are still playing and worrying about finishing off their seasons, playoffs and things like that,” said St. Clair. “I’m just trying to use all the contacts that I have, from people I played with, played against, even previous coaches, and obviously, I want to bring in kids that want to win. I want to try and start a winning tradition here again, like what the old Polar Bears used to be under Harry Mahood. My family billeted a lot of those players, so I know from a youth program standpoint, especially, it gives those kids something to look forward to. It’s not going to change over one year, obviously, but I have goals for the team next season, which will be a rebuilding season.

“The main thing at this level is development and if you get a kid that wants to put in the work and I can teach him what it’s like to play at the next level and what to look forward to, those are the types of kids we want here. If you prepare these kids like they’re at the next level, they’re going to be ready to go, so that’s something that we’ve already started to think about with bringing in USHL systems and college systems. Work ethic is something that can get you places in life and in hockey. You can teach skill, but not every kid is willing to put in the work. If you’re willing to work, you can achieve anything. Not every player plays his best every game, but it’s the guys that come to the rink every day and the gym in the summer that help a team succeed. If you strive to be the best, all you have to do is work for it and everything else will fall into place.”

Once next season gets underway, what type of team will St. Clair look to ice at AZ Ice Gilbert?

“Look for a very disciplined, fast-moving, hard-nosed team pushing the pace every shift making plays,” said St. Clair. “We will be relentless and hard to play against. I will run strict systems, but allow players to be creative and use their hockey sense. If a kid is highly skilled, why not let them use it? Everybody will come in and be expected to want to get better day-in and day-out. That’s what creates not just a team, but a family.

“These guys will be going into battle with each other, so being a family in the locker room is going to be key.”

As far as his work as the skills coach with the AHU, St. Clair is running a skills camp that goes into June, is a private lessons instructor and then once the junior season begins, will work with the individual youth teams during practices on skills and fundamentals.

Sounds like St. Clair will be jumping into a situation that will be more than a full-time job, but he’s excited for the opportunity.

“Yeah, I’ll be busy, for sure,” St. Clair said.

Members of the Arizona Hockey Union gathered recently at AZ Ice Gilbert after a recent skills session with skills coach Colten St. Clair. Pictured top row, from left to right, are Loren Lieberg (Midget White), Guy Blessing (Midget White), St. Clair, Chandler Manbeck (Midget White) and Luke Yubeta (Midget White). Pictured middle row, from left to right, are Brady Ishu (Squirt White), Jack McDougal (Squirt Silver) and Gavin Fine (Mite White). Pictured front row, from left to right, are Adrian Russo (Mite Black), Evan Hedlund (Mite Black) and Austin Russo (Mite Black). Photo/Scott Lundahl/AZMVP Studios

— Matt Mackinder