Growth of Bobcats program made possible by rock-solid foundation
Ten years ago, when the Arizona Bobcats were just getting started and director of hockey Ron Filion was overseeing just three teams, it would have been hard to imagine what the program would become in 2017.
Back then, the program was known as the Valley of the Sun Hockey Association (VOSHA) Mustangs. It didn’t have a permanent home, hadn’t yet achieved Tier 1 status playing in the North American Prospects Hockey League and started as a spring and summer program only.
Fast forward a decade or so, and the Bobcats are a mature, established program with a strong history and an even more promising future. Three years ago, Filion secured the right to play and practice at Arcadia Ice and the program expanded from icing three teams to 10.
“The vision was pretty simple for us – to develop kids and promote them,” Filion said. “The rest has kind of fallen into place. We started having success with our three teams, and once we moved to Arcadia, we were able to expand. Our main focus when we started wasn’t on growing – our focus was to offer a good program with great opportunities for development, and we’ve been able to build upon that.”
With 10 teams this season ranging from 8U to 18U and nearly 200 players in the program, the Bobcats offer a clear path for top competitive players to advance from the youngest levels right through the top.
Since its birth in 2008, the Bobcats program has produced multiple state championship teams and numerous teams that have won the Quebec International Pee-Wee Hockey Tournament and other major events. More important for Filion and his staff, though, is their track record of developing players ready to advance to the next levels of hockey. Both winning and developing top players have lent credibility to the program throughout the U.S. and Canada.
The Bobcats’ website features a list of 65 alumni playing on various junior teams in leagues across the country and in Canada, in college programs and in the pros. In addition to Brendan Lemieux (who is with the AHL’s Manitoba Moose) and Phil Pietroniro (with the ECHL’s Utah Grizzlies), there is of course Auston Matthews. The first overall pick in the 2016 NHL Draft, Matthews has electrified the league in his rookie season with 24 goals and 19 assists through his first 51 games.
Having an NHL star like Matthews as a recent product of the program can only help the Bobcats.
“It’s definitely something to be proud of, and we have plenty of other guys playing in college and juniors,” Filion said. “That not only represents the Bobcats well, but is a good representation of hockey in Arizona, too. From top to bottom, everything is being done more professionally across the state, which really helps develop great players.”
The foundation of the Bobcats’ success, FIlion believes, is the coaching staff they have carefully built since Day 1. Brent Gough, Pat Conacher, Leeor Shtrom, Matt Eltman and Michael Hensdell make up the core of that staff, and other valued members of the coaching crew include Jason Oliver, Mark Gordon, Brad Donaldson, Scott Wilson, Larry Hastings, Pete Papadatos, Viv Woolford and the newest addition to the staff, Jim Livanavage.
Livanavage joined the program last year to coach his son, a Pee Wee, and plans to continue working with the 2004 birth year age group until they age out of youth hockey, just as he did with the 1996 birth year at his previous stop.
“Jim has been a huge addition to our program – his experience and coaching knowledge have made our 2004 group a very solid team,” FIlion said. “Our discussions on team strategy and player management have proven that Jim is a perfect fit for me and the entire Bobcats organization. You definitely can’t buy experience and contacts, and his time at the junior level as owner and GM of two NAHL teams is also helping us move our players to that league.”
Added Livanavage: “I think the kids know that we all as coaches bring something to the table, and it’s important that they realize that this is a long process trying to develop players. For me, I won’t consider my work with the 2004 team a success unless a number of those players advance to play beyond youth hockey in Arizona. It’s our job to give them the tools and develop them so they can move on and continue their careers – that’s where my experience comes into play.”
Livanavage and his son, Jake, came to the Bobcats before the 2015-16 season from the Desert Youth Hockey Association (DYHA) Jr. Sun Devils, realizing it was the right time to make the move to AAA hockey. The long-time coach and hockey administrator has been involved in youth hockey for many years in the Phoenix area, and admired from afar what Filion was building before joining the program.
“I think Ron has developed a tremendous coaching staff, from the U18s with Brent Gough and Pat Mahan all the way down to Ron with the 2005 group,” Livanavage said. “Every one of the coaches cares immensely about the players. It’s not just about the success of one individual season, but everyone wants to see their players be successful in the long term. With all the people Ron has surrounded himself with, he’s not looking for ‘yes men.’ He wants everyone to provide their input and discuss what’s best for players’ development, rather than just listening to what Ron wants and doing it.”
So what’s the future for the Bobcats? Do they add more teams at different levels, or simply continue to excel at the AAA level and get even better at producing winning teams and players ready to advance to juniors and college hockey?
Livanavage thinks it’s the latter.
“I’m impressed with how the program has grown so quickly,” he said. “Ron had talked about it when I was at DYHA. I figured it would be a few years down the road, but he went from three teams to 10 almost overnight. It’s just incredible to see all the kids that are playing for the Bobcats right now.
“What I see in the future is more development pieces, like what we have with the Bobcat Academy right now. I see stronger teams with more to offer for the development of players. The more you can offer to develop kids as hockey players, the better.
“I think if we keep sticking to the plan of developing players for the long haul, I don’t know if there will be another Auston Matthews, but there will continue to be players that come out of Arizona that will impress people. If we continue to have success, that will shine a brighter light on hockey in Arizona.”
Filion agrees with that assessment.
“For us, the plan is to stay the course,” Filion said. “We want to keep on developing top talent and providing opportunities for more kids from Arizona to reach their goals. Yes, we love winning, but all our coaches understand our philosophy that winning is a byproduct of how well you prepare the players.”
— Greg Ball