IHAAZ growth keeps rolling along with commitment to fun, development
Five years ago, IHAAZ looked much different.
Most of the players only played roller hockey. Now, more than half play ice hockey as well as roller hockey.
It’s a good thing, for sure, as league tournament director Nick Boyarsky explains.
“Roller hockey is a low-stress, low-commitment sport that ice players can do in conjunction with ice hockey,” Boyarsky said. “The sport has plenty of positive skill enforcement that translates over to ice hockey.”
But there are growing conflicts and the IHAAZ is at a crossroads as it focuses on finding the best way to work with ice hockey to give players the opportunity to play one of the sports without sacrificing opportunities to do the other as well.
Scheduling conflicts with tournaments are at the heart of the issue.
“We are finding more than ever that balancing the two is a challenge,” Boyarsky said. “In ever-demanding ice hockey seasons, it’s becoming more challenging to schedule our tournament series and State Finals around ice hockey. We want to be able to work with them so that players can participate in both sports.”
Casey Sherstobitoff coached the 10U Knighthawks this season and his son is new to roller hockey. A native of Canada, he is confident a balance can be struck that minimizes schedule conflicts between roller and ice hockey. He said awareness and communication are key.
“Economically, inline can draw more players in and help feed the passion for ice hockey in youth players, which is great to develop hockey in Arizona,” Sherstobitoff said. “As well, we need to get more communication between ice hockey clubs and IHAAZ. Right now, it’s very organic in who knows who.”
Changing the perception of roller hockey is crucial as well.
“A lot of parents that have not played the game of ice hockey or inline hockey have perceptions it alters the skills of your ice player, and that’s simply not true,” Sherstobitoff said. “A good player has the ability to take the best of both games and develop themselves to be a better player because he now is equipped with more tools to leverage in his game play.”
Cammielle Becker has long been involved in ice hockey and her son Blaise just started playing roller this season. Like Sherstobitoff, she believes both sports can work together and thrive off each other.
“As long as both sports continue to encourage kids to play, it can work – I’ve seen the benefits to my son and his friends,” Becker said. “The more they work with different coaches on their skills, the better they will be. Ice and roller, in tandem, is an excellent way to do both.”
There have been examples of a willingness of the two hockey worlds to work together. Now it’s a matter of making it happen on a larger scale.
“With club or travel ice hockey, there is never really an off weekend,” Boyarsky said. “We’ve been lucky having many team managers’ children from ice hockey over the years playing in IHAAZ. They work with us to schedule games around the three or four IHAAZ dates that conflict with their regular season. That sort of cooperation is needed on a larger level. We need to be able to block out one or two weekends a year that the state’s associations know to leave alone so we can hold events like our State Finals without having ice hockey tryouts all of a sudden get scheduled on top of a date that’s been published since November the year before.”
That kind of cooperation is beneficial to everyone in the long run.
“Both games lend to each other, which has been pointed out and proven at the NCAA and professional level with the players excelling there who grew up playing roller hockey alongside ice hockey,” Boyarsky said. “I bet anybody who told (St. Louis Blues forward) Pat Maroon he’ll go nowhere in ice hockey because he grew up playing roller hockey is hiding in a deep hole right about now. Both sports will thrive when they work together better.”
Boyarsky is hopeful that with the help of the Arizona Coyotes, the bridge can be solidified between the roller and ice hockey communities. He said in getting that cooperation on a larger scale, IHAAZ would grow.
“We just came off one of the most competitive seasons in a long time and had good numbers, and we want to see those numbers continue to grow,” Boyarsky said. “To do that, we need to figure out how to balance both sports. We have a lot of interest from ice hockey players, and we need to work around scheduling better. We could add a dozen more teams if we can balance that.”
The growth of IHAAZ even more would be huge, especially with all that it provides to players who participate in it.
“I think they have done a great job at structuring the league and encouraging the players,” Becker said. “I think it is an excellent way to boost stickhandling and game play for roller and ice players. I see the teams bonded and enjoyed being around each other. I think it’s fantastic. IHAAZ handles the league play and festivals well. They are so much fun.”
Becker also likes the fact that there is less pressure on players in roller hockey.
“The competition is still heated and the drive to win is there, but somehow feels less pressured,” Becker said. “I think my son enjoyed that freedom.”
Sherstobitoff added that IHAAZ serves as an opportunity for young athletes to learn about hockey for the first time.
“IHAAZ is a great way to introduce hockey as a sport to a lot of kids,” said Sherstobitoff. “It also extends the reach of hockey across the state to areas that do not have the means to attend ice hockey or the financials to play ice hockey. Our kids on the Knighthawks love travelling to the other cities for the tournaments and really enjoy the competition, community and good sportsmanship of the league.”
He also noted that for his son, roller hockey proved to be a great way for him to develop his hockey IQ even more.
“With the game of ice changing in speed of play and puck control, I love the fluidity of inline hockey due to no offsides,” Sherstobitoff said. “You draw your opponent deep into their zone and then like soccer, bring them back into your zone then stretch-rush it up for a 2-on-1. Lastly, his passion and pure love for the game brings me back to when I was a kid playing pond hockey.”
Boyarsky said growth in the league was at its best this season, with seven teams in both the 12U and Midget divisions.
He’s hopeful growth will continue and said the 10U through 14U divisions are close to getting to a point where they can split into upper and lower divisions.
His goal for next season is to see the league avoid dealing with missing players or teams at festivals, and even the State Finals, because of conflicts with ice hockey.
“My hope going into next season is we find a better way to have a full season that can end with a true state championship where everyone can attend and their teams can play intact so all teams have a chance to grab that State Finals champion honor,” Boyarsky said. “To do that, we have to find a way to make sure the ice hockey travel programs can see their way through to allowing us one weekend to get this event completed.”
— Brian Lester
(July 3, 2019)