IHAAZ growth showing no signs of slowing down
Some leagues can start off with a great deal of promise but fail to survive for one reason or another.
But the Inline Hockey Association of Arizona (IHAAZ) is different. It started small, but has grown into something remarkable. And more than a decade later, the state of the league has never been better.
Corporations once ran tournaments, capitalizing on the rising popularity of inline hockey in Arizona in the 1990s, but they were unsuccessful and rinks struggled to make money.
“There were times where not enough teams signed up for a tournament and so the tournament was canceled and the arena lost money because it set aside the time for the tournament,” IHAAZ tournament director Dean Koressel said. “There was no direction to it all.”
Consistency was an issue as well. Some tournaments were a success. Others failed. But there would soon be direction in terms of hosting tournaments as the IHAAZ started up in 1999.
Although there were ups and downs along the way, something every league endures, the IHAAZ soon established itself as a success and has been thriving ever since.
“Having a tournament director has made everything consistent and we have proven that we can run successful tournaments without corporate help,” Koressel said. “Other leagues have come and gone and we have continued to stick around.”
The tournament director is responsible for running each tournament at the site. The host program at the arena is still responsible for collecting fees, clean-up and getting referees and scorekeepers.
The tournament series used to consist of six tournaments per year. There were four tournaments in each of the last four years and five took place this past season, with the year concluding with a thrilling state finals tournament in Queen Creek in May.
“We have survived because we don’t pretend to be something we aren’t as a tournament series,” Koressel said. “This is a grass-roots league. We don’t try to lure the top kids. And the kids have a blast with it. They have so much fun.”
Nick Boyarsky coaches the AZ Royals and has been with the IHAAZ since the beginning and has watched as the league has grown into what it is today.
He is pleased with the strides the league has made, but noted one of the challenges it faces is making the league more competitive.
“We had split divisions in our heyday and we have gotten close to that again, but the challenge right now is the disparity between the top and the bottom,” Boyarsky said. “It’s getting better and overall, the league is growing and is in a great position.”
There used to be a time when ice hockey players wouldn’t get involved with roller hockey, but now, they see the game as another outlet.
“It went from ice hockey coaches forbidding their players from playing it to now allowing them to do it,” Boyarsky said. “They love the game. We had one 11-year-old player who had only played ice hockey in the past play in the IHAAZ this year and he loved it. His parents were excited he did and he said he can’t wait to play again next year.”
Part of what makes the league so much fun to play in is the excitement and fun created by weekend festivals that are played each month during the season.
The festivals are family-friendly, feature picnic dinners, and bring out the best in the athletes, both from a competitive standpoint and in terms of the athletes displaying great sportsmanship.
“The tournament atmosphere has a homey feeling to it,” Boyarsky said. “It’s neat for kids to be a part of it. The games are a lot of fun and the tournaments are a big reason why people love our league so much.”
Matt Robinson, a board member with the Prescott Storm, said when awards are passed out after each festival, the players are excited for each other and don’t hesitate to congratulate each other on their accomplishments.
“It’s a big celebration,” Robinson said. “They go around and high five each other. It’s great to see them support each other the way they do. The kids have a blast and come away from the tournaments with friendships that last.”
The MVP award selection is something that has changed.
The opposing coaches now select a player from the other team and it’s not always necessarily the top scorer for a team. Often, the players selected are chosen because of other ways they impacted a game.
“It’s a more fair way of doing the awards,” Koressel said. “Everyone seems to be on board with it and it gives players a chance to win one who might not otherwise have the opportunity if a coach were voting for his own top player.”
To get an understanding of just how big of a deal the IHAAZ has become and how much its efforts are admired, one only needs to consider the fact that an outside state intends to have teams participate in the league next season.
New Mexico has announced it will have three teams in the league next year.
Koressel is thrilled about the news and said the fact that teams from another state would be willing to make the trek to Arizona is a big deal.
“They like the way we run our tournaments and want to be a part of it because of the stability we have in our league,” Koressel said. “It will be the first time we’ve had teams outside of Arizona in our league. It’s quite a compliment for the IHAAZ that these teams are willing to make the trip to be in the tournaments.”
Robinson said he has talked with parents of teams in Albuquerque and has heard nothing but positive comments from them regarding the plans to join the league.
“It speaks volumes about the IHAAAZ,” Robinson said. “The parents I’ve talked with said there is nothing like our league and they are excited about having their kids be a part of it. They are willing to drive six or seven hours to play in our tournaments because of how well-run they are.”
The addition of New Mexico-based teams is the latest sign that the IHAAZ is continuing to thrive.
Koressel said the future certainly looks bright and notes that with the direction the league is going in, it’s likely the state finals will expand to two weekends at some point in the near future.
“We’re very happy with how everything went this year,” Koressel said. “The numbers will continue to increase as programs are still looking to expand. It’s a very healthy league and that health is a testament to everyone involved in it.”
Many factors play a role in the success of the IHAAZ and Koressel noted how the league has set a standard for others to follow.
“We have a lot of influence on the way other leagues try to run themselves,” Koressel said. “One of the great things about the IHAAZ is that we crown true state champions. The families love the way we do things, they believe it’s fair and right, and the kids have a great time playing.
“We have stuck to our principles and we will continue to do that.”
PHOTO: Gavin Molina (left) and goalie Logan Mertes from the 8UA Jr. Wildcats team celebrate winning an IHAAZ state championship May 8 in Queen Creek at Barney’s Family Sports Complex. The Jr. Wildcats topped the Havasu Dust Devils in the title game in what has become yet another example of the competitiveness all levels experience in the IHAAZ. Photo/Annette Lagunas
— Brian Lester