Jr. Coyotes boast promising future led by ultra-talented 14U, 15U age groups
Often times in sports and especially youth hockey, organizations and associations put a heavy emphasis on the younger age levels as these players generally prove to be the future of the program.
The Jr. Coyotes know this all too well and are big believers in the philosophy.
With Tier I state championships at the 16U and 18U levels, the Jr. Coyotes also saw their 14U and 15U squads claim the prestigious banners this season, lending to the theory that the 2001 and 2002 birth years are on par with not only top organizations in the state, but on a national basis as well.
Next month, the 14U and 15U teams will host the USA Hockey Youth Nationals at the Ice Den Scottsdale, among other rinks in the Metro Phoenix area.
Steve Potvin, the head coach for the 14U team, has been coaching with the Jr. Coyotes for seven seasons and has seen the association grow exponentially over that span.
“You’ll laugh, but we’ve been to tournaments where people used to ask, “Do you guys bring players from all over the states and just play tournament games together?” or “Do you guys have a real program out there with a league?” – they used to laugh at the idea of playing a team from the desert,” said Potvin. “We definitely took our share of licks back then, but once the Ice Den built a third rink, we were able to add skill sessions, private lessons and additional practice times during the week, which really helped develop our talent.
“The other reason our program developed as quickly as it did was the foresight and hard work of our director Mike DeAngelis. Without his vision, determination and his relentless work ethic, we would not be competing nationally in the prestigious Tier 1 Elite Hockey League.”
The Jr. Coyotes’ 15U coach, Jason Wright, agrees with Potvin on the overall growth of the Jr. Coyotes, known years back as PF Chang’s. He also is excited about his 15U group (pictured top) this season.
“I actually came to coach with Jim Johnson and the PF Chang’s AAA program,” Wright said. “The program has grown tremendously and will continue to grow with all the great hockey people involved in the program. I have watched our 15U team develop throughout the whole year. Our goal was always to be working on the little things day in and day out. I believe the boys have worked tremendously hard and have developed into a competitive team.”
And with the 14U and 15U nation converging on the desert in less than a month and both teams already earning a berth in the tournament, it’s a win-win situation all the way around.
“Oh man, it’s a huge step for our association in terms of national representation for youth hockey,” Potvin said. “It is an absolute honor to be hosting a national event in our building. We’ve worked extremely hard to expose our players to the best talent in order to gain growth and this gives us a great opportunity to grow, except this time, it’s in our own backyard.”
“Hosting Nationals is huge for hockey in Arizona in general,” added Wright. “With (former Jr. Coyote and Scottsdale native) Auston Matthews going No. 1 last year in the NHL Draft and now Arizona hosting the 14U and 15U national championships, there is a huge spotlight on Arizona and the hockey development here.
“Everything is about development at this age. Skill, speed, and playmaking ability are the biggest factors and helping these kids move towards junior hockey and college hockey.”
Potvin, who played 16 years of pro hockey with his final stop during the 2009-10 season with the Arizona Sundogs of the now-defunct Central Hockey League, said that last summer when his 14U team (pictured below) was formed that he had a feeling great things may happen this season.
“Absolutely,” said Potvin. “We definitely believed in our boys right from the start. They’re a special group of dedicated and self-motivated young men. It seriously makes coaching a pleasure, especially when there’s unwavering and tremendous support from the Shane Doan Foundation, the parents and the association. It’s made this an incredible season.”
Another in a long line of former professionals to make Arizona their home, Potvin said he wasn’t looking to coach, but coaching was looking for him.
“It’s funny, but I wasn’t really planning on coaching – I was actually looking forward to bringing my boy to the rink and simply watching or helping out, but I guess that’s what happens many ex-players choose to retire in Arizona and next thing you know, you’re coaching two teams, running skill sessions for the association and spending countless hours on the phone trying to support the growth of hockey in the state,” explained Potvin.
With the 14U and 15U age groups, the players are generally not ready for junior hockey, but many, if not all, have aspirations to make that jump when the time is right. Potvin said he sees a lot of his players off the 14U team suiting up and playing juniors and college puck down the road.
“You know, this is a really talented group of players and there are so many levels of junior and college hockey that I truly believe there is a place for each of them,” Potvin said. “They’ve all earned a spot and they all play an important role on this team. Honestly, we’re just trying to instill good work habits and work ethic, help the kids master their skills through repetition, show up on time and be a good teammate. Simple, yet fundamental life skills.”
Wright feels the same way about his 15U group.
“The Jr. Coyotes program has been one of the biggest influences on his development in the state,” he said. “Just look at the wall in the rink and you can see all the kids that have moved to the next level. The future is bright for future of hockey in Arizona and the Jr. Coyotes program.
“I hope to see all of the kids make it. Hockey is such a long-term development sport and it is very hard to pinpoint how many will and how many won’t. There are always the ones that surprise you along the road as well.”
Based on what he has seen this season in terms of forward progress, Potvin knows the future holds many positives for the Jr. Coyotes.
“This has definitely been another season of growth,” said Potvin. “Our program is chock-full of talented players who swept states across the board. We are so fortunate to have so many dedicated and talented coaches so passionate about the game and willing to pass their knowledge on to the kids. It’s really unprecedented and the future is indeed bright.
“Just take a look around the lobby. Where else can you be surrounded by so many former and current NHL players, as well as professional players from Europe and North America? Our community might be small, but it’s tight, inclusive and proud to be connected to the Coyotes.”
“I think hockey in general breeds a culture of pride in the jersey that you pull over your head and represent,” added Wright. “It is no different at the Jr. Coyotes program.”
— Matt Mackinder