Jr. Sun Devils continue to provide opportunities for local youth talent
Desert Youth Hockey Association (DYHA) teams have a new name, but most things have remained the same.
While the Jr. Sun Devils don’t focus on winning, they continue to triumph, just as when they were Firebirds.
DYHA’s Oceanside Arena received a facelift in time for the association’s 40th anniversary, but their philosophy continues to attract new players.
“We pride ourselves in being a family environment,” said DYHA director of hockey operations Sean Whyte. “We want everybody that walks through the doors to feel welcome and part of a larger group, even larger than their own team.”
DYHA teams have won a lot lately, too.
The Jr. Sun Devils’ 16U A team won four championships, including the CAN/AM Challenge Cup in Las Vegas, while the 2003 Pee Wee AA Jr. Sun Devils took home the One Hockey Longhorn Shootout championship in Dallas.
DYHA’s Bantam Majors won five championships in 2015-16, celebrating championship banners at the Fun In The Sun Labor Day Tournament in San Diego, the CAN-AM championship in Las Vegas and then the Big Bear Firebird Tournament in St. Louis.
Whyte said DYHA focuses heavily on skill development, teamwork and having fun instead of winning things of those nature.
“I mean if you’re having fun, you’re working hard, you’re getting along with your team, you’re playing the team sport the way it needs to be played, and then the winning is the byproduct,” Whyte said.
Whyte has been a fixture in Arizona hockey since the early 1990s. He also has more than 30 years of experience coaching youth hockey.
“We’ve got a coach in charge, Sean Whyte, that runs everything and everyone buys into Sean’s vision,” said DYHA Board of Directors member Charles Miscio.
The DYHA coaching staff includes five former professional hockey players, four of whom played in the NHL.
Whyte played with the Los Angeles Kings, the Phoenix Roadrunners and the Phoenix Mustangs and won gold for Canada at the 1998 IIHF World Championships. He also played six seasons of inline hockey for the Anaheim Bullfrogs and the Phoenix Cobras.
When the IHL Roadrunners franchise folded, the fans named Whyte to the All-Time Roadrunner All-Star Team.
When he retired from playing hockey, Whyte realized that his name and reputation could get people in the door, but they need more to keep coming back.
“They needed to see results and my philosophy at that point was that no one cares how much you know until they know how much you care,” Whyte said. “So I make myself available to everybody within our membership and even those that are looking for help or guidance that aren’t even in our membership because it’s a matter of giving back to the game and to those that loved the game as much as I did.”
In addition to being on the Board of Directors, Miscio is also a coach and parent of three boys. This is the 14th season that he has worked with Whyte.
“What Sean offers is good, one of the best philosophies in hockey,” Miscio said.
Miscio said all the coaches in DYHA are on the same page.
“It’s all about Sean’s vision,” Miscio said.
Whyte said DYHA has had “tremendous success,” but he doesn’t measure overall success by winning on the ice.
“I measure it by the end of the year that you have the majority of the families are happy, coaches did their job and the reviews are typically good,” Whyte said. “I mean, you can never please everybody, but at the same time, you try to do your best to do so and if you can’t please people, you’re at least listening to their problems and trying to accommodate them or finding some sort of resolution.”
Back from the brink
While DYHA has been a fixture in the Arizona hockey scene for years, not too long ago, it was in serious danger.
By 2008, membership had dropped and financially, DYHA was in trouble, so the board turned to Whyte, naming him director of hockey operations.
DYHA turned things around the first year Whyte was there.
“When I got there, there was barely a hundred members in the program,” Whyte said. “”They only had seven teams, the budget was completely messed up and they were actually on the verge of locking the doors for good, because the finances were in very, very rough shape. The following year, I had over 250 members and was able to turn the budget around and start bringing in the people that I want.”
Since then, DYHA won a slew of state championships and Arizona State University became an ACHA super power before joining the NCAA Division I ranks for the 2015-16 season.
After skating as the Firebirds since 1997, DYHA became the Jr. Sun Devils. ASU hockey has called Oceanside home since its inception in 1985.
DYHA’s rebranding coincided with ASU’s top ACHA team moving up to NCAA D-I.
“I love it,” Whyte said. “It was perfect timing for our youth program to rebrand and rebuild and take a different angle on building youth hockey in Arizona and it fell right in with ASU going NCAA and those ASU teams playing out of Oceanside Arena.”
DYHA took over Oceanside when the rink fell on hard times. Oceanside is the only rink in Arizona run by a youth hockey association.
The DYHA rebrand has been widely accepted — almost.
“They have allowed us to use their Sparky logo and name and we do show it with great pride and I think the membership has bought into it pretty much full force except for those that come from the University of Arizona,” said Whyte. “There’s a little bit of kick back from a few of those families.”
Having been around since 1975, DYHA has been at the forefront of the growth of hockey in the Valley of the Sun.
When Whyte moved to the Valley to play for the Roadrunners, there was two associations and two rinks.
“There was youth hockey and there was some good players that came out of Arizona,” Whyte said. “A bunch of them went back east to play for Shattuck-St. Mary’s and did well, but as far as between then and now, the growth has been incredible and continues to do so.”
Miscio said a lot of the Valley’s success is due to former professional players retiring in Arizona and giving back to the game.
“We’re so blessed that we have guys that played at the highest levels, that have come here and decided to retire here and they’ve all given back as coaches,” Miscio said. “There’s so many phenomenal guys that have given back and hockey’s grown because of that.”
Whyte said with the new Arizona Coyotes ownership buying into youth hockey and the growth of ASU hockey, the future is bright for hockey in the Valley.
“The new ownership has adopted that mode of thinking that they really need to get tied in with the youth hockey community,” said Whyte. “And then also with NCAA at ASU, they just finished their first year at D-I NCAA, and that, too, speaks volumes for hockey in Arizona, as well as for the future growth.”
— James Kelley