Passionate players, coaches lending to IHAAZ’s growth
When a group of potential players and their families were invited to watch the Inline Hockey Association of Arizona (IHAAZ) state finals, their interest in playing the sport was peaked immediately.
“They saw how exciting and fun the sport is and wanted to be a part of it,” said Dustin Jans, a coach with the Knighthawks. “We expect our numbers to go up even more this year.”
The growth of the sport is unmistakable, especially in the lower-age divisions of the league.
Between 2009 and 2015, the number of 8U teams never went above four. Last season, seven teams competed in the division.
Between 2009 and 2015, the most teams combined in the 8U and 10U divisions was eight. A total of 12 competed last year.
Also, in 2016, the number of first-time players in both the 8U and 10U divisions combined that played in IHAAZ festivals who had never played any tournament hockey previously was 51. The percentage of players who had never played in hockey tournaments, compared to those who had played before was 62 percent – higher than what has ever been recorded previously in the league’s 17-year history.
“A big factor is all of the clubs are working together to grow the sport and get more kids involved at a younger age,” said Brent Proud, the hockey director for the Knighthawks. “We’ve seen steady growth in the last five or six years. Everyone is on the same page and has worked together.”
Coaching is a key factor to the growth as well.
“A lot of the coaches grew up playing the game and now they have kids playing, including myself,” Proud said. “The coaches are more knowledgeable and when you see how drills are run in practice, they are fun. But at the same time, the kids are learning and improving as players.”
Erik Dahl, the director for the Jr. Wildcats in Tucson, agrees the experience coaches bring to the table is big. He said the fact that players are starting to play the game at a younger age makes a difference as well.
“They are getting into the game a lot sooner and IHAAZ does a great job of developing players,” Dahl said. “The coaches have done a great job of building their programs and are focused on teaching the basics of the game while also keeping it fun for the kids.”
Dahl also notes the siblings of those players take notice and want to get involved.
“They have younger brothers who are in the crowd watching and they want to play, too,” Dahl said. “They catch on quick because they’ve watched their siblings play and that has helped with the talent improving in the league.”
Just how good is the talent in IHAAZ, particularly in the lower-age divisions? Look no further than the success IHAAZ players enjoyed earlier this summer at the NARCh West Coast Finals in Huntington Beach.
Thirteen teams from the Konixx Outcasts, Arizona’s longest-running inline travel team program, went out to California to compete, along with a 10U all-star team coached by Proud and Wes Parker that won a title.
“The championship was huge for us and shows what kind of young talent our league has,” Proud said. “It was a great experience for the kids.”
A 6U team competed at NARCh as well. Jans said the opportunity for those players sets the stage for future success.
“It’s the first time we’ve taken a team that young to NARCh,” Jans said. “They competed in an 8U division and did very well. It’s great for their confidence.”
And it’s great for the growth of the lower-age divisions.
“We continue to build the league up and more young kids continue to get involved,” Jans said. “I expect it to only get bigger.”
– Brian Lester