Three years after rebrand, Jr. Sun Devils continue to thrive in Tempe
Three years ago, the Desert Youth Hockey Association was at a crossroads.
Inside their home rink, Oceanside Ice Arena, the Tier I Arizona Bobcats program was planning a move to cross-town Arcadia Ice Arena while the Arizona State club hockey program was preparing to step up from the ACHA club level to become an NCAA Division I sport.
Amid the change happening around it, the near 40-year-old association – known then as the Firebirds – decided it was time for a rebrand. DYHA changed its colors, logo and name to match ASU.
The Jr. Sun Devils were born.
“We were at a point where we were hosting two names. Bobcats were looking like they were going to Arcadia and it was at the same time the NCAA was going to be ASU’s new venture,” said Sean Whyte, who was the director of hockey for the organization at the time. “Being where we were just one name now, we decided it was time to rebrand and go with what [ASU had] in the same rink.”
Despite the exciting relationship with the newest Division I program in the country, the rebrand wasn’t universally supported at first.
“It was actually kind of a difficult call off the bat,” Whyte said. “There were some people who really liked the Firebirds. There were some people who were U of A-type people and weren’t so impressed with those colors.”
Current vice president Sherri Koshiol added: “There was some resistance. People identify with an organization through its branding. The hurdle that we needed to get over was defining the fact that we were still the same organization with the same mission. Instead of red, white and blue, we are going to be maroon and gold.”
Three years later, the switch is paying off. It’s written a new chapter into one of Arizona hockey’s oldest clubs.
“The response went over really well and just the fact that the ASU Sun Devils and the DYHA Jr. Sun Devils are playing out of the same rink, it unified the rink as a whole with all of the programs,” Whyte said.
The Jr. Sun Devils name has become a mainstay in the Valley and a recognizable brand around the country.
“We have name recognition when we go out of state. There’s people who identify with the Sun Devils based upon the university itself and its well-known status as well as its athletics,” Koshiol said. “Locally, it’s outlining Oceanside as the place where the maroon and gold play from the little kids all the way up to college.”
While DYHA might be known by a different name, it has continued to provide one of the strongest youth hockey experiences in the state.
“I think it’s grown on everyone and we’ve made the transition,” Koshiol said. “In my mind, it’s the same organization, with the same leadership and the same mission.”
While Koshiol and other board members have helped provide stability, DYHA has been forced to adjust to a leadership change at the very top. Last year, Whyte accepted a job with the NHL to become a youth hockey regional director.
After eight years with Whyte as its director of hockey, DYHA found an accomplished successor in Brad McCaughey, a man with decades of experience in the Phoenix hockey community from his playing days with the Phoenix Roadrunners to more recently coaching youth teams around the city.
“I had a relationship with Sean,” McCaughey said. “He was reputable and honest and I knew he ran a good program. I always thought it was a great program, ran really well. It represented itself well on all levels.”
McCaughey and Whyte had been teammates during their professional hockey careers. Now, they are working together to drive DYHA into an auspicious future.
“It’s been a great opportunity for Brad to come into the organization and start to define his own goals and objectives moving forward, yet still have Sean there to back him up and answer questions and get him assimilated,” Koshiol said.
Added McCaughey: “I think the biggest challenge was just getting acclimated to all the different tasks of running the program. The program was in great hands, it was just coming in and learning my job responsibilities and trying to figure out what I could tweak and where I think we could add value to help the program continue to grow in the direction to grow where it’s been growing.”
One of McCaughey’s main focuses this season has been growing DYHA’s presence at the youngest levels of the sports. He noted that “most of the rinks around town have a full-blown house program. We don’t have that luxury.”
So, he’s zeroed in on building upon a program Whyte started: The Lil’ Devils – a program designed to introduce kids to the sport and give them a familiar club to play for once they reach travel age.
“It almost makes it our own little house league – your program starts at the young ages,” McCaughey said. “When you are only looking for travel-aged kids at those ages, they are tough to find because they’ve already got a relationship with another rink. Expanding on that, having more and more kids getting relationships with the coaches and coming in and liking your program helps feed your program for the years to come.”
The results this year have been promising.
“The Lil’ Devils program is a start and every program starts with the young ages,” McCaughey said. “That when you get them into your rink, that’s where they get the love for hockey and hopefully, the love for your program.”
Not only is it giving DYHA a solid foundation, but Lil’ Devils is serving as another vehicle to help hockey grow in the untraditional desert market.
“The introduction of hockey to the young participants, whether into our program or into youth hockey in general, it’s a benefit to the overall development of the game in Arizona,” Koshiol said.
Progress among DYHA’s travel levels has grown as well since the name change. From tournament-winning Squirt teams to capturing state championships at the Midget level, the Jr. Sun Devils have continued to be one of Arizona’s most competitive associations.
“The bottom line is you still have to put a good program together. I think Sean has done a great job of doing that and it’s something that I think is an ever-evolving thing,” McCaughey said.
With the Jr. Sun Devil name and the strength of a relationship with a NCAA-caliber program at ASU, DYHA is in a strong position to keep breeding high-level hockey.
“There’s a lot of cyclical things that go on in youth hockey. Whether it be the transitioning of players and coaches and people coming in and out of organizations, I think there is a constant flux going on,” Koshiol said. “But I think our continued focus moving forward is solid leadership, experienced coaches with the objective of promoting the DYHA mission, which is to inspire young people to not only be better hockey players but also excel as they move forward as an adult.”
Though they look different, the Jr. Sun Devils have kept pressing forward to deliver on their goal of producing great hockey players and people.
“I’ve been there since 2008 and there was a lot of struggles back then,” Whyte said. “We fought through and developed a strong program, a strong coaching staff. I think the over last couple years, being Jr. Sun Devils, that’s just continued on that path.”
— Jack Harris
(Jan. 2, 2018)