AHU continues to provide stability, opportunities with many alumni now coaching
The organization known today as the Arizona Hockey Union began nearly 15 years ago as the Phoenix Polar Bears, a coach-driven and athlete-centered organization playing out of the Chandler Polar Ice facility.
The Arizona Hockey Union is a youth hockey organization that operates under the non-profit 501 c3 charter of the Arizona Hockey Clubs, Inc., and offers teams from Mites through Midgets that skate at AZ Ice Gilbert and Gila River Arena.
In addition to the AHU Tier program, the A- and B-level teams compete in the Arizona Youth Hockey League (AZYHL) while the independent Tier teams play in both local and highly competitive out-of-state events.
“The Arizona Hockey Union also sets itself apart as a program of choice as we are proud supporters of families that have financial constraints that might affect children’s participation in the sport,” said AHU president Stacy Shupe. “Our scholarship program historically provides more than $25,000 annually in direct assistance, which is made possible by funds raised by our Arizona Hockey Club tournaments and special events.
“Our mission is to promote long-term growth and development of youth ice hockey players through administering both a developmental and competitive hockey program serving the entire Valley. Our principal purpose is to provide young athletes the opportunity to participate and develop in a positive hockey environment by offering high-quality coaching, practice and skill development, and the exposure to advanced competition through participation in high-caliber games and tournaments.”
To know where the club is today is to understand where the program came from some 15 years ago.
The Polar Bears youth travel program and the Chandler Polar Ice house program called the Chandler Bears were the only programs in the Southeast Valley from the time the Chandler building opened until the club took over management for the youth recreational teams around 2006. This was evidenced by different sweaters worn by each.
And in 2009, when the Gilbert rink opened and the Arizona Heat was born, the Arizona Hockey Club essentially had three youth programs and one leadership group. After a few years, it was decided to collapse the three brands into the Knights.
The Arizona Hockey Union was east/west tier, Polar Bears were in Chandler and Arizona Heat was in Gilbert.
“This continued until 2012 when it was decided that no one really knew that the Arizona Hockey Club operated the three youth programs and the decision to collapse the Union/Polar Bears/Heat into the Knights was made,” Shupe said.
Gina Quinn was the president of the club until Shupe took over at the conclusion of the 2012-13 season. Shawn Babin (now the club’s VP at large) joined AHU back in 2013 and the organization also skated in Peoria for two years before brokering the Gila River Arena contract to keep the west side customers.
“Our program has remained constant,” Shupe said. “We usually have about 275-300 families between east and west. We have a high retention rate both for players and coaches even though there are outliers that seek higher skill levels.
“We live and believe in our mission. We are consistent and completely transparent. We have a very strong infrastructure built on solid business practices. And we are financially secure with our tournaments funding our operations.”
A common denominator within AHU in recent years has been former players from the organization coming back to serve as coaches. During the 2019-20 season, alumni such as Colten St. Clair, Davis Dryden, Ashton Amaya, Austin Nottke, Mike Caravella, Drew Platt and Mychal Moore all worked behind various Knights benches.
St. Clair, a Gilbert native, grew up playing for the Polar Bears and was the Phoenix Knights junior team’s head coach and general manager for the 2017-18 season after playing four seasons of NCAA Division I hockey at the University of North Dakota, winning a national title as a senior in 2016. He also played in the USHL for the Fargo Force.
After one season and being named the Western States Hockey League Coach of the Year for 2017–18, St. Clair left to become a volunteer assistant coach at NCAA D-I University of Maine.
“Playing for AHU’s youth program was an amazing experience for me growing up,” said Caravella, who was an assistant coach with the AHU 18U Silver team in 2019-20 and also helps run the program’s skills development camps in the summer with Cody Gylling. “Having the opportunity to come back and play juniors here while going to ASU was something that I will never forget. Winning the state championship and going to nationals is something I always remember when looking back to playing youth hockey here.
“I came to AHU to play for former NHL defenseman Sean Hill and Mike Vukonich, as well as a few friends of mine that were on the teams here. The years I played at AHU were by far my most memorable.”
Dryden played for the youth program, two seasons for the Knights’ junior team and helped coach the AHU Bantam Black team last season.
“I think what will keep AHU a destination spot is all of the coaches that are starting to come out that have played with the organization and now coming back and coaching teams,” said Dryden. “I think that at the youth level, being able to understand what the kids have gone through because we’ve all been there, I think that does a lot for the kids.
“I feel like what some of the parents like to see is some of the kids coming from the organization such as Drew Platt, who coached with me this year, and our friend Ashton Amaya, who coaches a younger team for the organization. We all have experience from the game and enjoy giving back to the game that had given us all so much.”
Walking into AZ Ice Gilbert on a daily basis is also something that Dryden said appealed to him during juniors and continues to this day.
“The one thing I remember the most coming to AZ Ice Gilbert is that it feels like home,” said Dryden. “I know so many people and have so many friends there from years of being there that it’s a home feel for me. My years playing there, the rink was very close to home, which helped a ton, but I had my best friends going there to play so I wanted to stay with them. Then going into junior, most of those friends stayed and we played for the Knights and it was the most fun I’ve ever had.”
Donovan Mattfeldt didn’t play in the AHU program but played with many players who did and was coached by Babin at the 14U and 16U levels. Mattfeldt was the 14U Purple coach in 2019-20.
“There are many things that contribute to AHU’s continued success the last decade, but the one thing I have noticed over the last two years of coaching for AHU is that this is a group committed to one another’s goals, both personally and professionally,” Mattfeldt said. “They are always making an effort to be better each year and is continually shown through their success of running 3-4 local and national tournaments, player improvement and movement to higher hockey, and mindful of the future hockey player. These things, for me, have helped set an environment here that Arizona hockey is beginning to get recognized nationally and that we want to be a part of that movement.
Mattfeldt added that the family environment and atmosphere within AHU is very strong and very genuine.
“The thing that makes AHU a great organization is the commitment to the player and the player’s family,” said Mattfeldt. “They also have a lot of older players and alumni that are returning to the Valley from juniors and college in the next few years and will be looking to get back in the game. This entices players to come out and learn from someone who not only played a high level of hockey, but who can also teach and show how to get to that next level of the game.”
Moore is from Alaska and moved to the Phoenix area to improve his game with AHU, then known as the Polar Bears.
“It was first experience with travel hockey,” Moore said. “I grew up in Alaska, so I’m used to skating whenever I wanted in my neighborhood and not just during allotted practice times. My first travel trip was to Dallas and we happened to play against my best friend from Alaska who had recently moved to Florida.”
Serving as an assistant coach for the AHU Pee Wee Purple team, which will move up to Bantams in 2020-21, the team practices out of Gila River Arena and Moore plans on coaching the same group next season.
“I think what keeps players and coaches here is the commitment to the players’ development and our coaching staff,” Moore said. “Most of the teams have a younger coach, so it allows the coaching staff to relate easier to each age group. Striving to compete at all levels and being competitive at all age groups is huge. AHU has essentially an east side and west side, so depending on where they’re located in the Valley, families have two options.”
Those options will look to continue next season – whenever the season starts – even as the COVID-19 outbreak wiped out the end of the 2019-20 season in mid-March and closed all rinks and many businesses across Arizona.
“From a club perspective, we await the curve to be flattened and instances of COVID-19 to stop,” Shupe said. “During the closures, we have been working behind the scenes to be poised and ready when restrictions are lifted.
“We anticipate hearing more from USA Hockey in the next few weeks.”
Caravella noted that as time goes by, he realizes what a special organization AHU is and continues to be.
“I think one reason that AHU keeps a sustainable program every year is the dedication that everyone inside the organization has to growing the game of hockey – the development of each kid is the No. 1 priority” said Caravella. “I believe that every coach within the organization wants the best for every single kid on their team. It’s about building a winning environment where the kids can learn, work hard, and have fun at the same time.
“AHU has brought in a lot of young coaches who understand today’s game and can bring their own experiences on to the ice with them. Teaching the kids the fundamentals at a young age while allowing them to still have fun and enjoy it is very important. There are a lot of people within the organization that volunteer countless hours of their own time to ensure these kids get the best possible experience.”
In addition to the team’s individual coaches, AHU has specialty coaches in Gylling, a dedicated goalie coach (Scott Lundahl), coach-in-chief (Kurt Goar) and a power skating director (Holly Harrington, pictured above).
“I feel goaltending is a unique position and not every goalie plays the position the same,” Lundahl said. “I like to work with a goalie’s technique, not change it. Every goalie is at a different level of how much coaching they have or have not had. I like to try to make it fun. I focus on the positives and less on the negatives. Goaltending is very mental, and a lot of negative pressure can be bad. I like to see the progression of where a goalie starts the season, to where they end the season.”
Gylling (pictured top) is a Chandler native who played NCAA D-I at Arizona State during the Sun Devils’ inaugural season in 2016-17. He joined AHU this past season coaching the 16U Silver team.
Harrington is committed to offering hockey players in the state of Arizona the very best developmental skating program.
“As part of this program, you will be exposed to a number of styles and techniques all designed to provide you with the knowledge and tools to become the best player you can be,” Harrington said. “Some of what you will be learning will be familiar to you. Some of what you will be learning will be completely new. By learning, practicing and training proper technique, you will begin to skate with an efficient effortlessness where the laws of physics will work for you, not against you.”
Goar is the Knights’ ace coordinator, a USA Hockey Level 5-certified master coach and a Rocky Mountain District Developmental Camp coach.
“Kurt is one of the best on-ice coaches I have ever seen,” said former USA Hockey coach-in-chief Al Bloomer. “His teams are always well prepared and very disciplined. We need more coaches like Kurt.”
Goar was announced as the association’s coach-in-chief in the spring of 2010 and provides premier coaching to the players of Phoenix and quality mentoring to players from around the state by using modern, up-to-date coaching techniques combined with tried and true methods of the past to improve hockey as a whole in Arizona.
“In order to raise the level of play in the state, we must build from the ground up, ensuring that the players have the proper foundation to maximize their hockey potential,” Goar said. “To grow hockey in Phoenix, we must, as coaches, be committed to developing players the right way. We have hand-picked our coaches to ensure that the skills and techniques taught on the ice are the skills and techniques that will further a player’s game.”
Prior to the 2019-20 season, AHU added two new board members – Kelsey Malinski and Monique Morris. Each one is excited to see the program trending in a continuous, positive direction.
“My son has played with AHU for four seasons, and my decision to become a board member was based on many things, but most importantly, his love for the game and being a Knight,” Malinski said. “I believed that getting involved at the executive level, I could continue to assist AHU with their focus of developing players at all age levels but also continuing with the family atmosphere that I believe to be so important, especially when developing their young players.”
“I have been involved with AHU for five years and my interest to join AHU was that in having a player in the program, I have personally seen that AHU believes in growth and development of youth ice hockey players,” Morris said. “AHU also believes valuable lessons that can be taught in our program long after they leave the sport – leadership, sportsmanship, commitment, self-discipline, hard work, teamwork and character – all while encouraging family bonding and support off the ice.”
— Matt Mackinder
(June 10, 2020)