FYHA, NAU continue to develop, grow partnership on numerous levels in Flagstaff
Flagstaff is roughly 140 miles from the Phoenix hockey hub, but that doesn’t mean that the Northern Arizona town is a budding hockey hotbed in its own right.
With a growing youth hockey association in the Flagstaff Youth Hockey Association and a nationally-ranked ACHA college hockey program at Northern Arizona University, the town is on the fast track to being on par with Valley and Valley-area associations.
And a new rink on the NAU campus in the immediate future will help, too.
“FYHA has seen an increased interest in competitive hockey and has added a second AZYHL team at the 10U and 12U ages,” said Northstars president Jamie Miele. “The kids of our organization are what makes this fun. Watching them improve on and off the ice is a pleasure. The way they hold each other accountable, encourage each other and teach each other is awesome to watch. We are helping to grow some great humans.
“NAU helps FYHA with coaching and gives our young players some great role models. Seeing collegiate hockey players, some of which are graduates of FYHA, is encouragement to keep up the dedication needed to be excellent hockey players. We are also fortunate to have NAU coaches Kris Walsh and Travis Johanson be part of the core coaching staff of our 6U/8U program. We look forward to many years of their involvement.”
FYHA also provides scholarship support to NAU players each year.
The Flagstaff Avalanche high school program is also trending upward. The JV team captured a state championship last month to further show that the county seat of Coconino County has a hockey-rich environment.
Miles Lengyel, a Flagstaff native and FYHA graduate now playing at NAU, has helped coach the FYHA 16U team this year and has found the experience “extremely rewarding.”
“I grew up playing in Flagstaff, so I know what it’s like playing on a team with 12 players and having only a couple lines of ‘D’ and forwards,” said Lengyel. “I was very excited to help coach these kids, and many of them I knew beforehand from volunteering back when I was playing Bantams and high school here in Flagstaff. It was hard to juggle being a college student, playing for the college team, working and then volunteering the time I did have coaching the U16s. I would have liked to make it out to more practices but like I said, it’s not all rest and relaxation being a student.
“It was a great experience to be working with some talented kids. They always take what you say to heart and try their best to correct themselves and ultimately, become better hockey players. It was clear they looked up to us NAU guys and wanted to learn from us. I think having NAU players help out these teams is something that needs to happen at all levels.”
Lengyel added that coaching the Northstars is not a chore and is something he genuinely does with a purpose.
“The coaching is great at FYHA and all of the head coaches genuinely care about the development of these players,” said Lengyel. “Adding current college players into that mix will only increase the development of these players year by year. We know the current game of hockey and how it’s being played. The little things that go unnoticed to parents watching a game can make a huge impact on players themselves. Every team has a goal scorer, a big hitter, a speed guy, a kid with hockey sense, a kid with great hands, a kid that protects the puck better, and someone that never misses a pass. There are reasons some kids are really good at certain aspects of the game. It’s important to show players that they are more than capable of being a goal scorer, or a playmaker – it’s little things and hard work that make players the way they are and having high-level players help coach will definitely make a difference.”
FYHA 12U White goalie Nick Gingold shared his experiences with the Icejacks coaches.
“I feel like an NHL goalie,” said Gingold. “Why? Well, I have free gear and nice-looking suits and hats. I also have an incredible goalie coach from NAU, Jaxson Gosnell, that teaches me new things every time he’s out on the ice with me. I only make $100 per year from birthday money, but who cares? It’s money. I hope NAU will continue helping all of us at FYHA to evolve into better hockey players. Thank you, coaches.”
Lengyel responded to his younger counterpart.
“We have had their dreams, and we know exactly what it’s like going through the journey as a kid from Flagstaff,” said Lengyel. “The three of us (Lengyel, Auston Gooch, Rayce Miller) helping out with 16U, we all moved thousands of miles away from home to play the sport we love. I was their age when I went to boarding school in Minnesota to play, so I know the dream is still very much alive in these guys.
“We know what’s next for these kids if they choose to follow hockey past high school and I wish I had someone with firsthand experience to help me understand the next stage when I was their age.”
Johanson, a former FYHA youth player, enjoys the camaraderie with the Northstars.
“FYHA has always had a big place in my heart,” he said. “I started my hockey career over 30 years ago playing for FYHA, so it brings back good memories when I’m on the ice with the FYHA kids and starting to travel with my sons and seeing them doing the things we did as kids.”
Northern Arizona has emerged as a perennial force in ACHA circles each season and that looks to be the same this year as the IceJacks have been at or near the top of the Division II rankings all season.
“At NAU, we have been able to add a Division III team and become one of the top teams in the West year after year,” said Johanson. “Now, we are getting recognized by the school, which may have help in the decision to have a rink on campus that we can hopefully use in the near future.”
Johanson added that the philosophy at NAU is two-fold.
“For me, development on the NAU team results in winning and we are trying to be a national contender each year,” he said. “But you can’t make it to Nationals without winning.”
Walsh noted how he first became involved at NAU and said it was a chance that paid off.
“It was in 2009 when A.J. Fairchild and Keith Johanson approached me to be the next head coach of the Division III program,” Walsh remembered. “They had an idea to split into two teams and needed someone to take over the D-III squad. I was honored at the opportunity as I am an alum of NAU and very involved in the hockey community. In my eight seasons, I was able to attend the regional tournament four times, attend the national tournament three times and was runner-up for 2013 Pacific Region Coach of the Year. Now, I am helping coach the D-II team and working with the team officers to help the organization grow to the next level.”
As Lengyel alluded to, the NAU hockey college lifestyle includes assisting the Northstars, something Johanson calls a situation that is beneficial to both organizations.
Gosnell works with the goalies, Max Mahood has run a series of power skating clinics and Lengyel, Miller and Gooch have helped with power skating.
“It is good to get the NAU guys out to help the kids,” Johanson said. “The kids idolize the NAU guys and look up to them, so when they tell the kids something, it might go a little further and give them the idea or something to watch and try that they see at an NAU game.”
“One of my personal goals, now that I am involved with FYHA, is to help every kid get to their greatest potential,” added Walsh. “It’s super exciting when they start grasping new concepts and are excelling on their skates. Having the two programs work together is essential to the growth of both programs. The FYHA kids really look up to the NAU players and it’s great to have the NAU players teach what they have learned over the years to the kids.
“Both groups really benefit from it.”
In college, the NAU players are past the developmental phase and are now working to fine-tune their skills to play for national titles.
The Northstars players are still learning fundamentals, grasping game strategy and adjusting to game play.
Johanson coaches the FYHA 8U team and sees the development taking place daily.
“Having coached 6U and currently coaching 8U for FYHA, it’s all about development and passing knowledge and building skills with the kids, but you can’t go out and get beat all year and keep the kids interested,” said Johanson. “Our 8U team lost the first six games this year. When we won five out of six in our last Mite Jamboree, there was a new interest and attitude to strive, work and learn more at practice on Monday after a few wins.”
Walsh is in agreement with Johanson.
“When I’m coaching the 8U kids, I am strictly focused on the elements of the game, not really worried about the scoring outcome,” Walsh said. “I want them to develop good habits at an early age. With the NAU program, we are focused on execution and winning. Quite different, but we also don’t want the NAU players developing bad habits, so we work on consistency as well.”
Kevin Tye is a past president of FYHA and a current Board of Directors member. He said knowing how to think the game and how to react on the ice goes a long way.
“Skill development is our philosophy,” Tye said. “Winning is great, but a skilled team can play less skilled teams and win any time. We want to develop skill at 8U and 10U and have those players continue to improve and play at a higher skill level every year so that by the time they are 14U and 16U, they are playing a very competitive level of hockey.”
With more ice down the line, the potential exists to expand FYHA even more.
“FYHA has reached its program capacity with our current ice availability,” explained Tye. “To continue to grow, we need another sheet of ice so that we can have more sessions of our 6U/8U program and engage more younger players. Additionally, more ice would mean more availability for skills sessions development of our older players.”
At the end of the day, hockey means family, especially in Flagstaff, and that’s what carries the most weight.
“Being part of the hockey community is something very special,” said Walsh. “Everyone treats everyone like family and sticks together through the ups and downs of the season. The hockey season is very long and can be challenging mentally and physically, so having a family-like culture is huge when you have bad days.”
Photos/Wyatt Rutt Photography
— Matt Mackinder
(March 9, 2018)