As most that follow hockey can tell, the sport is continuing to grow in what used to be known as “non-traditional” areas. The growth of ice rinks in California, Texas, Tennessee and across the southeast provide children the opportunities they could not have as little as 10 years ago. Now, there are players being invited to the United States National Team Development Program camps from all across the country and not just the typical northeast and Midwest. Earlier this summer, hockey coaches from colleges, junior teams and more, took part in the Elite Edge Hockey Showcase at A-Game Sportsplex in Franklin, Tennessee. Here, players were given an opportunity to not only hone their skills, but make impressions on coaches. These impressions could help lead some players to taking a step toward a career in hockey. The majority of the players present were from the southeast United States. Every year, the coaches attending are more and more impressed with the level of talent they see at the showcase.
“The best thing about the camp is it just shows how much hockey has grown all across the country,” said Scott Borek, Associate Head Coach with the University of New Hampshire. “We have a player committed from Franklin, Tennessee and there are players here from all over the southeast that are highly qualified to be college hockey players. It’s exciting to be a part of it.”
The player committed is Aaron O’Neill. O’Neill recently played with the Green Bay Gamblers of the United States Hockey League before having shoulder surgery this off-season. Having a player from Tennessee committed to playing college hockey in what is one of the toughest college hockey conferences in the country speaks volumes for the development of players in the south.
“The coaches in the Thunder organization told me that this would be a good camp to come to where I could look at and evaluate a lot of the best players from the south,” said Dan Muse, Associate Head Coach with Yale University. “I came three years ago and I loved it. I’d like a lifetime contract and I’ll be back every summer.”
Seeing college hockey coaches from some of the most storied and respected programs in the country come to the south to evaluate and recruit players proves how much the game has changed. Each coach is trying to find that diamond in the rough. With hockey continuing to grow in the south, coaches are looking to find players that will be the perfect fit for their team that may not be in their typical recruiting area. It’s all about having the edge over others.
“We look for athleticism,” said Borek. “In the southeast, kids are playing a lot of sports. They have a lot things growing up that they do and they’re a very athletic group playing hockey. That makes for an exciting future.”
For a Division I college team that’s based in the south, like the University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH), recruiting in their home turf is going to be a mainstay of the program.
“There are a lot of kids here that we want to target for our program in the future,” said Mike Corbett, UAH Head Coach. “The southeast district is the area we want to get into pretty heavily. The skill level with the players here is good and solid, especially with the younger guys. They have good fundamentals. That’s what we’re looking for.”
Growing hockey in the south, especially Tennessee and Alabama can easily be contributed to the Nashville Predators and the University of Alabama in Huntsville. The Predators are stalwarts in being involved in the community and pushing the sport to grow. Huntsville native Nic Dowd plays for St. Cloud State and was a Hobey Baker Award finalist last season. Both communities have a great reach in expanding the game of hockey and providing the types of players that coaches are looking for.
“We want smart hockey players,” said Borek. “Academically and hockey IQ. We want guys that really understand the game and make plays. One of the things we saw at Elite Edge is that a lot plays are being made. Since there are so many alums from the Predators and other colleges, like Alabama-Huntsville, have stayed here, the players are getting great coaching. It really shows with the level of play-making ability the players have.”
Part of what makes the Elite Edge Showcase different in the eyes of a coach, is what the players walk away with when they are done. Not only are they challenged on the ice, but coaches are able to evaluate leadership skills.
“One of the things that I really like is the quality of work put into it, “said Muse. “These kids will walk away with different things, including being educated on the game, from on-ice to off-ice and team building. The kids that came here are in front of the right people that can help them get to the next step in their game.”
While the coaches mainly enjoy coming to the Nashville area to recruit and evaluate players, the “It” city has many other positives as well.
“One thing that stands out about Nashville is that it’s very friendly,” said Borek. “I grew up in Boston, and it’s a great town, but not the friendliest. As an outsider in Boston, I might not ask directions, but as one here, I feel very comfortable asking. The people here are nice and warm-welcoming. The hockey community is the same way. It’s always a great experience.”
As the sport’s growth increases and more sheets of ice, such as the Ford Ice Center, are added, more coaches will be visiting Tennessee and other southern states to find the perfect player for their system. There’s a lot of hockey talent out there, it just needs to be discovered.