At 10 a.m. on a Friday in late July, it is already 103 degrees in the Valley. Inside Tempe’s Oceanside Ice Arena, where it is a much more tolerable 60, nearly 40 kids in full hockey gear have packed the rink.
The youngsters, who range in age from 5 to 16, are not here to escape the sweltering heat or hang out with their friends. For them, Oceanside is a place where they can chase their dreams.
And when these kids dream, most dream of playing in the NHL.
The desert may seem like the last place you would expect to find the next generation of collegiate and professional hockey players developing. But the sport has established a solid foundation at the youth level since the Phoenix Coyotes moved to town 10 years ago. In that time, the number of participants and quality of players has increased dramatically, leading to some rather unexpected results.
At the forefront of that next generation is Dave Spina. The 23-year-old from Mesa played youth hockey in the Valley for eight years and is now just a call-up away from becoming the first Arizonan in the NHL. The 5-foot-10 forward is a member of the American Hockey League’s Springfield Falcons, the top affiliate for the Tampa Bay Lightning.
On this day he too is on the Oceanside Arena ice, but instead of practicing he is teaching and inspiring.
“I spend my summers doing some community service by helping out a lot of the kids, and I coach a little bit just to kind of give back to a place that’s given me so much,” Spina said. “It is unbelievable how many kids play hockey right now. It’s terrific. I love it.”
The kids feel the same about him.
“It’s pretty cool because he can teach us stuff,” said 11-year-old Cameron Berry from Chandler. “Since somebody from Arizona has already played (professionally), we still have hope (that we can too) even though it’s not really a hockey town.”
The Valley was even less of a hockey town in 1992 when Spina moved here from Seattle. Phoenix was still four years from becoming an NHL city and there were only two rinks that offered youth programs.
There were, however, skilled players and coaches from around the country who relocated at about the same time. Many of them, including Spina, joined forces at Oceanside’s Desert Youth Hockey Association. The travel team Spina played on turned out to be the most talented in state history. Nine members of that club have gone on to play Division I hockey.
While Spina gives a lot of credit for the players’ success to the DYHA coaches, he said having the Coyotes in town for part of those years was the missing ingredient that pushed the players even further.
“With the Coyotes being here, it was kind of in my face,” Spina said. “The NHL was finally here . . . My interest in hockey wasn’t just a dream but a reality because you could go and watch it (in person). It kind of stoked the fire.”
There are thousands of others whose love for the sport was fueled by attending an NHL game.
When the Winnipeg Jets became the Phoenix Coyotes following the 1995-96 season, there were only two youth leagues, two permanent sheets of ice, zero high school teams and, according to USA Hockey, fewer than 1,800 kids playing organized hockey in the Valley.
Since then those numbers have ballooned.
“Each and every year there is an increase of players at the youth level,” said Adam Keller, former general manager of the minor league Phoenix Roadrunners who has been the hockey director at Desert Schools Coyotes Center in Peoria for the past four years.
“Having an NHL team in this market or any market obviously will breed a tremendous amount of interest. . . . The exposure of National Hockey League players has a big impact on the kids playing hockey and certainly those who haven’t been playing.”
That’s how Berry, who began playing when he was 2, got started.
“When I was young, I would turn on the TV and it was usually a hockey game,” he said. “I got hooked after that I guess.”
COYOTES IN COMMUNITY
The Coyotes also have been proactive in promoting the game.
Players, front office personnel and team broadcasters make appearances at community functions and clinics throughout the year.
The team has lent its name to several rinks in town and has provided them with funding for their programs by securing advertising in the buildings, said Justin Maloof, executive director of Coyotes Ice at the Alltel Ice Den in Scottsdale.
Over the years, the Coyotes also have donated hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of equipment to the rinks and street hockey equipment to organizations such as the Boys and Girls Clubs and the YMCA. And when a local team advances to a national tournament, the Coyotes have been known to pick up some of the travel expenses.
Todd Bisson, the Coyotes youth hockey coordinator, estimates the team puts between $25,000 and $45,000 back into the community annually.
Today, there is not only a large number of children playing hockey in the area, but also a large number playing the game well.
Valley teams are advancing to national tournaments on a regular basis, and in 2005 a tier II bantam (14 and under) squad based at Arcadia Ice Arena in Phoenix won a national championship, becoming the first team from the state to do so.
Many of those teams have received top-flight instruction from men who have worked in the NHL, including one-time Coyotes coach Bobby Francis and ex-players Jim Johnson, Claude Lemieux and Jocelyn Lemieux.
There are also individual success stories. Dusty Collins, who grew up in Gilbert and is a senior at Northern Michigan, became the first player drafted from the state when Tampa Bay chose him in the fifth round in 2004. Six Valley players have earned spots on Team USA squads.
While Valley youth hockey has come a long way in the past decade, there is plenty of room for growth and improvement, particularly at the higher levels.
Seven years ago when Spina turned 16, he moved out of the state to play against better competition and avoid stunting his development. Many of the elite players who have followed him have taken the same path.
But if the past 10 years are any indication, the day when the state’s best opt to stay home instead shouldn’t be far off. And perhaps when that time comes, the Valley will be known more as a hockey hotbed than a place too hot for hockey.
To find a youth hockey program in your area, visit: www.phoenixcoyotes.com/hockeyprograms/hockeyprograms