Time to Give DMV Hockey Prospects a Power Play

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 11:  Jeff Halpern #15 of the Washington Capitals reacts during a game against the Pittsburgh Penguins at Verizon Center on January 11, 2012 in Washington, DC.  (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)
Washington Capital Alumni, Jeff Halpern. Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

As the NHL Entry Draft approaches on June 24, the DMV is wondering if anyone from the area can break into the NHL as a regular.

Michael Nylander’s kids who played some youth hockey in Montgomery County don’t count. Neither does Jarred Tinordi or Graham McPhee.

I’m talking about new NHL blood becoming regulars.

I feel bad that Jeff Halpern is the only one that can field the interview for NHLers from Maryland stories, but he’s a hell of a player to set the bar for locals being captain of the hometown team.

Actually, Halpern doesn’t even appear on the list of NHLers born in Maryland because he ended up taking his first breath in D.C. The list of NHLers born in Virginia is dismal in that none of them grew up in Virginia after they were born.

Maryland and Nova should be way ahead in producing NHL talent, even if it means we’re shipping our players out to programs and billet families in New England, Minnesota and Michigan.

Let’s circle back to the former Caps captain. Halpern was undrafted, going the college route through Princeton University and signing with the Capitals as a free agent. There’s nothing wrong with going undrafted as Halpern and countless others proved.

The best chance of seeing someone from the area have a career is Sam Anaswho was profiled by The Washington Post in January. The Potomac native  will skip his senior year with nationally ranked Quinnipiac Bobcats as he signed a two-year deal with the Minnesota Wild in April:

Anas is looking to become the first player to play for and graduate from a Washington area high school to make the NHL. But for the 2011 Landon graduate, simply making the roster won’t be enough.

“My dream growing up wasn’t just to be a pro hockey player, it was to be an NHL player,” Anas said. “I don’t just want to play 10 games in the NHL, I want to make a full-time career.

Anas lit the lamp on the DMV prospects conundrum, telling the Post, “The NHL has always been my dream. Maryland isn’t a hotbed for hockey, so you don’t follow people and say, ‘This kid went from this high school to juniors to college, then pros.’ I’ve never known what the path was going to be. I’ve just known that I wanted to play at the highest level possible.”

We need more Halperns. We need more Anases. Especially with hands like these:

The time is now to think how we’re going to develop the best hockey players from Virginia, D.C., and Maryland. Look at how much registration has grown for boys playing hockey from 2005 to 2015.

USA Hockey figures show in Virginia 4,620 boys under 19 are registered to play hockey, up 24 percent from the 3,530 registered in 2005. Impressive when you consider Maryland was ahead of Virginia for the same registration figures in 2005 and was surpassed since then.

Maryland’s registration for boys 18 and under was 4,510 in 2015, up 10 percent from the 4,060 a decade ago. And D.C. is up a deceiving 53 percent, from 139 in 2005 to 298 in 2015.

The pool of eligible NHL players in the DMV is getting larger yet the number of natives without NHL bloodlines has not.

Whether it’s drafted or undrafted, signed and delivered, the DMV is in a prospects rut. There’s a way out of that rut and a non-traditional market might have the answer.

Lightning Made
Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik became motivated to help youth players in the Sunshine State excel after it seemed like every story after Martin St. Louis was traded referenced St. Louis wanted to be closer to his kids up north because they had to travel far and away for competitive hockey at a younger age. Because it came straight from St. Louis’ mouth in the Tampa Bay Times:

“One of my biggest things, honestly, is I never see my kids play hockey,” St. Louis said. “Just, for instance, my oldest has gone, since September, to Detroit three times, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Rochester, Atlanta. You’ve got to go outside the state to play pretty good competition. My wife and dad flies with him. I’m not saying Florida hockey is no good, but if you want to play against good competition you have to go outside.”

You don’t want to lose another captain and elite scorer for those reasons as much as Florida is attractive for playing in the NHL.

Vinik didn’t just step in, he took over pouring $6 million in growing hockey at the grassroots level.

The Florida High School Hockey Association turned over control to the Lightning in 2015, becoming the Lightning High School Hockey League. The organization and the Florida Panthers had good support of the program before, including the Lightning hosting high school all-star games in Amalie Arena.

The move was an evolutionary one. The organization conducted Lightning Made camps with alumni teaching youth and adult players how to play. Then Vinik hired former Bolts GM Jay Feaster in a new role as executive director of community hockey development, which started the legwork to organize the leagues better.

This move certainly brought the thunder to high school hockey by placing Lightning alumni behind the benches of the high school teams, mainly as assistant coaches.

Let that sink in: NHLers, some wearing Stanley Cup rings, coaching your son or daughter in high school in Florida. Jassen Cullimore behind a private school’s bench. Vinny Prospal behind another bench at a public high school.

Just as important, the Lightning brought structure with its pro guidance, according to the Tampa Tribune:

The Lightning made few changes once taking over. The cost to join the league is now spread across all teams and the number of games in a season was expanded from 16 to 22. A roster limit was put in place and if players are cut, they fall into a pool and other teams can possibly add them to their roster.

Additionally, athletes must maintain a 2.0 grade-point average and must not be failing in any class. Feaster said teams will monitor progress reports on a monthly basis and will offer a tutoring program at no cost.

Affordability, access, standards and streamlined operations all came into play. All smart moves.

Something must be working with the program because the JW Mitchell Mustangs from New Port Richey, Fla., this year became the first Florida team to win a USA Hockey High School National Championship.  Plus Mitchell’s rival, the Manatee Admirals also reached the semifinals in the same tournament for combined schools. You might have seen both teams play in person because the title game was played in March at the Ashburn Ice House.

Vinik wouldn’t have been able to do this without having enough alumni in the community. You would be surprised to find out how many retired players and coaches either live full time or have second homes in Florida. I’ve had Jan Hlavac (that guy in the Eric Lindros trade) come to a stick and shoot while I was on the ice, had five-time Cup champ Steve Shutt sub on defense on my team and met Scotty Bowman at the Sarasota Capital Grille. Olie Kolzig has a pad in St. Petersburg, Michal Pivonka and Jim Carey can be seen around Ellenton, Fla., and Joe Reekie shows up to Lightning events.

Several retired NHL players —Chris Dingman, Prospal, Ed Walsh and at one time Mathieu Garon—are also helping run regular clinics and practices at a training rink in Tampa, too, before this movement began.

All-in Alumni
Ted Leonsis and his Caps do a lot of great work in community projects, runs a college hockey fair and one-time grassroots events and occasional youth practice appearances by players, but it’s time that the bar is raised to match Vinik’s gesture.

The CBHL (Chesapeake Bay Hockey League) does have some coaches with NHL or at least pro experience either at a playing or coaching level, but there’s not a program where teams are put on equal level for development. Yes, it’s fun to be in a competitive environment and to find ways to one-up a team from Rockville, but this is a rising tide lifts all boats situation. The high school years are about player development, so why not embrace it?

The Caps don’t need to sell any more tickets. Hell, the team moved the development camp and Fan Fest to a Wednesday presumably because you couldn’t find a seat or a place to move on a Saturday morning during the prospect scrimmage.

It’s about being a good steward of the sport at this point. The late Ed Snider figured this out, too, with his Snider Youth Hockey Foundation with a more encompassing mission:

Regardless how much money Leonsis and his Monumental Sports partners can throw at this problem, he needs the buy-in of alumni.

That might require more alumni buying a home here, which is considerably more expensive than most places in Florida. Beyond that issue, the active alumni network needs to expand. These active alumni don’t make their home in the area.

Rolling through that list, a good bit of those guys have or have had high profile jobs that can take them away from a co-coaching or advising duty to either high school teams or travel teams in the Chesapeake Bay Hockey League. It feels like half the alumni work in broadcasting and the other half are coaching (Scott Stevens and Dale Hunter come to mind) or trying to find their next coaching job.

Really, we need more Craig Laughlins in this community, albeit in a broader role. Locker’s Network Hockey provides a personal, tailored service to get teens and pre-teens to the next level in their careers in a camp setting. His advice is indispensable, which is why players from all over the country come to his camps. It’s cool seeing NHLers on his alumni roster and players who had a cup of coffee in the show—including Jamie Fritsch of Odenton, who played one game for the Flyers.

If Adam Oates really believes his time as a NHL head coach are over, maybe his hockey minutia compulsion could serve our area players well in between his appointments helping Zach Parise. I don’t know if your average coach in most leagues could describe in detail the way Oates can in how to manipulate your stick and find the right lie so you can catch a puck off the wall in stride. He’s not seen in the best light right now, but you have to acknowledge his focus on teaching individual skills.

Absent of Oates, there are plenty of Caps alumni that would be invaluable as mentors to high school hockey players in the region.

The organization has had over 40 years to help make inroads to the NHL and inspired thousands of kids to take up the sport.

It’s time to give them a boost to their NHL dreams.

By Charles Schelle

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3 Responses to Time to Give DMV Hockey Prospects a Power Play

  1. jonmsorensen says:

    Good read, Charles.

  2. Pingback: The Washington Capitals Make a Generous Donation to the “Learn to Play” Program, along with the NHL & CCM | NoVa Caps | Washington Capitals

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