by Stephen Meserve | AHL On The Beat
Deep in the heart of football-crazy central Texas, a seed was planted eight years ago. When the Texas Stars landed in Cedar Park in 2009, they sparked a renewed interest in youth hockey that has become a symbiotic relationship between the AHL club and the local youth leagues. In a state where football is a way of life, youth hockey participation in Austin has grown 42% since the Stars arrived.
No one has a better view of the success of youth hockey in Austin than Angie Vaught, the general manager of the local Chaparral Ice rink and hockey director for the Austin Metro Hockey League. A native of Winnipeg, Manitoba, Vaught grew up playing hockey in Canada and later moved to the United States and competed with the Americans in the 2002 Ringette World Championships, a sport similar to hockey.
“I started running the summer camps at the [Austin] rink because my background is education,” said Vaught. “I started teaching kids how to skate and play and started running the recreational and instructional program, and now I run the rink.”
Having grown up in Canada, she realizes that hockey is not the default sport in Texas.
“When you look at football, baseball or soccer here, there are so many kids that you’re just another number. In hockey, we know how to coach them and what makes them tick. We have something super special in this city and the people who come here realize it. The kids who find hockey go for it. They’re all in and it’s their thing.”
The Texas Stars leading all-time scorer and nine-year veteran forward Travis Morin agrees. His son, Andrew, has just started skating with Angie and the youth teams but isn’t in the leagues quite yet. Morin grew up in Minnesota, so he can see the differences starkly.
“Obviously ice rinks and opportunities to skate are so readily available in Minnesota,” said Morin. “You can find ice or skate at outdoor rinks whenever you want.
“You have to take advantage of the time you have here. You can casually play hockey back home. You don’t have to be totally invested in it but down here if you’re on a team, you’re going to take it pretty seriously because you have fewer opportunities to get on the ice.”
Morin is one of the Texas Stars helping central Texas youth make the most of those opportunities.
“Just going to practices, it’s not even as much coaching. It’s just hanging out and interacting. It’s a huge way to keep them interested.”
In the past, players like Toby Petersen, Francis Wathier and Maxime Fortunus already had kids who were ready for leagues in Austin.
“These guys grow up skating, and then they have kids but they’re not with them every day,” she said. “Any time they were in town they wanted to be with their kids, and so they were on the bench and on the ice coaching the kids.”
The players aren’t the only ones getting involved either. Assistant coach Karl Taylor has been running clinics and power skating sessions with kids since he got to town in 2014. His 13-year old son, Mac, also plays in the league.
“Everywhere I’ve been has been a non-traditional hockey market, per se,” said Taylor. “I always dove in and helped out locally. I wanted a good experience for my son, but you also want to help out.”
The returns for their volunteerism at the local rink are more than abundant for the AHL club.
“We’re role models for them, and they look up to us,” said Morin. “They can meet you and talk to you, and it gives a more human element to what they watch when they come to the game. I’ve had parents tell me after games that their son or daughter is a big fan, and they love watching you play and it was so nice of you to come out and skate with us. And that’s what it’s all about.”
Coach Taylor sees the results every time he heads out onto the ice at a Texas home game.
“When our games are at home here, and you have that high five line, almost all the kids in the line have been to a clinic or I’ve been out with them at a practice. As more kids play hockey, they want to see the professionals play, so there’s a huge connection there. It helps the team to present itself in the community. When you look around the arena on game day, it’s full of kids shouting, ‘Hey, Coach Taylor, how are you doing?’”
Getting more kids involved is a huge part of the mission for both the team and the local league, and it’s not without its challenges. Some are the same as everywhere. Hockey is an expensive sport with pricey gear in Texas or Toronto. However, teams in Texas face the additional challenge of limited ice availability.
“There was an outdoor rink half a block from my house [growing up],” noted Taylor. “You can’t just go in your backyard [and play]. You have to find an arena, and those are limited in our area. Football, soccer and baseball, they’re easy to play. Just get a couple of kids together and play.”
The Texas Stars are partnering with Vaught and the local rinks to change that awareness issue by getting floor hockey into the schools in central Texas; currently, they’re working on securing funding to buy and donate floor hockey sets to local elementary campuses in the area.
“My personal goal is to get street hockey introduced in all of the elementary schools in Austin, Leander and Cedar Park, to get all of the kids playing it and physical education programs adopting it into their curriculum,” she said. “These kids go nuts for it. If you start early with the kids exercising and taking care of themselves, they’re going love the sport and want to see it played. They’ll support the team and go to the games.”
Travis Morin is extremely bullish on the potential for hockey’s growth in central Texas. An original Texas Star, he’s seen the growth of the sport in the city firsthand for eight years.
“More and more people are moving to the area. You’re going to get people from the north who will want to play hockey and kids from around here who want to play. Just since I got here eight years ago, it’s gotten bigger and bigger. You never know what the youth programs will develop into and who will move on into the upper levels of hockey. ”
After all, first overall pick in the 2016 draft, Auston Matthews, grew up in Phoenix, Arizona, a pretty non-traditional market. Could the next big thing come from Austin, Texas?
Vaught reported with a laugh that Travis Morin’s 8-year old son, Andrew, “has great hands.”
More than anything, the players and coaches, both youth and professional alike, believe that once kids are exposed to the sport of hockey, they will be captivated.
“Getting kids on the ice to try it is one of the biggest challenges,” said Taylor. “If we give them a chance to try it, once you get out there, there’s nothing better than the wind in your face, the cold cheeks after you get off the ice and having a hot chocolate after a hard practice.”
Stephen Meserve is the editor of 100 Degree Hockey, which has covered the Texas Stars since their inaugural season.