Growing up in Phoenix Arizona usually involves swimming, popsicles, flip-flops and heading up north to escape the heat of the summer. My childhood also involved jackets, beanies, hot chocolate and escaping to an indoor ice rink. This was because I am the sister of a youth hockey player. At a time when the only hockey that existed in the Valley of the Sun was the minor league Phoenix Roadrunners, there was a youth hockey community emerging and then thriving. My brother Anthony, two years my junior, played in the Desert Youth Hockey Association from the time he was five until he turned thirteen years old. Back then, it was called the Desert Hockey Association and it was started in 1975 by parents that got together just because they wanted their children to play hockey. The league started with about 80 kids and by 1983 there were over 400 kids participating in the league. Oh, and Anthony didn’t just have one practice and one game a week. My brother was a good left-handed shot and quick in and out of the corners so, he always ended up on the all-star and travel teams. For those of you who have been around since the early ‘80’s just picture a skinny freckle faced little girl huddled under the bleachers at Tower Plaza, Oceanside or Metrocenter trying to read or do homework. We were at the rink seemingly every night of the week and twice on Saturdays if we weren’t traveling out of town for a tournament. Now I am not complaining at all, I cannot imagine a better way to grow up other than simply being immersed in hockey! Keep in mind this was all going on at a time when NHL hockey was just something we watched on television.
NHL hockey finally came to the valley in 1996 and the face of youth hockey in Arizona started to change. With the infusion of the Phoenix Coyotes we have gone from two sheets of full-time ice, and one part-time to eleven full-time! The quality of the facilities and the caliber of the coaches that are coming in to teach hockey has improved over the years. The sheer number of kids playing hockey has increased dramatically as well. The Desert Youth Hockey Association is now joined by several others including Arizona Runners Hockey, Phoenix Polar Bears Jr. A Hockey, Polar Ice Youth Hockey League and the Coyotes Amateur Hockey Association. The youth hockey leagues that exist today are not just limited to Phoenix either. There is the Flagstaff Youth Hockey Association up north and the Tucson Wildcat Youth Hockey Association down south, and don’t forget about the dozens of the inline and roller hockey leagues that exist as well. Kids are playing hockey in the desert and a lot of it! Does anything come of these youngsters playing hockey in the desert? As a matter of fact, something does. The Phoenix Coyotes have selected draft picks in the last three drafts that grew up in the youth hockey system in Arizona, and two were born here! The Coyotes chose Zac Larraza in 2011, Henrik Samuelsson in 2012 and most recently Brendan Burke in 2013.
I am sure my parents had a hard time finding equipment back then without the internet and very few hockey equipment stores in Phoenix. Randy Exelby opened Behind the Mask in the Phoenix area in 1994, and now has three locations across the valley. Randy recently met with the Coyotes to talk about how they can work together to further expand the already growing youth hockey in Arizona. I spoke with Randy and he is very excited for the future! With the Coyotes, backed by a stable ownership group, supporting the efforts of youth hockey the future looks even brighter. According to Randy, this future will include more coordination of events, tournaments and clinics that include different ice and roller hockey leagues across the state working with the Coyotes organization. The most important thing that Randy said is that, “There are huge opportunities to expand youth hockey in Arizona!”
For all of us hockey moms and dads that is good news and I think we welcome the growth and the possibilities. My brother did stop playing hockey and went off on other grand adventures but it is just fitting that both his daughter and my son now play youth hockey in 110 degrees! Check out the youth hockey leagues in Arizona here and the available ice rinks here.