On a chilly December day earlier this year I did something that I'd never done before. Amidst the onslaught of college football I decided that I'd take the time to really embrace the World Junior Championship. I pulled up these kids stats, studied each roster, projected line configurations, and unearthed a little backstory on each team. Through that entire process I came across something rare. It wasn't the stats of the youthful greatness in Hall or Eberle, rather I was amazed by a lone 19 year old defenseman named Matt Donovan. I'd heard his name, I'd seen his stats, but I'd over-looked one very prominent notation; he's from Edmond, Oklahoma. Son of former Central League winger and current Oklahoma University Assistant Coach/GM Larry Donovan, Matt had hockey in his blood even amongst the Oklahoma plains.
It's hard to believe that youth hockey has been alive and well in Oklahoma for 30+ years and continues to grown steadily. "Youth hockey in Oklahoma is kind of an underground sport that has been overshadowed by other popular sports in the state," says Mike Hoskins, President of the Oklahoma City Youth Hockey Association, "Our goal is to get kids more interested and involved in playing hockey in a fun and safe environment right here in Oklahoma City." He's right, in a state where football reigns supreme, hockey sometimes gets lost between cheerleading and soccer. Even Hoskins himself admits to not understanding the game fully until his then 4 year old daughter attended her first Oklahoma City Blazers game. "She begged me to let her play hockey," he says "that's when we met Mike McEwen". Mike McEwen, former NHL defenseman and 3 time Stanley Cup winner had made a home in the Oklahoma City area. Following his playing career he jumped into coaching by tending the bench of the Oklahoma City Blazers. He eventually left coaching, settled into the Oklahoma City way of life, and began to promote youth hockey at a grassroots level. "Coach McEwen taught my daughter Hockey 101; how to skate, how to stick handle, the basics," says Hoskins, "he was very patient with both me and her."
Throughout the years, the association has grown. In it's current form they have around 350 boys and girls that have joined and play regularly. The house leagues, meaning teams that don't travel, are structured by the guidelines put forth by USA Hockey; Mites (8 and under), Pee Wee (12 and under), Bantam (14 and under), Midget (16 and under), and Midget (18 and under). The traveling teams are hand selected based on tryouts and overall improvement throughout their house league play. Mike Hoskins believes that, "Most kids that play hockey in Oklahoma have accomplished something that most others kids won't. They go out and skate and sometimes are given the opportunity to compete at a very high level" To compete at that high level requires some determination and a serious commitment from families as most games require much travel. "We travel to northern Texas to play at a competitive level, but the camaraderie on the ice and in the stands is pretty unique," explains Hoskins, "I've never experienced anything like this in any other sport."
Three years ago Mike McEwen began a hockey program called "KIDS FIRST" for children under the age of 8 that introduced many youngsters to the game like never before. For six weeks each child is given a full set of equipment. They are taught to skate, how to handle a stick properly, how to play positionally, and simple rules of the game. After that six week introduction children can purchase the equipment for around $300, and are encouraged to join the OKC Youth Hockey Association to increase their skill set. "This is good quality training that takes place at two separate locations in Oklahoma City; either at the Blazers Ice Centre on the southside or the Arctic Edge on the northside," comments Mike Hoskins, "McEwen and our coaches have made a difference in the lives of many kids who never would have played hockey."
Formerly known as the Junior Blazers, the youth hockey teams have taken on a new name. "Prior to the announcement of the Barons coming to town our board met, we presented several names, and finally settled on one," Hoskins comments, "we had no idea that the name Oil Kings would come to represent such an incredible tie to our local AHL team and to our NHL team in Edmonton." For years the OKC Blazers supported the youth hockey movement by donating equipment, promoting teams during game-day activities, and by consistent visits from players and coaches. Now the Oil Kings have a new set of players to look up to and a new friendship to kindle. "I've had several meetings with Prodigal Hockey's Bob Funk and the Oilers Ricky Olczyk about grassroots hockey here in Oklahoma," says Hoskins, "and I'm completely impressed with their level of commitment." A commitment that will continue into the season as agreements are being finalized between the Oil Kings and the Oklahoma City Barons for youth hockey nights, a "KIDS FIRST" night, and a stick kid opportunity for kids to be on the ice for pre-game activities much like the team in Edmonton does on a nightly basis. Needless to say, the Barons are committed to supporting youth hockey.
As I sat glued to the television watching the USA vs Canada in the gold medal game of the World Juniors, I began to swell with pride. Not only as a US hockey fan, but as an Oklahoma hockey fan. Given the right opportunity, Oklahoma kids, like Matt Donovan, can embrace a sport that teachers lessons of determination, commitment, toughness, and team work. "When we travel I enjoy hearing people say, 'Wow, they have hockey in Oklahoma?'. And then seeing the Oklahoma teams competitiveness gives theses kids a sense of pride," says Hoskins, with some pride in his voice as well, "We have a very tight and close community here in OKC." A commitment to youth hockey at a grassroots level makes the support of the Barons even more special. A better brand of hockey in the form of the AHL hopes to cast a net over those that are merely curious about the sport and reel in families that might get their kids involved. With the help and promise of people like Mike Hoskins and Mike McEwen the days ahead for Oklahoma Youth Hockey seem tremendously bright.
For more information on the OKC Youth Hockey Association:
OKC Youth Hockey