Development, advancement are Avs’ goals
By Matt Mackinder
A season-opening sweep of Phoenix and taking two of three from Southern California rivals Valencia and San Diego to start the Western States Hockey League (WSHL) season was nice, but the Ontario Avalanche realizes it was just a start.
Still, Avalanche director of player personnel and scouting Rick Roberts said the fast start can help build confidence for the rest of the season.
“Getting everyone on the same page and off to a fast start is always a big challenge for any organization,” Roberts said. “And then when you consider our past success and the pressure on the coaches, staff and players, starting out with a sweep against Phoenix was a great confidence builder and some positive short-term feedback for the team, but we still have a lot of work to do.”
Last season, the Avalanche’s second in the WSHL, the team made the Thorne Cup Playoffs, only to lose to the Fresno Monsters in the second round after upending the Valencia Flyers in the opening-round series.
With the playoffs and a long season in mind, changes were made in the offseason to better adjust to the grind, Roberts said.
“The biggest adjustment we’ve made is getting all the players to report early for training camp,” Roberts said. “We recruit players from not only Southern California, but from other parts of the U.S., Canada and Europe.
“The roster diversity also comes with challenges. For many of the import players, their first language is not English, and for others, it is their first time away from home, so making them comfortable by choosing the right billet home and getting them comfortable in their Southern California surroundings is key.
“That takes time, so the quicker we can get them to report to camp, the quicker they get acclimated to their surroundings. And the benefits are a maximization of their hockey experience and talents which hopefully, gives us a fast start.”
With the backing of team owner Tom Meyer, Roberts believes junior hockey can be sustainable in the Ontario region (which is approximately 60 miles east of Los Angeles), but the onus is also on the team to make it work.
“I think we can sustain our existence by being a positive presence in the hockey community through providing an environment of opportunity while developing talent, teaching life lessons and moving players to higher levels of hockey,” Roberts said. “One of our goals is to continue to work on our fan base through community outreach, local publicity and with the help of local club hockey.”
Ontario coach and general manager Chris Shaw, a former NCAA Division I prospect and pro player, is what Roberts calls “a student of the game.” Shaw earned a scholarship to Niagara University and then played five years in the Central Hockey League (CHL), United Hockey League (UHL), Southern Professional Hockey League (SPHL) and ECHL.
“All of these experiences, plus his depth of hockey knowledge, playing in different organizations and his hockey network, has helped Chris to advance a dozen or so players already during his short stint here in Ontario,” said Roberts. “He has proven to be a teacher on the ice, a trainer and mentor off the ice and a big part of our recruitment and player placement process.”
After last season, Avalanche players were selected in the USHL and NAHL drafts, and the team moved two players to NCAA hockey, two more to Canadian colleges and two to ACHA Division I hockey. Two former players are also on pro rosters in Europe.
Another positive for the Avalanche is having an in-house 18U AAA team as a feeder program to the junior team.
“Last year, a handful of our 18U AAA players got an opportunity to suit up with the Junior A team and I would expect the same this year,” Roberts said. “Our organization was fortunate and blessed to have an 18U AAA team make it to (USA Hockey Pacific) districts in its inaugural season, and we should be a contender for nationals this season. Our hopes are that a handful of our 18U AAA players choose to play with us at the junior level next year.”