Golden State Eagles sticking to flight plan
Whether or not a startup succeeds depends largely upon the amount and type of backing it has, business experts say.
One Northern California startup that’s demonstrating remarkable influence and staying power just months into its third year is the Golden State Elite Eagles (GSE) – a tier hockey alliance between the California Cougars, Redwood City Black Stars, Tri-Valley Blue Devils and Vacaville Jets.
The club has sent multiple teams to the California Hockey Association (CAHA) state tournament in each of its first two seasons, winning a Pee Wee AA title in 2014 and a Bantam AA crown in 2013.
Its Midget 18U AA team went to the USA Hockey National Championships last season – a year after the Bantams went – and last season’s Pee Wee state champions also were ranked No. 1 in the nation by MyHockeyRankings.com.
In between, the club has collected banners for International Silver Stick regional titles and at several North American tournaments.
“If this third season continues on course, we’ll have met nearly all of our five-year goals ahead of schedule,” said William Stone, the Blue Devils’ president who co-founded GSE with Cougars president Chris Hathaway and Jets hockey director Larry Cahn. “We set out to provide an alternative to the current state of tier hockey in Northern California at a lower cost and a minimal impact on school.”
Blue Devils hockey director Mike Holmes has a long history of playing and coaching inside and out of California, including taking several Tri-Valley 18U AA teams to nationals. He sees GSE’s profile rising quickly.
“We’ve had good teams so kids want to play here,” he said. “Overall, kids recognize there’s an opportunity here.
“We’re not totally surprised; we knew potential was there, but it’s worked out extremely well.
“Chris and I talked about this for years, but one year would go by, then another,” Holmes said. “It never got traction until William and Larry came along to do it.”
The Cougars and the Blue Devils have had Tier II teams over the years, but not at every age group – and not every year. GSE has AA options at Pee Wee, Bantam and both Midget ages as well as its first AAA team at Pee Wee.
“GSE created deeper rosters all the way around, and they’re all doing well,” Cahn said.
That depth is extending to the local clubs’ A and B levels as well.
“GSE has pushed some kids back to A, which is helping keep it going at the older levels,” Holmes said. “(Tri-Valley) has some really good Pee Wee teams and Squirts, and an extremely strong 18U A team.”
All of the GSE coaches stay involved at their local clubs, with most coaching or assisting on teams.
“It gives kids the opportunity to play tier hockey in our structure,” Holmes said. “Kids see GSE teams practicing at Dublin (Tri-Valley’s home rink).”
This integrated approach is fostering a greater level of collaboration, which has enhanced playing and coaching experiences.
“What makes us different is we have a lot of good coaches, and we have open lines of communication,” Cahn said.
“We’re always developing younger coaches coming up the ranks. Tyler Parker is assisting me and coaching a Squirt team with the Jets. We care about grooming that next generation of coaches.”
Added Stone, “We have a great program in place where our coaches are falling into age-niches. Gregg Rodriguez, our Pee Wee AA head coach, is working with our youngest and least-experienced players on fundamentals.
“Mario Morrissette, our Pee Wee AAA and Bantam AA2 head coach, is handling our advanced younger players by blending fundamentals and team play.
“Aaron Mullagh, our Bantam AA1 head coach, works on hockey and team fundamentals.
“Larry Cahn, our Midget 16AA head coach, works on team play and hockey skills.
“At the top level, Mike (Holmes), our Midget 18 AA head coach, is focused on team chemistry and advanced team play.
“Lastly, Chip Cormier, our goalie coach, has had a hand in the development of the best goalies in Northern California.
“No player or goalie is left behind. Our coaches will spend extra effort on players that need the extra help. Coaches obsess nearly every waking hour on how to improve players and the team.”
The improvement process begins at tryouts, when the coaches project what it’ll take for each squad to be successful.
“Every year at tryouts, we evaluate our talent and we typically have a conservative estimate our teams’ competitiveness only to see our teams exceed our (and the players’ and parents’) expectations,” Stone said. “As a testament to our coaches’ abilities, they’ve taken our teams beyond the individual skills of our players. In other words, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.”
GSE is able to accomplish all this despite some logistical challenges in assembling teams. The Eagles draw players from as far north at Chico to as far south as Fresno – a span of nearly 260 miles. While Vacaville is farther north, Dublin and Redwood City sit on opposite sides of the San Francisco Bay.
“It’s definitely one of the obstacles,” Cahn said. “But it’s worth it for the families. Eventually, we’d like to have teams in the north and south or east at each age level.”
One way GSE tries to mitigate the drives somewhat is having some teams practice at multiple locations during a given week. Players with especially long drives sometimes are given a practice off.
“It’s unbelievable the distances the kids are willing to drive to chase the dream of playing hockey longer,” Holmes said. “They’re very dedicated, and it shows on the ice.”
So how much bigger could GSE get? And is the Pee Wee foray into AAA a one-time deal or a sign of things to come?
“We’d love to have Tier I teams at all levels, but we’ll only do it when we feel the teams have the potential to earn their success,” Stone said. “We’re not going to form teams for the sake of forming teams or buckle to parent pressures.
“We’d like to make teams more geographically-based to limit player travel to and from practices.”
– Chris Bayee