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Jr. Sharks continue to be total package of player development, team success

 

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The San Jose Jr. Sharks were set to send two teams to various USA Hockey national tournaments in March and April before the COVID-19 crisis put a halt to hockey not only in the United States, but across the world.

Did the Jr. Sharks sulk and sit back? Far from it.

Truth be told, the organization quickly came up with an extended offseason game plan that included video calls with players, coaches and families to keep everyone sharp for the next season – whenever that may be.

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“I think the COVID pause has taught us to enjoy the moment more than ever in terms of games or practices, and ultimately, we learned one lesson and that’s to not take anything for granted,” Jr. Sharks director Curtis Brown said. “I don’t think anybody that was on the ice, whatever their last session was in terms of hockey in March, thought that would be the last one, but here we are three months later. People are just getting back on the ice because of the virus, which is hopefully a once-in-a-lifetime event, but it definitely changed the way we see things.”

Brown added that staying in touch was probably the best option for not being able to be on the ice or in the gym.

“We’re just starting to see things open up around the country, but we really don’t know what to expect on the ice other than participant numbers will be restricted along with a focus on physical distancing,” Brown said. “Like the last 90 days, I expect things to be very fluid. Once the season short circuited, we decided a great thing would be to stay connected because it was not physically possible.”

The weekly calls with the association had special guests join the call such as former San Jose Sharks forward Patrick Marleau, former Sharks defenseman Scott Hannan, Sharks head coach Bob Boughner, Sharks assistant coach Roy Sommer, former Sharks player and current Sharks goaltending coach Evgeni Nabokov and Sharks strength and conditioning coach Mike Potenza.

“We could really at least provide some options, and those were fun talks to educate everybody, including myself, about some good ideas,” said Brown. “Those segments were really good. As an athlete, ultimately, there’s many things that happen throughout the course of a game, most of which are out of your control. No different than this situation. Maybe I learned this during my playing days because I definitely encountered this and you had no control on what you can control, if that makes sense. You can make a difference, and looking back, that’s probably what we did during this time.”

Matt Adams, the Jr. Sharks’ youth hockey manager, created numerous videos that focused on drills and offseason activities to help the association’s players maintain thoughts of hockey during the unexpected downtime. Other house coaches and student coaches also made videos that were shared with the players.

“A few of our coaches that regularly work our JSHL practices and games would record the clips on their phones and uploaded them to a Google form we created,” said Adams. “The clips were curated and published. It was very important to us to not only keep in contact with our families, but to keep the love for hockey strong and alive in the kids. With no hockey on TV, no hockey rinks open, kids ordered to shelter in place and other serious societal issues coming to the forefront of life, we wanted to do our part to continually fuel the love and passion for our game.”

Prior to the season being shut down, the Jr. Sharks had yet more success during the 2019-20 season. The biggest team accomplishment was seeing the 18U AAA squad capture a state and USA Hockey Pacific District title, in addition to the girls 19U AA team winning a state title.

Individually, several players were selected in April’s WHL U.S. Prospects Draft and a handful more in May’s two-part USHL Draft and June’s USPHL NCDC Entry Draft. Others have signed with junior clubs and a large number of girls players from the Jr. Sharks’ 19U team have committed to college hockey programs.

Former Jr. Sharks players Brian Adams and Luke Robinson also committed during the season to play NCAA Division I hockey at Air Force, while Hunter McKown decided on Colorado College. Joining ACHA college teams for the fall are Jr. Sharks 18U teammates Micah Kim (Northeastern University) and Ryan Kopelman (College of William and Mary)

“I am extremely happy for all of our kids advancing to the next level,” said Jr. Sharks’ development coordinator Mike Janda. “As a club, we have worked hard to rebuild our boys 18U program and keep kids in San Jose. We have at least seven kids moving on to junior hockey from the team last year, three moving on to play ACHA club hockey and five returning for another year of 18U AAA for development and exposure.

“There is a lot to be said about staying home and being in the comfort of your own home to help you develop as a player and a human being. We hope this year is the first of many good years ahead for our players to develop and advance.”

In the WHL U.S. Prospects Draft, forward Shaun Rios (Tri-City Americans), defenseman Philippe Blais-Savoie (Vancouver Giants), defenseman Briggs Orr (Calgary Hitmen) and forward Ben Picard (Tri-City) were chosen along with former Jr. Sharks forward Duncan Shin (Vancouver).

Three Jr. Sharks went in the USHL Draft – defenseman Garrett Brown (Sioux City Musketeers), forward Tyler Dysart (Sioux City) and defenseman Aiden Celebrini (Cedar Rapids RoughRiders).

Forward Reese Laubach was then taken by the Jersey Hitmen in the NCDC draft.

On the girls side, Evelyn Andrade (St. Michael’s College, NCAA D-I), Jessie Arons (Lawrence University, NCAA Division III), Elise Coates (Arcadia University, NCAA D-III, for 2021-22), Kenzie Fogarty (Northland College, NCAA D-III), Nicole Hillegas (St. Olaf College, NCAA D-III) and Chelsie Wang (Smith College, ACHA) are college-bound.

Playing for the Jr. Sharks provided the exposure and improved skills needed to play the college game, said several of the girls.

“Before I started playing with the Jr. Sharks, I had never been a part of a competitive travel team,” said Fogarty. “I had only participated in house league at my local rink in Sacramento. When I was given the opportunity to try out for Bobby Long’s 19U team, I jumped at the chance. All my life, I had wanted to be a part of a travel team but I always doubted myself and my skills. It was this opportunity that made me realize my potential.

“Not only did I grow as a hockey player, I grew as an individual. I learned how to really play as a team rather than individually. I wouldn’t be where I am right now if it wasn’t for Bobby Long and Danielle Kozlowski, as well as my other coaches. They believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself and for that, I will be forever grateful.”

“The Jr. Sharks program provided an inviting and encouraging atmosphere for me to start playing ice hockey,” added Hillegas. “The coaches and players in the Jr. Sharks community helped me develop the skills I needed to play at St. Olaf.”

Arons will be skating for Lawrence’s first-ever NCAA girls team and has played for the Jr. Sharks for more than a decade.

“I started playing with the Jr. Sharks when I was five and just finished my 12th season,” Arons said. “It was great to play and connect with other girls that loved the game as much as I did. It has been an amazing experience, and I have made some of my best friends through the Sharks program. I learned and improved so much over the years. I’m very thankful for all my coaches and teammates who helped me get to my dream of playing in college.”

Coates said the Jr. Sharks’ closeness makes playing the game a blast.

“I wanted to join the Jr. Sharks this season because I wanted to play for a team where I knew that I would learn a lot from my coaches,” Coates said. “Coach Kozlowski and Coach (Liana) Bonanno both played NCAA Division I hockey, so I knew that they could help me increase my skills as a goalie. I got to play with some incredible players this season and we were a pretty tight-knit group of players by the end of the season.”

Wang grew up playing on boys teams and noted when the opportunity arose to join the Jr. Sharks, she jumped at the chance.

“I wanted to play on a more structured and competitive team,” said Wang. “I’d mostly played with boys, so it was a nice change of pace playing with the girls. I think playing here gave me a stronger sense of teamwork and camaraderie, as well as teaching me new ways to approach the game.”

As of late June, the five boys from the Pacific District champs that had signed with junior teams include defenseman Deven Boldway (NCDC’s Utica Jr. Comets), defenseman Niko Jovanovic (AJHL’s Spruce Grove Saints), forward Jake Meure (SJHL’s Battlefords North Stars), forward Connor Plamondon (NA3HL’s Mid Cities Jr. Stars) and goalie Antonio Tarantino (NA3HL’s North Iowa Bulls).

Similar their female counterparts, the boys had positive experiences playing in San Jose.

“What really interested me in playing for the Jr. Sharks was the opportunity to play AAA hockey while competing in the Tier 1 Elite Hockey League,” said Tarantino. “Juniors and college hockey has been a goal of mine for a long time, so playing for the Jr. Sharks really was able to get me the exposure I needed. The Jr. Sharks organization was the perfect fit for me because not only did the coaches make me into a better hockey player but also made me a better individual, which is very important as we grow up.”

“Antonio came to Mason City and gave us the opportunity to see him firsthand in our facility against proven junior players,” North Iowa coach Todd Sanden added. “He’s a very athletic goaltender with a high compete level. We look for Antonio to challenge for a starting job with our team.”

Jovanovic is a North Vancouver, B.C., native who became enamored with the Jr. Sharks.

“Joining the Jr. Sharks in my 15U season because of my family’s work-related relocation from Vancouver to San Jose, the Jr. Sharks organization offered both the best team-based and individual development around,” said Jovanovic. “The Jr. Sharks immediately appealed to me because it was simply the best program that fit my bill. Enabling me to cap off my minor and youth hockey career here and to advance to the next level thanks to the various opportunities presented to me through the club is exactly why I joined.”

Meure was a captain on the Jr. Sharks’ 18U team during the 2019-20 season.

“I first wanted to play for the Jr. Sharks when my older brother Ryan decided he wanted to play there so naturally, I wanted to follow in his footsteps,” Meure said. “Playing for the Jr. Sharks was amazing not only from the great teammates, friends and memories that I made, but the coaches in the organization are top notch – guys like Mike Janda, Curtis Brown, John Beaulieu, Evan Alexius, and the list goes on.”

Boldway said the results the Jr. Sharks produce on a consistent basis is due to everyone in the organization being on the same page.

“What appealed to me about playing for the Jr. Sharks was the very high level of play and the accompanying number of good players and even better coaches,” said Boldway. “The main reason I came to the Jr. Sharks in the first place was the coaching style of Mike Janda and his ability to develop players and get them ready for the next level.”

On top of the success on the ice and player advancement, the San Jose City Council recently approved a 200,000 square-foot expansion of Solar4America Ice at San Jose, which will add two additional recreational ice sheets to the facility, increasing the building’s total ice sheets to six.

The expansion will make Solar4America Ice at San Jose the largest ice facility under one roof west of the Mississippi River.

One of the additional ice sheets will be located inside a 4,200-seat, two-story spectator arena that will serve as the new home for the AHL’s San Jose Barracuda, the top affiliate of the Sharks.

Construction for the facility is expected to begin this year with a targeted completion date of August 2022.

“We are thrilled to enhance our partnership with the city of San Jose and add much-needed additional sheets of ice at Solar4America at San Jose,” said SAP Center and Sharks Ice senior vice president Jon Gustafson. “This facility has become an incredible community asset, hosting more than 1.2 million visitors each year. It is also an important economic engine for our city, generating thousands of dollars in transient occupancy taxes through hosting national and international hockey and ice competitions, filling nearly 6,000 hotel rooms annually.”

At the end of the day, though, pulling together as an organization during the unprecedented times is what the Jr. Sharks are all about.

“With so many uncertainties today, at the onset of the pause, I think it just highlighted what the sport of hockey provides, and that’s more than the sport itself; it’s bigger than the sport itself,” Brown said. “We still don’t know all the variables of the recovery, but we do know we have a great community that will get through whatever comes our way together.

“Hockey is more than a sport. It’s deeper than that.”

— Matt Mackinder

(July 30, 2020)


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