SDIA placing extra emphasis on Mites as way to keep growing overall program
Walk into the rink at San Diego Ice Arena (SDIA) in the suburbs of America’s Finest City on any given day, and there’s a good chance you’ll see the place overrun by seven- and eight-year-olds wearing the Oilers’ distinctive navy blue, red and white sweaters.
That’s because the program places a heavy emphasis on developing young players, and hockey director Craig Sterling knows the Mite age group holds the keys to creating kids who love the game enough to continue playing as they grow up.
“We probably have 80 Mite players and 75 Squirts this season, and there’s more coming,” Sterling said. “We don’t have those kids playing SCAHA (Southern California Amateur Hockey Association) yet, but our Mite teams played a lot locally and won eight tournaments this year. Once kids see the levels of success we’re reaching, they want to be a part of it. They want to be on a winning team, and we get them in to start teaching them the skills they’ll need as well as the life lessons that hockey can provide for them.”
One of the keys to SDIA’s success has been its emphasis on developing players at the lower levels so they will learn to love hockey and continue to play as they get older. Sterling has placed a particularly heavy emphasis on the program’s Mite teams and has dedicated Dan Arel to not only coach the Mites, but to oversee the rink’s entire Mite offerings, from its travel teams down to the in-house and developmental offerings.
Arel coaches a Squirt level in-house team and SDIA’s Mite A tournament team, while also overseeing the program’s three travel squads and four in-house groups. He’s in his fourth season with the Oilers and has an eight-year-old son in the program.
“For me, at this age it’s all about helping these kids love the game,” Arel said. “A lot of parents come in and want to see their kid out on the ice looking like Connor McDavid or Sidney Crosby, but when I look at it, I just want them to smile the whole time they’re out there. I want them to have the puck on their stick and see what happens.
“They have so many years to develop the skills they need if they want to continue playing, but they’re never going to get there if they don’t have fun now. They won’t want to go to practice or games if they’re not having fun the whole time – that’s going to drive them to get better. And as they reach age-appropriate levels, we’ll introduce the skills that are right for them at those times.”
The Oilers have experienced plenty of success over the years but wins and losses aren’t what truly drive Sterling to dedicate the approximately 50 hours a week he spends at the rink – not to mention the time put in at home to keep things running smoothly. Over the last decade, he has strived to create a family atmosphere within the SDIA program that extends from the youngest players trying the learn-to-skate sessions to the oldest players at the Midget level.
Sterling’s goal ever since he started has been to create a family environment that keeps kids and their parents wanting to come to the rink and spend time there. From post-game meals in the expansive picnic area just outside the rink to team outings and other social events, he and his fellow coaches have developed a true community at their facility.
“We always try to have our SCAHA teams and our tournament teams play in the same tournaments at as many age levels as possible,” Sterling explained, adding that players and parents from different teams can’t help but get to know each other and build camaraderie. “We’ll get all the families together for various events like barbeques. We’ll get the high school kids cheering on the Mites, and then the Mites are looking up to the players on the high school team. All the kids are hanging out, and everyone gets to know each other. Once kids start playing with us, they don’t leave, and they grow up with SDIA. It’s a competitive environment, but it’s also a fun environment.”
This winter, SDIA has approximately 350 adult hockey players registered, including divisions for military and women, and there are about the same amount playing youth travel and in-house hockey for the 2018-19 season. There are seven Oilers travel teams at all levels as well as 14 recreational teams playing at San Diego Ice Arena. The program’s Pee Wee BB team and the Bantam A and B squads all enjoyed deep runs in the SCAHA playoffs this season.
“Our overall numbers are the highest they have been in about eight years,” Sterling said, adding that the development of a massive residential complex within spitting distance of the rink has helped bring out more families in a big way. “More and more people are getting involved. They see the game on TV, and if we can get them out to the rink, they’re eager to sign up for learn-to-play programs or to get back on the ice as adults.”
One of the things that’s a new emphasis for Sterling and his colleagues at the rink is attracting military members and their families. SDIA is within a short drive of Marine Corps Air Station Miramar and not far away from a number of other military bases, so the Oilers have taken extra steps to cater to those families. That means they often have a fair amount of turnover because military families tend to relocate often, but it also gives them the opportunity to bring in a lot of people from different parts of the country, and their adult hockey program serves as a recreational outlet for Marines stationed nearby, some of whom use the physical activity as a way to cope with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
“We’re trying to make sure we show these military members that there is great hockey here in San Diego because a lot of them come from other parts of the country where hockey is a big part of the culture and they might not expect that in Southern California,” Sterling said. “We have a lot of military families here at SDIA, and we put on a couple charity games every year to benefit the military because we know that’s an important element of our community and we want to welcome them being so close to Miramar.”
Arel said he loves the way Sterling runs the SDIA program, and it’s the reason he has stuck around as a coach and has kept his son playing for the Oilers.
“I knew Craig a little bit before I started, and it was awesome, so he got me involved right from the start,” Arel explained. “He wanted to know if I had played and asked if I wanted to be involved. That’s how we approach things – if a parent wants to be engaged, we help them go through the process to make sure they’re prepared so they have the opportunity to not only build memories with their kids but help us build a great program.”
— Greg Ball
(April 10, 2019)