Storm development sees 16U program moving to Tier I
The Nevada Storm and the Las Vegas community have seen an amazing resurgence in youth hockey over the past two years and that will take a giant leap next season.
Starting with the 2016-17 campaign, the Storm’s 16U team is moving to the Tier I level, marking a return to the AAA ranks for the first time in Las Vegas in more than three years.
Former NHL veteran Eric Lacroix and Micah Sanford, who played in the British Columbia Hockey League and later NCAA Division I hockey for the University of Nebraska-Omaha, are heading up the new AAA program. The Storm will implement a program that exceeds USA Hockey Tier I standards for ice time and off-ice training, a quality billeting program, as well as the Unique Hockey Academy for virtual students.
Storm hockey director and coach-in-chief Gabe Gauthier is excited about the transition.
“The program that Eric Lacroix and Micah Sanford are putting together is going to be on the level with the best programs in the country while keeping the cost as reasonable as possible,” Gauthier said. “I cannot say enough about the potential of this program. With these two at the helm and with the backing of rink ownership at the Las Vegas Ice Center (LVIC), we will have as much on-ice training as any program in the country.”
After playing 10 years in the NHL, spending another 10 seasons working for the Colorado Avalanche and Phoenix Coyotes, and owning the Arizona Sundogs’ Central Hockey League franchise, Lacroix is chomping at the bit about the opportunity to give back.
“This is a unique opportunity to build an amazing program,” Lacroix said. “Las Vegas is ready for elite youth hockey. We have the talent, the facilities and the backing to take this to another level. The interest in hockey in Las Vegas is at an all-time high. Now, with the NHL seriously considering us for expansion and the growth of the sport on the West Coast, the time is right for this step.”
Sanford, a Las Vegas native, was already a part of elite Tier I hockey in Las Vegas and has been instrumental in the resurgence.
“It is exciting to see to the Las Vegas hockey community coming together and taking this huge step forward,” said Sanford, who also played for the ECHL’s Las Vegas Wranglers in 2008-09. “I look forward to developing these kids and sending them on to play juniors and beyond.”
Also the head coach for the second-year Las Vegas Storm Junior A team in the Western States Hockey League (WSHL), Gauthier has seen the game grow in the nearly two years since he came to Nevada.
“There are lots of talented and hard-working players here in Las Vegas,” explained Gauthier. “It has just been a matter of getting them all together to achieve a common goal. The facility is amazing and the rink is buzzing with excitement. It’s the right time to make this jump to the next level.”
The Las Vegas Ice Center, which is the only dual ice rink in Las Vegas, is equipped with a shooting room, gym, full service pro-shop and dedicated dressing rooms for all players committed to the organization.
“You won’t find a cleaner place to call home than LVIC,” beamed Gauthier. “It is set up to help each player achieve their highest potential. The state-of-the-art equipment and trained coaching staff will be available to all players during their time with us.”
Kirk Brooks, co-owner of the LVIC with his brother, John, as well as principal owner of the United States Hockey League’s (USHL) Tri-City Storm, cannot wait to see Tier I hockey back in Vegas.
“The group of coaches that we now have on all levels from Mites to Junior A is quite amazing,” Brooks said. “It is truly a testament to what a hockey community can do when cooperation is the primary focus. I expect this Tier I program to rival the best ones in the nation.”
The Las Vegas Ice Center Sports Academy adds to the prestige of the Storm experience. The academy offers players the opportunity to achieve academic success and to take their hockey skills to the next level. Players in this program get about 48 hours of tutoring and 16 hours of extra on-ice development each month.
Finding the right fit for each player is a priority for the Storm because the program knows the importance in making each player feel comfortable, even if that means another year in Las Vegas.
“With the Western States Hockey League embedded in Las Vegas, we provide a great opportunity to play past the Midget AAA level without leaving home,” Gauthier said. “Also, being an affiliate of the USHL Storm provides another option and is a great stepping stone to playing collegiately.”
The calm before the storm
And to think that just two seasons ago in 2013-14, the Nevada Storm had just three travel teams (Bantam AA/A, Pee Wee AA and Pee Wee B).
At the end of that season, the Brooks brothers realized there was an amazing amount of untapped potential that just needed a new direction.
In the spring of 2014, Gauthier and Matt Johnson moved to Las Vegas from Denver and Boston, respectively, to take on the challenge of creating an elite youth program, bringing to life an expansion WSHL franchise, and creating a pathway for young players to develop to move on to the highest levels. Tony Esposito then took the reins establishing the Mite house league and conducting USA Hockey American Development Model sessions two times a week for the young players.
Throw in the fact the Hockey 123 program has grown from 20 kids to a maximum capacity of 100-plus kids and young adults and the game is booming. The Mite house league now has over 80 players and from those, the Storm was able to field two tournament/travel teams with the help of Kevin Mulcahy, Brian Fox and Chade Nehring to compete with the top players from the Pacific Region.
Once Lacroix joined the Storm, teams at the Pee Wee A and AA levels were formed with Jeff Bruckner and Tom Lackas coaching the A team and Lacroix and Bo Lackas with the AA team. Johnson and J.J. Hartman also arrived to help coach the Storm Bantam team.
The Midget division this year has seen the biggest turnaround, coming from a Midget A team in 2013-14 to having a 16U AA team and an 18U/high school team. Sanford coaches the 16U team and Dell Truax has the 18U/high school group.
To put everything into perspective, prior to the arrival Gauthier, Johnson and Lacroix, the Storm had the three travel teams, 100-plus kids in the house league, 20 kids in the learn to play hockey, and a very low number of kids in the Mite and Squirt levels.
Less than two years later, there are more than 50 players enrolled in Hockey 123, 80-plus in the Mite house league, with 20 of them playing in regional tournaments, and 200 players in the entire house league Mite through Midget. At the travel level, the Storm have two Squirt teams, two Pee Wee teams, a Bantam team, two Midget teams and the WSHL team.
“The support we have received from parents, coaches and the community has been one of the main reasons for the success in the organization and for the Ice Center,” said Gauthier. “Just an exciting time for hockey in Nevada.”
— Matt Mackinder