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Wildcats have new identity as Jr. Reign, develop mutually beneficial relationship with AHL’s Reign

 

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To say that the confluence of events that led to the Wildcats youth hockey program becoming the Jr. Reign this spring was meant to be seems like a gross understatement.

The Wildcats had been on a steady rise since Ben Frank took over as president six years ago, having established themselves as one of the Inland Empire’s premier programs at their Riverside rink while also adding teams in the San Diego County city of Carlsbad.

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Meanwhile, just up the 60 freeway, minor-league hockey got a big boost locally when an American Hockey League (AHL) team from Manchester, N.H., relocated last fall and became the Ontario Reign as part of the league’s California expansion.

It seemed the two were destined to intersect, and this spring, that dream came to fruition, when on April 19, the Wildcats announced that in partnership with the Ontario Reign, the Los Angeles Kings (the Reign’s parent club) and the Hope Reigns Foundation, they were re-branding themselves the Jr. Reign and entering into a relationship with the Reign that would benefit both parties.

“This is a really exciting time for us, for our families and for Southern California hockey – all the way from our rink in Riverside down through the Temecula area and to our rink in Carlsbad,” Frank said.

“From when I took over six years ago, to have progressed to where we are now being aligned with an NHL and AHL team, we’re just really proud. We have come a long way in that time, and none of this could have happened without the efforts of our staff, volunteers and families.”

The change has been universally praised.

“The Wildcats’ leadership and commitment to positive youth sport experiences and long-term athlete development is in perfect alignment with our mission of growing the game,” Kings president of minor league affiliates and Reign president Darren Abbott said. “We are looking forward to working with their staff and seeing what the Jr. Reign can accomplish in the years to come.”

The program remained under the Wildcats name through a series of spring tournaments, and will officially transition to its new name in time for AAA tryouts in late May and AA and A/B tryouts in June. New black and silver uniforms will be ordered soon, and the Jr. Reign’s website has already launched at www.JrReign.com.

Steve Fraser, the senior director of business operations and finance for the AHL’s Reign, said the team has taken a number of strategic steps during the last two years to establish a foothold in the Inland Empire after its cross-country move. Once the front office felt it had put in place the mechanisms to build a fan base and forge strong business partnerships, they began to look at ways they could connect with the community and support the growth of hockey locally.

“Being able to have a Jr. Reign program was one of the first things that came to mind,” Fraser said. “We have a close affiliation with the L.A. Kings, and we wanted to mimic some of the things that they’ve done with youth hockey. We decided to identify a program that could become the Jr. Reign, and luckily there were a few teams locally that were interested.”

Frank had worked with the Reign to bring groups of players and families to games, and initiated a discussion with them about furthering their relationship. Once the discussion began, things progressed quickly, and it wasn’t long before the two sides started to hammer out an official agreement.

“We got to know Ben, and were really impressed with his program, so we decided to partner up and get the Jr. Reign rolling,” Fraser said. “Ben holds himself and his program to a high standard of quality. That’s very important to us – we want to make sure we’re growing hockey in an appropriate and responsible manner.”

The Jr. Reign recently brought three young players and their families to Citizens Business Bank Arena for a photo shoot prior to the official announcement. The group got to tour the building, visit the locker rooms and meet Reign forward Paul Bissonnette (pictured).

Frank said that’s just the beginning of what Jr. Reign families can expect as the new relationship continues to allow for unique and special experiences in the game of hockey. While many of the partnership details are still being ironed out, in addition to sharing a name with the AHL team, Frank’s program could get to enjoy pre- and post-game skates with the Reign, recognition during intermissions, ice time for practices and tournaments at the arena and many other benefits for players and their families.

Beyond that, the Reign will help their youth program grow by providing resources and marketing opportunities.

“They’ve made it very clear that they want to be a contributing part of the hockey community – they don’t just want to be at the top, but want to be an active participant,” Frank said. “I can’t say enough about their long-term vision. We believe that hockey is the greatest sport in the world and that kids will love it if they get to experience it in the right ways, and they know getting kids involved will eventually produce hockey fans.”

For the Reign, they’ll get added exposure when the Jr. Reign travel throughout Southern California and a direct line to families who are passionate about hockey or are primed to become big hockey fans. Fraser said that Abbott, new Kings president Luc Robitaille, Kings director of hockey development Chris Crotty and Jamie Coleman from the Hope Reigns Foundation were all instrumental in establishing the relationship with the Jr. Reign.

Frank said the opportunity to become associated with AHL and NHL teams wasn’t something he could have dreamed of when he took over the Wildcats and began rebuilding the program from the bottom up. He credited many key members of his staff for their tireless work in that process. Paul Esdale and Tomas Kapusta have coached and served in many other roles since the beginning, while Frank’s wife, Joyce, and Jen Geringer have handled operations and all the behind-the-scenes work since the program was born. Bryce Karlman (the Carlsbad program director), Craig Reichert (the director of skill development and training facilities) and Emery Drend (an age-group manager) have come on board in recent years to help the program continue its momentum.

“I’m incredibly proud of the work we’ve done, and I congratulated our entire staff and our members in the letter I sent out to them announcing the relationship,” Frank said. “Additionally, the Jr. Kings were very supportive of the change, as were SCAHA and CAHA. Being a USA Hockey Model Association and a Positive Coaching Alliance partner were big factors. They take their brand very seriously and want to be sure it will be represented well. Matt, Alex and Irina Dunaev, the rink owners, have also been very supportive of this decision and in the vision of growing the game in our communities, and we are grateful for that.”

Photo/Jessica Harsen

— Greg Ball