SDIA program on the rise thanks to a unique approach that puts family first
The afternoon of June 30 was about a memorable as they come for members of the tight-knit community that calls San Diego Ice Arena its second home.
Just 19 days after the Pittsburgh Penguins had wrapped up a 4-2 series victory over the Nashville Predators in the 2017 Stanley Cup Final, the most unique and most coveted trophy in sports made its first visit to the rink tucked away in a corner of the country that those from elsewhere still may not consider an area that breeds hockey players.
Chad Ruhwedel (pictured below), a defenseman who played 30 games for Pittsburgh in his second season with the franchise last year, cut his hockey teeth with SDIA from 1995-2002. He went on to play in the United States Hockey League and NCAA Division I hockey at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell before signing with the Buffalo Sabres and later landing with the eventual Stanley Cup champions, but hasn’t forgotten where he came from and where the foundation for his hockey career started.
“It was cool to see some of my old teammates, coaches and rink staff that I grew up with,” Ruhwedel told a local TV station that day, as family, friends, former teammates and current SDIA players packed the rink to get a glimpse of the trophy. “The support that they’ve given me over the years has been amazing, and it was really cool to be able to bring (the Cup) here and share it with them.”
It was a banner day for SDIA, and in many ways a validation for all the efforts that hockey director Craig Sterling and his coaching staff put in day in and day out. While Ruhwedel’s time with the program preceded him, Sterling knew when he landed in San Diego that he was taking on a special opportunity and that he’d have a chance to shape the lives of thousands of kids, whether they went on to become Stanley Cup champions or simply used their time with SDIA to develop into individuals of strong character who along the way discovered a lifelong love for hockey.
“It’s not just about hockey, but it’s about developing these players into good adults,” Sterling said. “There have been so many kids that I have seen over the years who are now playing in college or have come back to play in our adult leagues. Some are playing with their dads. It’s really cool to have that experience.”
Sterling’s goal ever since he started in his current position nine years ago has been to create a family atmosphere that keeps kids and their parents wanting to come to the rink and spend time there. From post-game barbeques 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.
“A lot of it has to do with the ‘wow’ factor,” Sterling said. “People walk in here and are really impressed with how clean the facility is and all the things that we offer around the rink. There are things for families to do here while their kids are practicing or playing games.”
The Oilers this season are icing eight teams – at the Squirt B and BB, Pee Wee B and BB and Bantam A and B levels playing in SCAHA as well as varsity and junior varsity squads playing in the Anaheim Ducks High School Hockey League. That’s in addition to 20 adult men’s teams that call SDIA home, and three adult women’s teams, 12 teams playing in-house hockey and hundreds of kids figure skating. There are approximately 70 coaches involved, and the organization is bigger than it has even been.
With just once sheet of ice, the rink is constantly in use, and Sterling has taken extraordinary steps to ensure that every hour kids and their families spend there makes them feel like part of something bigger than just hockey.
“We have a lot of people in the community who are involved at the rink – they share their experience with their network of friends and end up bringing more and more people to our facility,” Sterling said.
Gary Andreassi has been coaching hockey in San Diego for decades and currently coaches the SDIA Oilers’ Squirt BB team. He has been with the organization more than 10 years and also assists with the in-house program, so he has a strong understanding of what makes SDIA such a special place.
“Craig has put together such a great program that’s family oriented, and he really lets the coaches do their own thing even as we’re all on the same page as far as players developing from level to level,” Andreassi said. “I’ve been there since I was a kid when the rink first opened – my car only goes there.”
He said all the efforts that Sterling and the coaches make to provide social opportunities between practices and games really pays off when it comes to teams gelling and really getting to know each other.
“It’s a huge part of being a team,” said Andreassi, who has a son and a daughter playing in the program. “We bring the family members together, too, so they all feel like they’re involved.”
Another one of Sterling’s most trusted long-time coaches is Brad Belland, who is the head coach of the high school varsity team and an assistant with the junior varsity squad. The former San Diego Gulls center worked in the team’s front office for a few years and then joined up with SDIA to help grow the game locally at the youth level.
He has been with the organization since he son started playing with the Oilers 10 years ago.
“I’ve been involved with youth hockey here in San Diego since 1995, and Craig is a very good friend of mine,” Belland explained. “I love what SDIA is doing as a program as far as making it an incredible atmosphere for hockey families.
“A lot of the people playing hockey in San Diego are transplants from other parts of the country and the world, so the people they meet at SDIA become like their second family.”
As far as Sterling sees it, his role at SDIA is all about welcoming people into the rink, encouraging them to get involved and then ensuring that he and his staff are doing all the right things to ensure that they feel like one big happy family. In a region where it’s more common to own a surfboard than skates, that’s a big part of what has made the Oilers such a smashing success.
“You hear a lot of people come here and say, ‘I didn’t know there was hockey in San Diego,’ but once they come to our rink, we make them feel so welcome that they never leave,” Sterling said. “They want to be involved and keep coming to the rink.
“We’re so big on creating that family atmosphere.”
SDIA photo/Steve Sidell
Ruhwedel photo/Pittsburgh Penguins
— Greg Ball
(March 9, 2018)