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AAA Hockey Promotes Player Development at Grassroots Level

by Staci Pawlak / Columbus Blue Jackets

Columbus is not your typical hockey town. It’s not the largest city, and many people overlook the mid-sized town during discussions about the greatest hockey havens in America. Then again, not many people know about the Ohio AAA Blue Jackets.

The Ohio AAA Blue Jackets is an elite youth hockey program, consisting of eight teams and 135 players from 10-18 years old. All teams play in the Tier 1 Elite Hockey League, the top youth hockey league in the United States.

In other words, the players on the Ohio AAA Blue Jackets teams are among the best players of their age in the country – and the majority of them hail from the greater Columbus area.

“It’s great because players don’t have to leave the area to become great hockey players. They can play the game they love right here in their hometown,” said Ed Gingher, the program director for the Ohio AAA Blue Jackets and head coach of the 18 & Under Ohio AAA Blue Jackets team.

The program started with one Midget 18 & Under team back in 2004 with the support of the Blue Jackets and former General Manager Doug MacLean. Currently, the program also includes a Squirt team (age 10), two Peewee teams (ages 11-12), two Bantam teams (ages 13-14), a Midget 16, and a 14 and under girls team.

“The area was hungry for a program like this, and the Blue Jackets have done a great job building this hockey base,” said Gingher.

When it was formed, the Ohio AAA Blue Jackets were the only AAA youth hockey organization affiliated with an NHL team. According to Gingher, the Blue Jackets connection not only gave the program instant credibility, it also helped the organization to grow rapidly in the years following its formation.

“We quickly became a model for other youth hockey organizations in cities like Pittsburgh and Buffalo. They all wanted to know how we did it,” said Gingher.

While Columbus’s AAA program is fairly new compared to similar organizations in other cities, the Ohio Blue Jackets have still captured significant on-ice victories throughout its nine-year history, including three regional championship titles, four state championship titles, and three appearances in the USA Hockey National Tournaments.

Most importantly, the program opens doors for players to continue their hockey career at the junior or pro hockey levels. Some of the AAA Blue Jackets Alumni have gone on to play at the highest levels of junior hockey in North America, such as the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) and the United States Hockey League (USHL).

Other players choose to play college hockey at the Division 1 NCAA or ACHA level. A few AAA Blue Jackets players have already committed to play Division 1 college hockey at universities in Ohio, including The Ohio State University, University of Miami (OH), and Bowling Green State University.

One program alum and Columbus native, Trent Vogelhuber, was even drafted by the Blue Jackets when they hosted the draft in 2007. Vogelhuber recently signed a two-way AHL/ECHL contract with the Blue Jackets American Hockey League affiliate, the Springfield Falcons. Currently, the Blue Jackets prospect plays for the Evansville IceMen (ECHL).

The program’s success is due in part to the staff’s emphasis on player development. Every coach for the Ohio AAA Blue Jackets has college, junior, or pro hockey experience and players are given all of the resources they need to become great hockey players.

However, Gingher insists development doesn’t just occur on the ice. The coaches and staff also strive to teach players valuable life lessons, such as the importance of teamwork, discipline, and leadership.

“We’re not a ‘win at all costs’ organization. We want to win, but we want our players to also be good people.”

All in all, hockey is more than a game for Ohio AAA Blue Jackets players – it is an opportunity to be great. And it is right here in Columbus.
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