GLENDALE -- Mike DeAngelis is a minor pro player from Western Canada. He wasn’t raised in the desert heat; quite the opposite, actually.
He spent the majority of his hockey career playing overseas, where he made most of his salary. When he was nearing retirement, he returned to North America and decided to settle down in the place he’d always wanted to – the Southwest.
|Mike DeAngelis |
“My career in Europe was very good for me,” he said. “I had my citizenship in Italy and played in the Olympics there, all that fun stuff. When I came back to America in my mid 30’s, I wanted to find somewhere to plant the next seeds of my life. It wasn’t about the money… I started talking with a few teams in the Southwest, and ended up getting ahold of Phoenix. I bought a house before I even started playing, and I’ve been here ever since.”
DeAngelis got married in Phoenix, and now lives in Scottsdale with his wife and family. While he’s a retired pro, he hasn’t stepped off the ice for good. Instead, he coaches at the AAA level for the Jr. Coyotes, who play out of the Ice Den rinks in Scottsdale and Chandler.
Over the past 11 years, he’s watched the overall level of teams in Arizona improve significantly. Each year, he insists, there are more kids to choose from for the AAA programs. This has brought better coaching, which attracts even more talent, and has ultimately resulted in an increase in players from the Jr. Coyotes moving on to major juniors, the USHL, and the NCAA.
Some say it starts from the bottom, with the Learn to Skate program operated out of the Ice Den facilities. To DeAngelis, though, the improvement has come from two areas – both the bottom and the top.
At the bottom, there are the benefits to the development programs that DeAngelis has both overseen and witnessed firsthand.
After Learn to Skate, there’s the cross-ice emphasis that the Jr. Coyotes program uses from start to finish. The Jr. Coyotes have invested in $30,000 pads that divide the rink; going chest-high, the partitions take the theory of smaller ice surface and take it to the extreme.
Once players hit the midgets, the Jr. Coyotes split the rink into unstructured 3 vs. 3 games – giving players more time with the puck and more touches per play, even once they’re older.
“You can have a really good game cross-ice,” said DeAngelis, who has watched the program utilize this training theory for years. “Whether it’s midgets or mites who play cross-ice, we’re able to do a ton of that in the springtime. The kids love it.”
While the development from the bottom has reached its best levels ever in recent years, DeAngelis pointed out how important it is to recognize the benefit the program receives from the top.
In other words, the team benefits from the NHL club in the Valley, and all the Coyotes provide for the program.
Coyotes Captain Shane Doan is an obvious benefit, helping as an ambassador for the sport in a climate many don’t consider to be ideal for hockey. He’s fought for years to prove that perception wrong, and it helps at the youth level to provide a tangible hero who has faith in the success of hockey in the desert.
There’s also the availability of former pros to help with coaching. The retired NHLers who help the Jr. Coyotes are as much a part of the ‘top down’ benefit the program sees as the active players who grow the game with their on-ice play. Ray Whitney and Derek Morris, who both assist the Jr. Coyotes as coaches, serve as elite talents on the coaching staff that help the skaters reach previously unthinkable heights.
Each summer, DeAngelis and the Jr. Coyotes see players return to the Valley to participate in summer skates twice a week. Auston Matthews has attended those, giving younger players an idol to watch on the ice just days before they get to watch him go first overall on the national stage.
He’s not alone, either.
Jr. Coyotes alumnus Zac Larraza is coming off his first year of AHL hockey, split between a handful of minor league teams around the NHL. Brendan Burke, also a former Coyotes draft pick, is another player DeAngelis once coached – and is now witnessing in the major juniors. Both Henrik and Philip Samuelsson once played for DeAngelis when he coached the PF Chang's AAA program. They’ve both played in NHL games and in the AHL.
“The hockey world is abuzz with how this kid from Arizona is the best hockey player in the world,” said DeAngelis. “People want to unearth how that happens – but it’s just proof of a lot of the good things that have gone on in the last ten years.”
DeAngelis himself is proof of those good things.
Now in his 11th year as director for the Jr. Coyotes, DeAngelis first came on board as the man in charge of it all. With just eight travel teams in the program in his first year, he ran the travel program, the house league program, and the IP program (which serves as a hockey initiation program following a player’s graduation from Learn to Skate). Now, there are 18 travel teams at the Scottsdale rink, and another eight playing out of the Chandler – and DeAngelis has moved to just coaching the AAA program.
He appreciates that he’s helped grow a feeder system for hockey players in Arizona; from the time they learn how to skate until they head off for bigger waters, there’s a level for them to play at the Ice Den.
“When I first started here (with the original PF Chang’s program), some of the top kids in the state were going elsewhere to develop and pursue their hockey dreams. That always bothered me, so we’ve built a program - and a pipeline - to give kids a place to keep playing here. There’s something here to look up to.”