GLENDALE -- Hockey in Arizona has exploded in the last 20 years – so much that it’s hard to predict exactly how much it will grow even in the next five to 10 years.
No one knows that more than Sean Whyte, the former Los Angeles Kings forward who currently serves as Coach-in-Chief and Hockey Director for the Desert Youth Hockey Association in Tempe.
Whyte is one of a number of former pros who have made Phoenix their homes, and he has used his years of experience – playing for the Kings, the IHL’s Phoenix Roadrunners, and a handful of other pro teams before hanging up his skates and moving on to coaching – to help the DYHA program grow.
|Sean Whyte |
When Whyte arrived at the DYHA program eight years ago, the organization was on a downward trend. He has seen that turned around since getting involved in the youth program, though – and he has done so by focusing on making the program a place players are proud to play.
“I only want players that want to play for me,” said Whyte, “and those that have a great attitude and work ethic.”
The Jr. Sun Devils are a AA program, and that work ethic and attitude is part of what makes the program so effective. Players go from the AA level to one of the city’s two AAA programs each year after playing under Whyte, and he believes his development model is what helps those players be so successful.
“Arizona has some amazing hockey players,” Whyte said. “Two years ago, six of my AA players ended up playing AAA hockey the following season.”
The reasoning? AA hockey provides the opportunity for talented players to skate out for regular shifts and develop strong leadership qualities. It’s a great place for competitive players in Arizona to develop and flourish; whether they’re looking to move to AAA hockey, want to play collegiate hockey in the future, or just want the experience of playing competitive hockey while still fine-tuning their skills, the Sun Devils provide them with that opportunity. Whyte has created an environment that pushes his players, but also works on their “intangible skills.”
For a former pro like Whyte, some may expect the biggest skills he pushes on his players to be things like skating, stickhandling, or shooting – but as a coach, he insists the most important skill to develop has to do with attitude.
Positive mental processes.
To Whyte, these are the foundations that help players develop the skills we all consider to be the more traditional skills; while his program works in the off-season to help “turn deficiencies into assets” in regards to skills like shooting, checking, stickhandling, and defensive play, a huge bulk of emphasis is placed on the mental processes first.
|Sean Whyte |
Whyte and his Jr. Sun Devils have another asset they can use, of course. The team shares an arena and colors with the Arizona State University Sun Devils hockey program, and the collegiate players take advantage of that to help out the junior teams.
Skaters from the ASU teams volunteer their time to help Whyte and his staff at Oceanside Arena, working practices and skating with some of the older youth players in games of pick-up. They know they’re role models for the younger players that share an arena and name with them, and they use that to set good examples for the futures of Arizona hockey.
After the growth Whyte has seen in the last eight years, of course, that future is hard to predict.
Hockey in Arizona has a unique identity, with coaches from other parts of the country and players from pro leagues around the world making the desert their home post-retirement. The growth of the ASU program – first adding an NCAA team, now adding a women’s ACHA program for the 2016-17 program – should only serve to expedite that.
To Whyte, that makes it hard to predict exactly how programs will grow in the next 10 years. He made sure to reiterate that; it’s hard to tell exactly where programs like his Jr. Sun Devils will be when his tenure in Arizona has gone on for another handful of seasons.
What is easy to tell, though, is the kind of impact that his development programs have on the youth hockey community in the Valley – and while AA hockey’s growth may not seem as important as AAA, Whyte and his organization are the perfect example of why that perception just isn’t true.