It is the dream and ultimate goal of many youth hockey players – playing professionally. Kyle Warneke, a North Carolina native, is the first player who was locally trained until the age of 18 to achieve that dream.
|Michael Smith |
Warneke is currently playing for Fayetteville FireAntz of the Southern Professional Hockey League (SPHL). But no one said it would be easy to get to where he is today, and hard work remains ahead as he tries to establish himself as a viable professional hockey player. So far this season, Warneke is without a point, playing in three of the FireAntz’s six games.
A challenge is nothing new to Warneke, who had a difficult road to Fayetteville, considering he played his youth hockey here in the late 90s when the Hurricanes were just arriving and hockey wasn’t yet a popular sport in the area.
“I think that is a huge accomplishment,” said Paul Strand, youth and amateur hockey coordinator for the Carolina Hurricanes. “It shows a lot of perseverance.”
Strand coached Warneke when he was 18 and continues to help him in his career.
|J. Shank / Fayetteville FireAntz |
“He’s always had good skills,” Stand said. “He’s always been able to put the puck in the net when he’s got the confidence.”
Combined with perseverance, Warneke has used these talents to land a roster spot in Fayetteville, an ideal spot close to home. Most of his family has never seen him play hockey at a high level.
“I’ve never won anything in hockey as far as championships,” Warneke said. “That’s my goal right now – to contribute to the team and win.”
Youth Hockey in NC
Warneke began his hockey career playing for the Raleigh Junior Ice Caps until the late 90s when a coach named Charles Stevens put together the East Coast Eagles, which would become the premiere youth hockey team in the area. Warneke credits Stevens with paving the way for him and others to become elite players.
“We went from being on the ice two to three times a week to having an hour-and-a-half of practice time each day,” Warneke said. “That was all due to Charles.”
In 2005, when the Eagles didn’t have enough players to ice a team in his age group, Warneke, 18 at the time, went to play hockey for Strand in Greensboro. Warneke said Strand has been the most influential person in his hockey career, and it was in Greensboro that Strand recognized Warneke’s talents.
“He’s got NHL speed. He’s got the skating ability to stick with anybody,” Stand said. “That’s always been his number one asset.
“He’s got that inner-competitiveness in him. He’s always been real competitive and scrappy,” Strand added. “He’s only 5-foot-9, and he’s never had any problem dropping the gloves and fighting for what he needs, which is a testament to what you can do if you keep going and keep improving and keep playing.”
The Next Level
After playing in Greensboro for a year, Warneke went to Massachusetts to play for the Northern Cyclones, a Tier 3 Junior A team. Following a productive season with the Cyclones, Warneke decided to challenge himself at the next level in the Alberta Junior Hockey League (AJHL) with the Spruce Grove Saints.
In a tough season with the Saints, Warneke finished with just 8 points, 3 of which came in the third game of the season with a hat trick.
“He wasn’t getting the points he was used to because it was a step up,” Strand said.
“With the way hockey works up there, it’s almost like professional,” Warneke said. “If you don’t play well, you’re out the door. I had to battle to stay there.”
In the off-season, he was traded within the league to the Canmore Eagles. He totaled 24 points (11g, 13a) in 59 games with the Eagles, which led to a few offers from Division I schools around the country, including Air Force Academy. Instead of pursuing that route, however, Warneke decided to take a year off from hockey and go to school locally in North Carolina.
“I got home that summer, and I didn’t have that desire to play hockey anymore. I don’t know why,” Warneke said. “I can’t really put a finger on why I stopped. I might have felt burnt out or something.”
The time off turned out to be a good thing for Warneke, who, after a year of school, knew that he wanted to play hockey.
“It reignited a strong desire to play and once you start playing at a high level, you really need that,” he said. “You can’t play if it’s not fun and you’re not enjoying it.”
After getting back into shape, Warneke contacted Plattsburgh State in New York, a Division III school. Without any assurances, he went to try out for the team and walked on to their roster. Coming into that season, Plattsburgh’s men’s hockey team was ranked pre-season No. 1.
But like in the AJHL, Warneke struggled to find his game, as he played in just three games during the season.
“It was really difficult. It was really hard to crack the lineup,” Warneke said. “It can get really frustrating, but I tried to get better every day in practice.”
Warneke left Plattsburgh earlier this year to come back to North Carolina.
“He decided he still didn’t want to give it up,” Strand said. “He spent the summer working out and took it pretty seriously.”
So serious, in fact, that Warneke saw ice time with players like Chad LaRose, Bates Battaglia and Aaron Ward at the RecZone during informal workouts this summer.
This led to Fayetteville, where Strand got Warneke to try out at the FireAntz free agent camp. Out of 35 players, Warneke was the only one invited to the team’s main training camp, and he made the team’s roster.
“I’m interested in the next phase of this. He’s playing pro at 22,” Strand said. “Give him a couple more years at this level and see if he makes that jump to the next level.”
Both Strand and Warneke said that his story is an important message to youth hockey players in North Carolina today.
“There are a lot of kids out there playing and they love to do it, they just have to be given the idea that there is that possibility to play professionally,” Strand said. “If you have that kind of ability, if you just keep going, sooner or later you’ll be able to knock those doors down.”
Though Warneke has succeeded in knocking down the doors to play professional hockey, he still has work to do in order to take another step up in the level of play.
“I go to the rink everyday, and I try to be the hardest working guy,” he said. “I’m not the most-skilled or the least-skilled guy – I’m somewhere in between. But I feel like working hard will always create opportunities.”