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Arizona starting to produce top-end hockey talent

by Jerry Brown

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- When Sean Burke was traded to the Phoenix Coyotes in 1999, the team had been there for four years and Arizona youth hockey was just learning to crawl.

"Back then there was the odd guy coming out of this area to play in college, but the level of play wasn't high," said Burke, now the assistant to the general manager and goalie coach with the renamed Arizona Coyotes. "The coaching just wasn't there, and that was a problem.

"It came down to who wanted to take the time to volunteer. If you had any kind of background in hockey you were considered an authority and a good coach. But over the last [15 years], the level of involvement has risen and the number and talent level of the kids has taken off."

Go no further than Coyotes development camp, which was stocked with the organization's top prospects, to show proof of the sport taking root here: Three players had ties to the area.

Others are rising in the junior and college hockey ranks and turning the heads of NHL teams, proving though the temperatures hit 115 degrees in the summer, this no longer is a hockey desert.

Brendan Burke, Sean's son and a 6-foot-3 goalie like his father at age 19, was turning away shots from future Coyotes at the same Scottsdale Ice Den where he learned to play the position. Center Henrik Samuelsson, the son of former Coyotes assistant coach Ulf Samuelsson, was Arizona's first-round selection in 2012 and coming off a junior season when he led the Edmonton Oil Kings to the Memorial Cup championship.

"You play here and you think about those games growing up. Now you see players you played with and against knocking on the door [to the NHL]," said Samuelsson, 20, who had 35 goals and 95 points for the Oil Kings last season. "There is certainly a comfort level to being back where you played as a kid."

Arizona's up-and-coming stars aren’t limited to those with NHL bloodlines. Scottsdale-born Zac Larraza spent two seasons with the United States National Team Development Program and was drafted by the Coyotes in the seventh round (No. 196) in 2011 before heading to the University of Denver. Austin Carroll, who played for the Junior Coyotes development team, was a 2014 seventh-round pick (No. 184) of the Calgary Flames.

On the horizon is elite prospect Auston Matthews, a 16-year-old scoring machine from Scottsdale who was the only 2016 NHL Draft prospect invited to attend a USA Hockey summer junior evaluation camp next month in Lake Placid, N.Y. Sean Burke said Matthews has a chance to be the first Arizona-born and -raised player picked in the top 50 pick at the NHL draft.

"Auston is very impressive," Burke said. "He's already a guy you can see going in the second or third round and he's got two years to go."

According to USA Hockey, Arizona has the third-highest growth in the country when it comes to expanding youth hockey and the highest among states with an NHL team. Though the number of NHL players who have retired in the area certainly helps the cache, the sport is learning to walk on its own.

"It's exciting to be part of that wave of Arizona players making that next step," Brendan Burke said. "I remember being on this same ice at 13 or 14 and dreaming one day you could play for the Coyotes. And now you're out there with the sweater on with guys like Henrik and Zac, and you know the dream is that much closer.

"You can see the level of hockey growing, even in the time I've been in junior [with the Portland Winterhawks of the Western Hockey League]. I skated with Auston Matthews for a few days and you can tell he's a true talent. Knowing he's a local guy lets you know how much better things continue to be."

A decade ago, local children who showed promise and had the opportunity would head to cooler climates for the chance to test their skill against more elite talent. But the rise of the talent level in Arizona has allowed players to pursue their dreams.

"Staying at home and with your family and still playing high-level hockey was the perfect thing," Brendan Burke said. "I had the opportunity to leave but it wasn't what I wanted. Maybe five or 10 years ago that choice wouldn't have been there."

Coyotes ownership, led by co-owners George Gosbee and Anthony LeBlanc, has made youth hockey a high priority. The IceArizona group is considering the purchase of public rinks in the Phoenix area and has opened Arena to more on-ice clinics and skating opportunities than before in their first season running the team.

Arizona might not have as many rinks as a northern city, but they are constantly in use, and more and more adults are forced to share space with the next generation of NHL dreamers.

Sean Burke said Arizona remains a few years away from matching the junior programs in California and Texas, where the NHL landed first during the Sun Belt expansion. If a Brendan Burke or a Henrik Samuelsson or a Larraza or a Carroll break through and reach the Coyotes or any other team, it will provide an even bigger boost.

"If kids growing up now see Arizona guys in the NHL, they can say, 'He made it and I can too,'" Sean Burke said. "They become that poster on the wall that you stare at every night. We need to continue to improve the level of coaching, and those NHL guys, when their kids move on, we need them to stay involved and committed.

"Guys like Shane Doan and Derek Morris and Steve Sullivan, their kids are playing now and they are out on the ice practicing with those teams. If they stay involved and help that next group along, the improvement will just keep going."

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