Dallas Ice Jets coach Karson Kaebel instilled one thought in his young players over the years:
"You reap what you sow, that was our big rallying cry," Kaebel told NHL.com. "Every time we were working out, we would talk about sowing seeds and working hard, and one day these guys are going to get that harvest."
With the 2011 Entry Draft just days away, it appears the harvest might be ready, both for the Dallas Ice Jets and for hockey in the southwest region. In fact, more than 10 prospects in this year's draft hail from the southwest, making it the largest-ever draft class from that region -- including three alums of the Dallas Ice Jets program. The talented group of prospects is a testament to the growth and development of ice hockey in Arizona and Texas over the last decade.
NHL Central Scouting’s final ranking of North American skaters for the 2011 Entry Draft includes two prospects from Colorado, four from Texas and four from Arizona.
Dallas Ice Jets (Courtesy: Dallas Ice Jets)
"There are a lot of (former professional) players that played in the towns down south that have been involved in the youth development, and the youth programs have grown so much," NHL Central Scouting's Jack Barzee told NHL.com.
The southwest region includes Texas, New Mexico, Colorado and Arizona, which are grouped together in USA Hockey's Rocky Mountain Region.
The fact that three of those prospects played minor hockey on the same team -- and on the same line at times -- shows how effective Kaebel and the Ice Jets program has been in the development of elite hockey in that region.
Those prospects include two ranked in Central Scouting's top 100 -- Plymouth Whalers forward Stefan Noesen (No. 35), and Seattle Thunderbirds forward Colin Jacobs (No. 61), as well as Cedar Rapids Roughriders forward Cason Hohmann, who slipped from Central Scouting's final ranking but is committed to play for Boston University in the fall. They were some of the first to join the Ice Jets program when it started in 2002, and coached by Kaebel in 2006, they were the first team from Texas to win a USA Hockey Tier I national championship.
"When Karson Kaebel first got here he brought an intensity to hockey that, quite frankly, the other programs thought was too intense," said Ron Jacobs, Colin's father. "They thought he emphasized the skating and off-ice stuff more than the X's and O's. It was a whole different program, and you had to buy into it."
Nearly 10 years after the program started, it's apparent Kaebel's unique coaching philosophy contributed to the development of competitive hockey in Dallas in a big way. For one thing, Kaebel emphasized a holistic approach to the game, from eating right to exercising and training off the ice to mastering the fundamentals of skating.
"When we first came here in 2002, no one did dry-land training or a spring camp in this city," Kaebel said. "Now, 10 years later, everyone does dry-land. The Ice Jets were probably ahead of the game when it came to training and individual skill development, not being so concerned with winning. The winning was just a byproduct of what we did every day in practice."
Kaebel developed his coaching method after playing eight years in minor leagues across North America, finishing with the Tulsa Oilers of the Central Hockey League following the 2001-02 season.
Also in the mix was five summers of training with Jack Blatherwick, who worked with Herb Brooks at the 1980 Olympics and currently serves as the Washington Capitals' physiologist. Kaebel picked up Blatherwick's style as being a tough coach to play for because of his emphasis on discipline in every facet of life, not just in hockey.
"He kept pushing us to do more things no matter if we liked it or not," Noesen told NHL.com. "I'm pretty sure that's a big part of where we are today."
For Kaebel, wining was important, but preparing his players for life off the ice was the most important facet of the Ice Jets' program.
"The cool story is impacting these kids' lives," Kaebel said. "Not just developing a good hockey player, but good people as well -- people of character. If you want to play high-level hockey, you have to have the character to sustain yourself."
According to Colin Jacobs, it was that aspect of Kaebel's training that best prepared him to play for Seattle and in the Western Hockey League. On top of being prepared mentally and physically, Jacobs was already prepared to avoid any sort of mischief off the ice.
Hohmann had a similar experience when he first arrived in Cedar Rapids.
"(Karson) taught us to be professional players and not do all the stupid stuff that other kids were doing," Hohmann said. "And it was also the nutritional stuff. Like he always said, 'It's the road to the show,' you need to watch what you are eating and watch what you are putting into your body.
"Everything he did was basically preparing you for the future. I think he really implemented that in us and made us better people as well as better players."
The Ice Jets program originally started as the brainchild of brothers Ralph and John Searphoss. They recruited Kaebel, along with Paul Taylor, who played NCAA hockey with Kaebel at Northern Michigan and then had his own six-season professional career in various leagues in North America and Europe.
"Our focus was to develop (NCAA) Division I, Division III college hockey players, and eventually, if the kids were good enough, we would hopefully give them the ability to go professionally," Kaebel said.
At the foundation of the program is the idea that hard work is the key to success. Kaebel once created a chart called "The Road to the Show," which explained all the different routes to the NHL. It helped his young players buy into the Ice Jets philosophy of hard work coupled with a healthy diet and excellence in the little things. On team trips to tournaments across North America, Kaebel never stopped at fast-food restaurants with his players, instead opting for healthier options such as Jamba Juice.
"I was very passionate with these guys and I think sometimes these guys probably hated me," Kaebel said. "I was never easy on these kids and my whole premise was to develop them so they were prepared."
Maybe his players did hate his methods at times, but they bought into it.
"He pushed me more than my coach pushes me right now," Hohmann said. "I mean, he used to get into your face and tell you to compete."
"Few players have made the NHL from this area, and I think what you're going to see happen is that other younger players will look up to these guys and they are going to believe that they can actually make it to the NHL. So I think you'll see another push of player involvement. Hopefully, these guys can do it. I believe in them." -- Dallas Ice Jets coach Karson Kaebel
"Karson still to this day is just as intense as he was when we were 10 years old, and I'm glad it's still the same way because, in reality, he's gotten us to where we are today," Jacobs said.
But Kaebel tapped into something that stuck with each of his players as they have moved on to junior leagues outside of Texas.
"A lot of the (Ice Jets) players' success was really a tribute to their talent and progression, through work and commitment … I think it bodes well for other players in Texas that have that same passion and commitment," said Ted Skinner, president of the Texas Amateur Hockey Association.
As formative as the Ice Jets program was to competitive hockey in Texas, it's not the only program to produce elite players in the last few years. Recent Texas success stories include Buffalo Sabres defenseman Tyler Myers, a Houston native who won the 2010 Calder Trophy, as well as Plano native Blake Coleman, who was named the 2011 Player of the Year in the USHL.
Arizona also boasts a number of top prospects, including Drummondville Voltigeurs center Sean Couturier, No. 6 on Central Scouting's final ranking, who was born in Phoenix.
While Kaebel was helping to build the Ice Jets' program in Dallas, former NHL defenseman Jim Johnson started coaching his son Derek's team, the P.F. Chang's AAA team, in Phoenix. It was one of the earliest Tier I hockey programs in Phoenix to find success.
In fact, 13 of the 20 players that joined Johnson's team that season went on to earn NCAA Division I college scholarships and several are eligible for this year's draft or already have been drafted. His former players include Pittsburgh Penguin prospect Philip Samuelsson, No. 77-ranked Colten St. Clair of the USHL's Fargo Force and No. 176 Trevor Cheek of the Calgary Hitmen, a Washington native who moved to Phoenix just to play on Johnson's team.
"It’s been a lot of fun watching these kids grow and develop and continue their career paths out of a non-traditional hockey market," Johnson told NHL.com.
Johnson used his veteran knowledge to develop a unique hockey program for the P.F. Chang's team, which saw proper skating form developed and emphasized off-ice workouts.
In Johnson's opinion, the success and development of hockey in the southwest owes a lot to NHL players who retire in non-traditional hockey markets, such as Phoenix, Dallas and San Jose, and then get involved in local youth programs.
"You start to get NHL players retiring that have a good understanding and knowledge of the game and they can teach it and understand the finer details," Johnson said. "There have been a number of guys that have played and have great experience in the game that have gotten involved in coaching here in the southwest. … That rubs off."
The greatest barrier for Johnson's team -- and any competitive team from the southwest -- is the cost involved. For one thing, the limited number of ice rinks makes ice time more difficult to find and therefore more expensive. The state of Texas has 50 sheets of ice in 40 rinks, while there are just 10 sheets of ice in the Phoenix metropolitan area and a total of 12 facilities state-wide.
"When you look at our state, I think we are making the most of our facilities we can," said Jon Brooks, president of the Arizona Amateur Hockey Association.
While the state of Arizona has implemented initiatives in recent years that provide free gear and ice-time for new players, the cost of traveling out of state for games and tournaments is still a factor for the competitive programs in the state, and these teams rely heavily on the generosity of sponsors. The key to continuing the development of hockey in the southwest lies in making it more affordable.
"We need to cut costs so we can get more kids playing, and that's the biggest barrier that I see out here in the southwest -- the actual cost of playing," Johnson said. "Sponsors like P.F. Chang's gave me a chance to build a really good development model and bring in strength and conditioning guys and get these kids training properly in the gym, because that's what it takes to play in the NHL.
"We were fortunate enough to have resources to help these kids."
This is an exciting draft year for Arizona and Texas hockey, but both states have a long way to go to reach the competition levels of the northeast. For now, players still will have to travel great distances to compete with other elite teams and the cost of hockey will continue to be a stretch for many players and their families in the current economy. Yet, it's exciting to see the development of elite programs in the southwest thanks to the investment and innovation of former professional players.
"Few players have made the NHL from this area, and I think what you're going to see happen is that other younger players will look up to these guys and they are going to believe that they can actually make it to the NHL," Kaebel said. "So I think you'll see another push of player involvement. Hopefully, these guys can do it. I believe in them."