The words "nontraditional hockey market" are becoming more and more foreign to the city of Nashville. From the record attendance numbers for the Nashville Predators at Bridgestone Arena to the club’s grassroots hockey efforts to grow the game throughout the region, pucks and sticks are becoming commonplace in Middle Tennessee.
For the locals who are now beginning to grow up playing the game, their chances of getting noticed are improving, too. In an ice rink south of Nashville, there’s an annual showcase for young players from all across Tennessee, the southeast, the continent and the world, affording them an opportunity to play and perform in front of coaches and scouts from junior and college programs from all over the country.
The Elite Edge Hockey Showcase, recently held in Franklin, Tenn., hosted more than 250 participants, over 70 of them from the Volunteer State, for four days of games, fitness testing, video sessions and team-building exercises, all with the goal of providing exposure to players who might not otherwise get a chance to advance.
And while a camp of this stature may be "nontraditional" in the south, hockey in Tennessee is anything but.
Here now, a collection of stories from the 2015 edition of Elite Edge.
Ten years ago, the Elite Edge Hockey Showcase began with 63 kids, four teams and a mission to give young players from the southeastern United States a chance to get noticed by coaches of junior and collegiate programs that they may not have otherwise received in a non-traditional hockey market.
Ten years later, the market is anything but, and the young athletes, now from across the country, and around the world for that matter, look to Elite Edge for guidance along the path toward playing a higher level of hockey. And it’s working.
“We don’t just throw a puck out there and tell [the attendees] to play hockey,” Elite Edge Showcase Director Brandon Walker said. “We teach them along the way the right things to do so they become better players.”
That includes sessions on fitness and nutrition, team-building exercises and self-evaluation lessons to identify NHL players who the participants may be able to emulate their game after moving forward. It also means tailoring the curriculum for each age group, whether that’s an introduction to potential options down the road for a younger player, or guidance on which junior league may be right for a 17-year-old.
The opportunities afforded at Elite Edge are beneficial not only for the participants, but the instructors as well. Josh Petrich, Assistant General Manager of the Minnesota Wilderness of the North American Hockey League, has attended and instructed with Elite Edge for five years. For him, the positives are plentiful.
“[Elite Edge] gives the local kids that don’t have the opportunity, without moving away from home, an opportunity to be seen by high level coaches,” Petrich said. “Not many people know there’s high school hockey in Tennessee, and those kids are getting an opportunity to be seen by Division-I schools and get feedback and it just makes them better.
“It’s becoming a place that players feel like they’re going to get advancement out of, so higher-end kids want to come now because they know the opportunities they get [from Elite Edge].”
Gavin Morgan, an assistant coach at the University of Alabama-Huntsville, has also attended Elite Edge for five years. He first spotted one of his current players at UAH, Josh Kestner, at Elite Edge years ago. Kestner, a native of Huntsville, is just one example of an Elite Edge graduate that Morgan believes is better off for their time spent at the showcase.
“The one thing that I’ve always said about Elite Edge, it’s one of the most professionally run showcases in the nation,” Morgan said. “I’ve been to quite a few and there are others that rival it, but the way [Walker] and the guys handle not just making the kids accessible to coaches or visible in a nonspecific hockey region, but the way that the kids are treated in respect to what it takes to be a player at a level beyond where they are, showing them the commitment off the ice and the way they need to carry themselves, it really is second to none.”
And for Walker, it’s coaches like Morgan and Petrich who help to make Elite Edge what it’s become and what it will continue to evolve into in the future.
“It’s the work of the coaches and the work of the kids that’s made it so good here,” Walker said. “I think that everybody wants to see it get better. The kids push themselves on the ice, the coaches push themselves to become better coaches, and as a result, you have better hockey players.”
For 10 years now, Elite Edge has provided opportunities for hockey players in the southeast that are unprecedented in the region. And if the progression of the program over the last decade is any indication, it wouldn’t be farfetched to surmise that an Elite Edge graduate could become a household name in the hockey world someday soon.
“When you get good hockey people wanting to sign on year after year after year,” Walker says, “it means the kids are doing something right, I’m doing something right, the southeast is doing something right and that’s really all we can ask for.”
Austin O’Rourke skated for the Valley Jr. Warriors of the Eastern Hockey League last season, an opportunity that was afforded thanks to his participation in the Elite Edge Hockey Showcase. The campaign before that, he was a member of the Hudson Crusaders of the Minnesota Junior Hockey League. Elite Edge helped with that chance, too.
For every destination O’Rourke has called home in the last few seasons, getting noticed at Elite Edge has helped. Born in 1997, the 6-foot-4-inch forward is in the showcase for the fourth year, and quite frankly, he can’t get enough.
“It’s just a lot of fun,” O’Rourke said of the experience. “You become friends with 15 other guys that play on your team that weekend and it’s crazy how fast everyone gets to know each other. You show up and you don’t know anybody, but you become friends with those guys. You know their names, you know who they are, how they play and you get to know people that you never got to know before.”
That comradery has been built for a decade now at Elite Edge, run out of Franklin, Tenn., at A-Game Sports Complex, in the heart of the southeastern United States. It’s not the typical hockey hotbed, but a region of the country that is seeing a spike in the number of kids picking up a hockey stick, and doing quite well with it.
Born in Louisiana and now a native of Atlanta, O’Rourke is one of hundreds of kids from the region who are skating with regularity, and Elite Edge has a lot to do with that.
“There aren’t a lot of hockey players around [the southeast], but the ones that we do have are pretty decent,” O’Rourke said. “We’ve got guys that are playing in top leagues all around, and I think this camp brings all the top guys in, and if you’re not one of the top guys, you see what it’s like; you see where you need to go and you play alongside of those guys. Last year, we had three Division-I commits playing [from Elite Edge], and that doesn’t happen at other camps. Especially in the south, you’ll never see that anywhere, so it allows you to match up against the best all the time.”
In O’Rourke’s case, he’s also got one of the best at home to talk to. His father, Dan, just so happens to be an NHL referee. In the elder O’Rourke’s case, Elite Edge more than does the job for his son year after year.
“This is probably one of the best run showcases that I’ve seen,” Dan said. “The kids are always moving from one thing to another, and the amount of coaches and people that are here with hockey backgrounds and knowledge, and connections, it’s just a really good setup, especially for the south and the Nashville area. It’s pretty great.”
Like his son, Dan also sees the strides taken in this area of the country, and compares it to the way things were out west years ago. Californians like Emerson Etem and Beau Bennett, natives of a state better known for producing movies rather than hockey players, is now on the map as a legitimate area to scout high-end talent. It likely won’t be long before the Nashville area belongs in that conversation. Or perhaps it already does.
“This area of the world is getting close to having that first couple NHL draft picks,” Dan said. “You’ll have your couple sacrificial lambs that might not play, but they get it started for the guys coming behind them. Once we get that one kid that makes it all the way, it gives all these kids that are here a realistic idea of what it takes… A lot of times, you’re told you can’t be successful from down here to play hockey, but [that’s not the case anymore].”
Perhaps Austin will be one of those kids who finds a way to make it to that level, but if not, the time spent at the showcase won’t be all for naught. The connections made and lessons learned are ones that’ll continue on or off the ice in due time.
“The guys that work here and the counselors, they know everybody,” Austin said. “Once you come once, you see familiar faces and everyone starts to know you. I just talked to a coach outside, and this guy coached me the first year here and he still recognizes me and talks to me now. He’s a Division-III coach and he may help me down the road.”
Perhaps it’ll be officiating or even coaching in the end for Austin. But for now, the dream continues. And for four days in mid-June, a town south of Nashville is a pretty good place to be.
“It’s not a showcase where you show up, you play games and you leave,” Austin said. “You’re with the guys for three or four days and it’s a different experience, it’s not your normal showcase.”
Dan agrees with that sentiment from all sides. And the development of his son, no matter the avenue, has undoubtedly been improved from the participation in Elite Edge.
“[Playing hockey has] made him who he is, and so far, he’s been a pretty good kid that we’ve been fortunate enough to have,” Dan said. “This camp, and hockey in general are, to me, a lot of the reasons why it is that way.”
Ben Schultheis has always had the drive. His mother Kim saw it from an early age. A stick and a puck were necessities. Even in the kitchen.
“I can’t tell you how many of those ‘magic erasers’ I’ve gone through cleaning the black marks off of the oven,” Kim laughed.
Now 15, Ben is just one of over 70 Tennessee residents trying to make a name for themselves at the Elite Edge Hockey Showcase held outside of Nashville.
Two letters, TN, the state’s abbreviation, may have been a shock to see following a young player’s name years ago. But that’s no longer the case. A 6-foot-2-inch defenseman, Ben is hoping to help put the southeast on the map for more than just football and baseball.
“Kids from the south are hungrier for opportunities [to play hockey],” Ben said. “I think we’re more fortunate down here honestly because we have more of a drive to get there than kids from other places.”
Ben grew up playing soccer, but ended up choosing hockey. He gave football a try too, but when the time came to choose once more, hockey won out. Those decisions are becoming more commonplace in the south.
There’s an NHL team that has called Nashville home since 1998, and there’s a pretty good chance that club has something to do with the changes as well.
|Ben with Shea Weber. Photo courtesy Kim Schultheis |
Ben is a fan of Predators Captain Shea Weber, mostly because they play the same position, plus the younger D-man admires Weber’s physical brand of hockey. Ben has undoubtedly been influenced by the Preds over the years, and he believes he’s not the only one.
“The Predators have a lot [of influence] because they’re out in the community making appearances, showing off the game of hockey and really spreading it so other kids can enjoy it, get involved and have fun with it,” Ben said. “They have a major influence in the community on how kids are developing.”
His mom Kim also says that Elite Edge has played a large role in her son’s growth as a player and as a young man. The coaching staff has a lot to do with developing that sentiment.
“The commitment from the coaches, the willingness to take the time out and say, ‘This is important, I want to go over your results,’ I think that’s huge,” Kim said. “And they bring fresh eyes to your kid. Sometimes when you’re in the same program, you’ve had the same coaches and that’s different than giving a fresh set of eyes…but now, this other guy comes in and he says the same thing and maybe it hits home a little bit more for them, so I think that’s huge.”
“[The coaches are] all here to help,” Ben said. “They bring in new coaches and higher level coaches every year, so it really is progressing as it gets older and it’s been better each year.”
When the wisdom from the coaches is gained, it’s then time to implement it on the ice, something that can only help, no matter the setting.
“The coaches tell you what you’re good at, what your weaknesses are and you can really benefit from what they tell you,” Ben said. “They’re always helping you on the bench and on the ice, trying to make you get better as a player.”
Kim is hopeful that the time spent at Elite Edge will continue to help build connections over time that may one day lead to an opportunity for her son to play high-level hockey. And while she realizes the chances that the NHL will one day come calling are slim, it’s worth a shot. Plus, that ‘TN’ wouldn’t look half bad on a hockey card.
“As long as you have that commitment, it doesn’t really matter what anybody else says,” Kim said. “People can say what they want, but the southeast is rising.”
While Elite Edge is indeed helping him pursue his aspirations within the game, Ben is still just getting to play hockey, and that’s rather enjoyable. Perhaps all of those magic erasers will be worth it one day.
“We all love to play hockey,” Ben said. “To compete against each other, it’s truly fun when you have a group of guys that love to compete. It’s just fun to play with them.”