Building hockey in Texas requires a lot of work at a lot of levels, but the payoff can be huge.
That's the case for the Texas Amateur Hockey Association high school hockey program this week, with three teams going to Nationals in Cleveland, including the first girls team. Team Texas will represent TAHA and is just one of the squads that has benefitted from the Dallas Stars' commitment to youth hockey.
"We have seen so much growth since (Stars owner) Tom Gaglardi and the Gaglardi family has taken over, and I think this is a nice reflection of that," said Keith Andresen, Senior Director, Hockey Programs for the Stars and also High School Section President for TAHA.
"We feel really good about how we're progressing in so many areas, and the Nationals give us a chance to look at that."
Team Texas is a composite of girls from local high schools and selected travel players, and has come together quickly under the direction of Dallas Stars Elite Girls coach Mike Salekin. Also heading to Cleveland for the Nationals will be a boys team from Jesuit High School and a combined boys team from Frisco ISD.
All three reflect the progress of the high school program, which started in 1997, hit a high of 72 teams in 2007, and then saw a regression to 36 teams five years ago. The total participation is back up to 50 teams and headed in the right direction, Andresen said, and Team Texas is a great symbol of just how quickly growth can happen.
Salekin, 33, is an elite-level coach at several boys age groups and head coach of Plano West High School, which has won state championships in 2014 and 2018. The B.C. native played for the Allen Americans and has been coaching youth in the area since 2010, so he understands the challenges of hockey in Texas.
Salekin has coached girls teams in the past and saw the potential for a top level team, but he had to assemble it quickly. He had to get a coach (Shaun Falzone), get players, get uniforms, get a schedule together and get the group qualified for Nationals.
"I just thought we had the girls here, and if we could supplement them and develop them, it could work," said Salekin, who serves as director of the team and assistant coach. "Our focus has always been on growth of the player, developing them as best as we can, and helping them continue their careers in college, and it's working out so far."
Currently, sisters Audrey and Erika Shirer from Highland Park High School have commitments to play at Lindenwood University in St. Charles, Missouri, while Lily Martinson and Mika Jahnke of Allen High School have commitments to play at Providence and Yale, respectively.
In addition, several other Elite team players have earned scholarships, and Salekin will be holding an Elite Girls College Hockey Showcase at Dallas Stars Elite Training Center in Irving from April 12-14.
[BUILDING THE GAME: Stars working to grow sport of hockey beyond Texas, putting on a clinic for children in Mexico]
"We are seeing that opportunity for growth and scholarships in girls hockey is really advancing," said Andresen. "Mike has been a big part of creating these opportunities."
Of course, the opportunity the players are most interested in right now is chasing a national championship. Team Texas has played mostly against area boys in preparation, and they want to see how they measure up against the best girls in the country.
"It's so exciting, because it is a different game out there," said Naya Penn, a junior from Southlake Carroll. "We feel good about how we're playing, and we feel good about our chemistry."
Penn, who started skating at now defunct Polar Ice in Grapevine when she was young, is a good example of how the sport can grow in Texas. She has advanced throughout the Elite program and said Salekin has done a great job of teaching individuals and assembling a team.
"He knows each player so well, so he knows how to put us together as a team," Penn said. "It's nice, because you have so much trust in your teammate, and you can feel that on the ice."
The Shirer sisters also have found their home on the ice in Texas.
"It's been an adventure, and we're really looking forward to this tournament," said Audrey Shirer. "The team came together so fast and we're from a lot of different places, so this will be a great test."
Erika Shirer said she's nervous about testing their team against great girls teams, but added that she's impressed by the amount of good girls players coming out of Texas.
"You look at the younger girls and they're getting better and better," Erika Shirer said. "It's fun to watch hockey grow here."
Salekin said the girls team is expected to have a spot in a boys high school league and will play a full schedule next season. He said every opportunity for the girls helps build the sport in Texas.
"The Stars are doing so many good things, and this is just one of them," Salekin said. "We're making a lot of progress, and it's really encouraging to see that at every level."
Akari Kubo, Grapevine
Audrey Shirer, Highland Park
Carlie Foxhoven, Prosper
Charlee Frankenfeld, Ursuline
Liz Flores, Colleyville Heritage
Ellie Warhoftig, Frisco Reedy
Erika Shirer, Highland Park
Kaylee Lewis, McKinney
Kendall Parker, Prosper
Kristina Weese, R.L. Turner
Lily Martinson, Allen
Meg Hildner, Vandergrift
Mika Jahnke, Allen
Scarlett Ditoro, Prosper
Kimmy Hullum, Keller Central High
Makayla Young, Plano West
Sydney Rarick, Prosper
Victoria Petruska, Frisco
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club.
Mike Heika is a Senior Staff Writer for DallasStars.com and has covered the Stars since 1994. Follow him on Twitter @MikeHeika.