GREAT YEAR FOR SOUTH DIVISION IN NAHL
By Denis J. Puska
It certainly was an exciting 2011-2012 season for the North American Hockey League’s South Division.
Each of the division’s teams had a major accomplishment – from winning the overall regular season title, to players being selected in the NHL Entry Draft, to having 43 combined NCAA College Commitments, to the ultimate prize of winning the Robertson Cup National Championship.
This year, the South Division had an average attendance of nearly 2,500 fans per game with Corpus Christi leading the way at over 3,000 followed by Odessa, Amarillo, Topeka, Texas and Wichita Falls.
The Amarillo Bulls notched 46 wins this year and a NAHL leading 13 NCAA College Commitments. The Bulls won the 2011-2012 NAHL Overall regular season title, the South Division regular season and post season championships and a trip to the Robertson Cup National Championship Semi-final.
The Bulls set a new record for most points in a season with 99 breaking the old mark set by the Texas Tornado, and averaged nearly 2,300 fans per game at the Budweiser Bull Pen in the Amarillo Civic Center.
Amarillo Bulls Head Coach Dennis Williams says coming into the league two years ago was an eye opener for him even though he knew how good the South Division was prior to his arrival in the Texas Panhandle.
“For two years and especially this past season, it is an absolute grind down here,” said Williams, who recruited players from the South Division when he was involved at the collegiate level in both NCAA Division I and III. “I think what makes it so fun is that each team runs a top notch program, and with that all of the rinks have over 2,000 fans a game. It’s an atmosphere like no other in junior hockey.”
The Topeka RoadRunners advanced to the South Division final, had seven NCAA College Commitments, and an average attendance of nearly 2,200 fans per game at the Kansas Expo Center Landon Arena.
"It's no question, there is a lot of hard work with the success that we are having, dating back five years minimum that I have been here,” said Topeka RoadRunners Head Coach Scott Langer. “It starts at the top; the ownership groups are giving the personnel the ability to be successful. They have put enough scouts on the road and have raised the bar.”
The South Division also boasts a roster of talented coaches with Tony Curtale, Texas Tornado; Scott Langer, Topeka RoadRunners; Dennis Williams, Amarillo Bulls; Paul Baxter, Wichita Falls Wildcats; Justin Quenneville, Corpus Christi IceRays; and Paul Gillis, Odessa Jackalopes.
“There are premier coaches right here in the South and I think that’s why the rivalries between everyone are so intense,” Williams added. “All of the coaches have done a great job moving players on. It’s been a terrific year for the South.”
The Texas Tornado has long been a power in the South Division, capturing several Robertson Cup National Championships, including their most recent this past season. This year’s Robertson Cup National Semi-Final featured two South Division final teams and a former one in the St. Louis Bandits. Head Coach and General Manager Tony Curtale, who recently completed a contract extension, said that the NAHL is under-rated on a nation-wide scope and has long been a tough division to play in.
"It is a tough division to play in, but in a good way, because it brings out the best in players and in coaches,” Curtale said. “The results have been seen with the National Championship, the Overall Regular Season titles and the players being drafted in the National Hockey League all coming from the South Division."
The Tornado also had seven NCAA Commitments and nearly 1,900 fans through the turnstiles.
He added that the South Division was excellent prior to the arrival of Amarillo, Corpus Christi and Odessa.
“We had St. Louis in the South Division for several years. Between us and them, we won five or six National Championships in a row,” he noted. “It's always been very tough, but when you add Amarillo, Odessa and Corpus Christi that run first rate organizations, it just enhances it all that much more. It's not just on the hockey side, as we have brought more fans in our division and full organizations. I don't mean to slight anyone in the other division but facts are facts.”
Odessa Jackalopes President and General Manager Joe Clark said playing the likes of Amarillo, Texas, Topeka, Wichita Falls and Corpus Christi every night makes your team better.
“It’s a physically tough division,” Clark said. “One of our Owatonna players who came to Odessa described it halfway through the season as ‘playing in the South is a whole different world.’ But, the players are put in competitive situations every single night. I can’t think of a better way to prepare and mold your players than that.”
Corpus Christi, Odessa and Amarillo had similar stories as they went from professional markets and organizations to the junior model. All three cities have made the transition a smooth one as fans have been coming out to games in their respective arenas in large numbers.
The IceRays and the Jackalopes battled for the fourth and final playoff spot until the final weekend of the regular season. The IceRays were second in average attendance in the league at over 3,000 fans, while the Jackalopes had over 2,800. The two teams combined for 13 NCAA Commitments with Corpus Christi having eight.
Joe Clark said they had their work cut out from them when they joined the NAHL.
“We had to keep our season ticket and corporate numbers up to be able to function,” Clark explained. “Some fans didn’t care either way, but others were skeptical. Even though we purchased an existing franchise (Owatonna), we only got a small handful of players from that franchise. Basically, we were an expansion franchise. But we knew we had an exceptional coaching staff, and we had to lean on that.”
Corpus Christi IceRays Head Coach Justin Quenneville, who played in the city where he is now coaching, says their transition has been a smooth one from pro to junior.
“That was our biggest concern at first,” he said. “It wasn't the work ethic that we were going to put on the ice developing players and moving them on. The biggest thing was going to be the transition the fans were going to make. At first they were very receptive and now it is just growing and growing. There is a buzz in town not only in the direction that we are headed, but also to see somebody like Anthony Stolarz doing well and getting drafted. We had a former Ice Rays’ Ryan Garbut play his first game in the National Hockey League."
Clark said that the team’s accomplishments will help them in the community and in recruiting.
Goaltenders Anthony Stolarz of the IceRays and Connor Hellebuyck of the Jackalopes gave the NAHL and the South Division plenty to cheer about at the recent NHL Entry Draft in Pittsburgh, PA. Stolarz was chosen in the 2nd round by the Philadelphia Flyers, while Hellebuyck was selected in the 5th round by the Winnipeg Jets.
“Connor got things going with his commitment to UMass-Lowell, then our captain committed to West Point, and we were off and running,” Clark reported. “Hellebuyck’s selection in the recent NHL draft gives us even more credibility. As a staff, we have ammunition now to take it to our community and sell it even harder – build the crowds, the sponsorships and overall enthusiasm for the Jackalopes in the Permian Basin.”
The Wichita Falls Wildcats underwent a coaching change prior to the start of the 2011-2012 season. The change brought in long time Wenatchee Wild Head Coach and former National Hockey League defenseman Paul Baxter to the South Division. The Wildcats had more than 1,800 fans per game and four NCAA College Commitments.
“Presently we have a chance to build our own team as opposed to inherit one,” Baxter said. “We got in a little late last year and I didn't think we were working on the same platform maybe as the rest because we had that late start. By the same token we have some terrific players that are moving on.”
Baxter said it’s important that the players understand the importance of community service and how to be good teammates.
“It’s a mix I don't think one is more important than the other,” he said. “Our biggest challenge is to help the players become men. There is a small percentage that becomes NHL players, but there is an excellent chance that a large percentage will become great men."