For 53 years, Littleton Hawks have developed players for junior, NCAA, pro hockey
When Grant Arnold was a young hockey player growing up in the Littleton Hockey Association (LHA), it’s unlikely anyone foresaw him helping the University of Denver to a Frozen Four.
Or developing into one of just three two-time captains in the program’s nearly 70-year history.
Arnold, who began his pro career this fall playing for the Quad City Mallards of the ECHL, learned first to skate through the Littleton program, then to play, over a decade.
“I had a hard time there because for four or five years I was the last one cut every year,” Arnold said. “But that helped me as a player. I have to credit a lot of their coaches who kept working with me and pushing me until I did make it.
“They have so much depth in their coaching, from AA down to A, B and C.”
“We knew we were there to work on the ice, but we also had a lot of fun,” Arnold added. “It speaks to the organization that we always had good chemistry on our teams. The coaches create the culture, especially at those age levels.”
If you play for LHA there is a good chance the person coaching you has been in your skates.
That is an important aspect of the Hawks.
“It’s cool growing up and playing there, and now I get to help out,” said Phil Patenaude, LHA’s director of player development. “We have a lot of Littleton guys who are coaches; they finish college and come back and want to help. We’ve built a strong culture, and we have a great tradition at Littleton.”
The tradition is evidenced in the team accomplishments – notice the banners that ring the two rinks at South Suburban Ice Arena in Centennial and the trophies filling the lobby – and the individual ones, which are honored in LHA’s Hall of Fame on the rink’s west wall.
In addition to a trio of USA Hockey Youth Nationals titles and countless Colorado state titles, the Hawks have sent more than 75 players and counting on to play in the NHL, minor pro, Major Junior, NCAA Division I and the U.S. National Team Development Program. Hundreds more played or are playing junior and other levels of college hockey.
Colorado College senior Christian Heil has his photo on the wall. He played two seasons for Littleton and then one of AAA for the Colorado Thunderbirds, who are affiliated with LHA, then returned to Littleton for his first year of Bantam AA before going back to the Thunderbirds for his second-year Bantam and Midget seasons.
“Littleton’s No. 1 strength is its coaching – it’s at a different level,” Heil said. “Coaches like Kent Murphy and Buddy Blom made it what it was.
“The coaching makes the transition from AA to AAA hockey so much smoother, and the clubs have a good relationship.”
The skill development is a hallmark of the program and the Hawks start it at Squirts. Every other Monday, the Squirts and Pee Weeks have skill practices with position-specific training.
“The stick skills and all the other things I learned at those levels felt like they were more advanced that what my friends on other teams were doing,” Heil said.
That aspect has only grown stronger, Patenaude said.
“The biggest change since I played (starting in 1999) to now is the attention to skill development,” Patenaude said. “(Goaltending development coach) Payam Sami and Travis Finlay do a great job working with our goalies. (8U skill development coach) Kyle Hull makes practice plans to make sure everything is consistent.”
Several parents who either played in the NHL or minors or in college hockey also volunteer their time, LHA hockey director Brian TenEyck said.
“There are a lot who give back, and we’re very lucky to have them,” he said.
The preparation isn’t only for the players, Patenaude said. The players have specialized skill development training, and the coaches – most of whom have been with the club many years – have theirs as well. The investment has likely helped the club’s high retention rate for coaches.
“Our top-level teams’ coaching staffs have been in the club a long time,” Patenaude said. “That consistency is really important and ids know year to year who is coaching what.
“We all work together. I coach Bantams and I know our Pee Wees are going to be working on the same things we do. The Midget coaches know what my players are getting taught. It’s more streamlined.
“We’re doing a lot with mentoring coaches. We have a coaching symposium at the beginning of every season that Brian and I run. We have an NHL referee in our club who talks to the coaches about how to interact with refs.
“We get on the ice with the coaches and show them the skills we want every team working on so everyone is on the same page.”
The Hawks have 21 travel teams and 10 rec teams this season. They also have 12 different 8U teams going. The girls hockey branch, the Lady Hawks, come from the rec teams. The affiliation with the Thunderbirds includes reserving ice slots for them as well for a handful of South Metro high schools.
A club as successful as the Hawks doesn’t stay vibrant for 53 years and counting without a lot of work. Arnold and Heil, rivals in college, both mentioned the competitive nature of the club over and over.
“It’s humbling to walk through the rink and see that wall,” Heil said. “Everyone there is so well coached, and a certain compete level is instilled. That’s what pushes you to the next level.”
Added Arnold: “Every coach knows what they’re doing and they kept things competitive.”
The club’s vision extends beyond hockey, Patenaude said.
“We’re very proud of our three Pee Wee national championships, proud that our Midget Major (18U AA) team has won six state championships in a row and nearly won nationals in 2015,” Patenaude said. “Yes, we pay attention to skill development and we’re here to make kids better, but we want to teach them to compete at the highest level. That benefits them in sports and in life. It’s very important to teach them those skills, too.”
— Chris Bayee