RMJHL gaining confidence, notice on a national level
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With a handful of players moving up to Tier I and Tier II levels of junior hockey, as well as several teams and players ranked among the best in all of USA Hockey Tier III juniors, it’s difficult to realize that the Rocky Mountain Junior Hockey League (RMJHL) is still on its maiden voyage.
Then again, ask league president Shaun Hathaway if he’s blown away by what the league brought to junior hockey over the first half of the season and he said it was all part of a vision he and fellow league partners had from the start.
“It’s definitely been a great start,” said Hathaway. “I think a lot of people weren’t sure that this would work, but from August until now, they all see that this is real and we are developing players and providing opportunities for these kids. There was a lot of skepticism, but now we have proven to those people that we’ll be around for the long haul.
“We have stable ownership groups and everyone is happy to be here, including our league staff. Everything to this point has been phenomenal, just simply phenomenal.”
Over the first part of the 2015-16 season, the Pikes Peak Miners fashioned a staggering 21-3-0 record, while the second-place Aspen Leafs went 21-5-0. The Breckenridge Bucks had a 17-8-0 mark, while the bottom three teams (Colorado Rampage, Colorado Thunderbirds and Glacier Yetis) were below the .500 mark.
While the nature of the game at any level will see strong and weak teams in the same league, it’s not something Hathaway wants to continue moving forward into the 2016-17 season.
“We have a solid base this year and next year, we want to see more parity,” Hathaway said. “Some of these teams, they started slow, but you know what? They’re all crawling back into it. As this league continues to grow, all the teams will strengthen across the board. Our gauge of success is measured by the development of players and so far, we’ve done that and sent players to the United States Hockey League and North American Hockey League.”
Hathaway added that seeing the growth firsthand from Day 1 has been nothing short of incredible.
“We’re getting noticed by other junior leagues and by some great college programs,” said Hathaway. “A function of a team’s success and a league’s success is seeing how quickly some of this is happening. It’s certainly exciting and this is just the beginning. Our objective is to not go away, to be around for the next 40-50 years or more. There’s no reason to think that can’t happen.”
According to Hathaway, there is already talks initiated to add two teams in 2016-17 in Vail and Pueblo. Hathaway will present the proposal to the USA Hockey Junior Council at an upcoming meeting.
“With eight teams, you then create two divisions and it will make for more efficient travel, even more efficient than what we have now,” explained Hathaway. “Expansion will increase the affordability of the league while also keeping the league as competitive as it can be. There is more stability with eight teams, too.”
Travel from two furthest RMJHL cities (Grand Junction and Colorado Springs) is less than five hours. All teams utilize Interstate 70 (east/west) and Interstate 25 (north/south) and travel in coach busses. The RMJHL is divided by the Great Continental Divide of the Americas – three on the west side (Yetis, Leafs, Bucks), three on the east (Thunderbirds, Rampage, Miners).
As the league treks forward, another goal of Hathaway’s is to get the Front Range towns more excited about the league. He said the mountain town teams already have a hot following.
“The fact we even started is huge for us,” said Hathaway. “The key now is to keep growing. We have players leaving other leagues to play here and more and more people want to get involved. Our vision is to continue to strengthen on all levels. It’s a very exciting time.”
— Matt Mackinder