RoughRiders take pride in local development
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It only makes sense – and is quite ironic – that the Rocky Mountain RoughRiders AAA program plays a rough schedule year in and year out.
That’s just the way director of hockey operations Derek Robinson likes it.
“We can only improve and take giant strides if we continue to play the best teams in the country,” said Robinson. “When we joined the East Coast Elite League (ECEL) this season, we knew that would add to our already-tough schedule, but that’s what we want as a program.”
Three of the RoughRiders teams – 14U, 16U and 18U – hooked up with the ECEL this year with the idea that the various showcase events across the country would provide more exposure for the players and continue to lift the program to higher levels of success.
The RoughRiders hosted three showcase events this season at the Promenade in Westminster, along with another three in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. They also still maintain a showcase partnership with the High Performance Hockey League.
RoughRiders 18U head coach Doug Smail, who’s been with the program since its inception, said it’s been amazing to see how far the program has come in just six short years.
“It’s been a pleasure to serve the players and, although no one within this organization is going to get rich off of what we do and off the time committed here, it’s been a pleasure to watch the players grow up as they move through the organization,” said Smail.
“Being successful is accepting the fact that we haven’t arrived, and by that I mean our environment has to be one where it’ll always be a place where improvements and new ideas of training and development are welcome.
“To be successful, we have to maintain a constant sharpening at each level within the organization where the accountability is always deeply considered and accepted.”
Over the years, the RoughRiders have placed dozens of players in junior hockey and the NCAA ranks, including Evan Ritt (University of Denver), Brad Shumway (RIT), Rob Nichols (University of Connecticut) and Rudy Junda (Denver), among others.
RoughRiders president Tony Sdao also deserves a wealth of credit for supporting the organization and doing everything in his means to keep boosting the program towards national prominence.
“I believe in Tony and his vision for player development and advancement – to help keep the kids developing both as players and good people – and that they stay in the game for as long as their legs and heart allow them,” said Smail.
Matt Huckins, the club’s 16U National head coach, has also witnessed the program grow since Day 1 and is proud of the fact that the majority of players who wear the RoughRiders colors are in-state talents.
“Our first couple of years, we were developing players out of AA and A hockey,” explained Huckins. “We were forced to take many out-of-state players at all levels in order to form a AAA roster.
“Over the last two seasons, we’ve had our own players make the journey from 14U to 18U. I look at our rosters at 14U and 16U National this year, and 38 out of 40 are Colorado kids.
“Our focus is to give Colorado players a development plan over 4-5 seasons. There have been times in the past when we could’ve stacked a team of out-of-state players and maybe we win a couple more games, but at what cost?
“We want to be patient and give our players a chance to mature, physically and mentally. They say pros hit their peak between the ages of 25-30, so we aren’t giving up on guys at the age of 13 or 14. That’s why our program continues to grow from within the state.”
It’s also well known that the RoughRiders face competition each year from other AAA programs in the state, but Huckins added that if he does his job of developing the players while they’re a RoughRider, that’s what matters most.
“Our No. 1 selling point is that we want to develop Colorado players,” said Huckins. “If we lose a couple of games at 14 and 16 in order to allow some Colorado players to physically mature, we’re okay with that.
“Our players get tremendous exposure, in and out of the state. Although it’s great to win, no scout cares what the score says after a game.
“Have we taught you to compete at a AAA level? Can you do it consistently by the end of the season? I think families that watch our teams compete walk away amazed at how resilient and hard-working our club is. Those are two great life traits and two huge selling points to hockey families.”
And the value of being a RoughRider stretches far beyond the experienced, well-connected coaches behind the bench.
Goaltending instructor Timm Lorenz, of In The Crease Goaltending, has been on board since the start and likes the fact that the organization works together as a whole in order to get results.
“The people who are involved – from the board of directors to the coaches to the players to the families – we’ve created a culture of respect,” Lorenz said. “We all trust each other and are all on the same page.
“We, as a staff, are a close group. While we all have our own individual roles, we work well together towards the ultimate goal of development. That culture trickles down to the players and families, which allows the players to buy in.”
RoughRiders 14U coach Nils Satterstrom, another longtime coach in the organization, believes the future of the program is extremely bright.
“I don’t think we can take anything for granted,” said Satterstrom. “Every year, the challenge is to improve the development environment and culture for our players. As long as we learn from our success and mistakes, then the organization will continue to get better each year.
“When players from our organization move on and become successful at the next level, then coaches at the higher levels will trust players coming out of our organization. I don’t think we can sell players; we have to earn it through our reputation.”
Still, while player advancement and development is always at the forefront for the RoughRiders, the standings do have a bearing on the success the teams experience on a yearly basis.
“Let’s not kid ourselves about winning not being important; it is important to each and every top-level athlete,” said Smail. “But I want to develop the whole athlete and, for me, I believe I get that chance with the RoughRiders. I believe it’ll continue to develop within itself, hopefully continuing to evolve with constantly-improving development protocols for young athletes.”
“I think we have a chance to become one of the premier clubs in the United States,” added Huckins.
Robinson agrees the coaches, players, staff and volunteers have been critical in helping elevate the program to new heights year after year.
“Day in and day out, they put everything on the line and they’re passionate about what they do and it shows,” said Robinson. “I couldn’t be more proud of everyone involved.”
And Robinson’s commitment and passion aren’t lost on Sdao, either.
“Our organization is very fortunate to have the staff and volunteers that assist and support Derek,” he said. “He understands the process is continuous and ever-changing in trying to provide the most favorable opportunities for our players.
“His efforts within the entire RoughRiders Hockey Club are very much appreciated and instrumental in our future plans as we continue to grow.”
– Matt Mackinder