Seeds of Success
By Paul Willis
For a program that’s been around for more than four decades, it’d be easy enough for Aspen Junior Hockey (AJH) to rest on its laurels.
The Leafs reside in one of the country’s most notable winter havens, and enthusiasm for the sport will be eternal in this glitzy mountain town. But things have a way of getting stale if they merely remain status quo for too long, and the Leafs entirely get it.
That’s why they continue to add teams to the program, nab new, top-flight coaches and feature an enthusiastic hockey director in Shaun Hathaway.
“I took the job understanding there was a lot of room for growth,” Hathaway said. “There was a lot of room to improve the program, not only on the boys but on the girls side. I’ve been excited I’ve had the opportunity, the room to start growing. And we have.”
Hathaway took over prior to last season and, in the past year, the Leafs have added a 14U AA team, a junior varsity squad as part of the Midget level, a junior club and an 8U girls team.
Hathaway is a former 18U hockey director of the Colorado Springs Amateur Hockey Association, coach of the Pikes Peak Miners, an assistant with the United States Hockey League’s Sioux Falls Stampede and, prior to that, a graduate assistant for the Miami (Ohio) Redhawks hockey team.
Knowing the lay of the hockey landscape both locally and nationally, Aspen was an immediate draw when the job became available.
“It’s a hockey-rich culture up here,” Hathaway said. “I’m a native of Colorado, so I’ve known that Aspen Junior Hockey has always had a solid and structured program. But to come up here and be immersed in the scene, it’s been amazing.”
Hathaway didn’t come to Aspen to kick back. He wants to morph the Leafs into a USA Hockey Model Association – one that fully supports the American Development Model – and continue to ramp up their competitiveness on a year-to-year basis. This season, AJH features 10 boys teams and six girls squads, comprising age groups from 18U on down for the boys and 19U and down on the girls side.
In addition, Hathaway is helping Aspen to become a founding member of the Rocky Mountain Junior Hockey League, a six-team 20U circuit that will open play in 2015-16. It will also include the Colorado Rampage, Pikes Peak Miners, Grand Junction Coyotes, Colorado Thunderbirds and a final team to be named on Nov. 1.
What’s also new over the past few seasons is AJH’s association with the high school team, the Aspen Skiers. Essentially, the varsity squad is AJH’s 18U team and the junior varsity the 16U team without the hardcore age restraints. If a 17-year-old is a JV-type player, for instance, he can play on that squad.
Former Thunderbirds player and Colorado State athlete Dru Lucchesi is the head coach of the high school team, and he’s grown to love the club-high school arrangement that isn’t very common.
“It was hard to adjust the first two years because I never really played for a high school,” Lucchesi said. “Growing up and playing for the Thunderbirds and teams like that, it was all club level. There are different rules and regulations and the referee system is all different than USA Hockey. So I really had to stay on top of that and make sure I was following all the rules for Aspen High School.”
The high school tie-in isn’t the only thing unique in Aspen, Lucchesi indicated.
“We have great kids, first off, and we’re lucky we have great coaches who actually care a lot about our kids,” Lucchesi said. “The coaches are super involved and it feels more like a community-oriented family versus a Denver youth program, where you see everybody at the rink and that’s the only time you see your coaches.
“Here, you’ll see them walking down the street all the time and all the hockey kids know you as a coach. It makes it fun as players grow up and get older, because you already know so much about them.”
The Leafs operate out of Lewis Ice Arena, but also play at the Aspen Ice Garden in downtown Aspen, which is celebrating its 50th year of operation. It’s known for being home of the famed Bob Johnson Hockey School.
AJH has added an impressive array of new coaches this season. Former Notre Dame athlete Erik Ringel has taken over the Pee Wee A team, and 2010 USA Hockey National Youth Coach of the Year Freddy Ricard will coach the Bantam B squad. In addition, Ryan Kiernan, who led the Bantam A Leafs to a state title last season, will coach the high school JV team and assist Lucchesi with the varsity.
Kiernan is the head coach and Lucchesi an assistant for AJH’s Midget fall-league team.
On the girls side, Aspen native Elizabeth Severy is taking over the 19U squad, and former St. Olaf player and assistant coach Emily Knutson will head up the 14U AA team.
“There’s been a lot of growth here, especially on the girls side at the younger ages,” said Severy, a 2002 Aspen graduate. “When I grew up playing for Aspen Junior Hockey, there wasn’t a girls program at all until I was 9 or 10. And that point, it was only a 19U team. So I played 19U hockey from the time I was 10 until I was 19.”
Aspen-based girls no longer have to do that. In addition to the 19U team, there are two 14U teams (AA and A) and A teams at 12U, 10U and 8U.
“The ability for girls to get involved when they’re 6, 7 and 8 and play all through high school is the most notable growth that I’ve seen,” Severy said. “It’s pretty great to see all those young girls out there.”
Initially in the mid-1990s, Aspen was the only girls team in the state, so the Leafs had to travel to Dallas to play in tournaments. Soon, they moved to a Tier I AAA program that played regionally and also qualified for nationals. Nowadays, there’s in-state competition to play against, so the Leafs no longer need to compete regionally or nationally.
They’re still formidable, though, as exemplified by their clean sweep of the 19U, 14U and 12U Mountain State Girls Hockey League titles last season.
Notable alumni from the girls Tier I days include forward Ali Crum, who went on to play at Harvard University (2001-05), and forward Maggie Melberg (Middlebury College, 2008-12). While the program had many outsiders at that point, Crum and Melberg were homegrown Aspen players. Severy herself played club hockey at the University of Colorado.
Severy and Melberg also hold the distinction as the only two girls players to play on the boys varsity team in high school.
With a flourishing program in such a rich market – one that annually plays host to the X Games – one wonders why AJH chooses to keep its foot on the gas pedal so thoroughly.
Severy explains why the effort is nonstop to keep proving that hockey is appealing.
“I think in a lot of ways, skiing can compete for kids’ time pretty dramatically,” Severy said. “I know when I was a kid I had to choose between competitive skiing and competitive hockey, because the schedule and the travel from Aspen is so time-intensive in both sports; it’s really hard to maintain a high level of competition in both.”
For those who do choose hockey, they can do so knowing the local program is among the elite.