The Ascent Continues: Thunderbirds’ dozen playing in-state NCAA Division I
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Many would consider two or three players from a youth hockey program playing NCAA Division I hockey impressive, but what about 12 spread out over three programs in the same state?
That gives you a snapshot of what the Colorado Thunderbirds have going on these days.
This season, a dozen young men who played at least a season of youth hockey for the T-Birds are on rosters of Colorado’s three Division I programs – Air Force Academy, Colorado College and the University of Denver.
The 12 include five players each at Air Force and DU and a pair at CC.
· At Air Force, sophomore defenseman Dylan Abood (Centennial), senior forward Ben Carey (Centennial), freshman forward Evan Feno (Morrison), senior forward Max Hartner (Greenwood Village) and sophomore forward Tyler Ledford (Colorado Springs).
· At Denver, senior forward Grant Arnold (Centennial), freshman forward Dylan Gambrell (Bonney Lake, Wash.), redshirt sophomore forward Brad Hawkinson (Aurora), senior forward Quentin Shore (Denver) and freshman forward Troy Terry (Denver). Three more T-Birds products graduated in the spring (Josiah Didier, Daniel Doremus and Matt Tabrum).
· At Colorado College, junior forward Christian Heil (Westminster) and junior goaltender Derek Shatzer (Highlands Ranch). Two more, defensemen Gustav Olofsson and Jaccob Slavin, left early to sign NHL contracts the past two seasons.
“I don’t know if it’s surprising,” Heil said. “A lot comes from the culture the T-Birds have built. So many things go into it. Not only the skill work, but character, the type of person who comes out of the T-Birds. (Director of hockey operations and 16U AAA coach) Angelo Ricci and the other coaches do an amazing job.”
Skills pay the bills
Any conversation about the T-Birds includes at least a reference to, but often a discourse on, the focus on improving on-ice skills.
“I gained a lot of confidence in my game offensively, being able to see plays develop,” said Hartner, a two-year T-Bird at the Midget 16U level. “I got to work on power-play skills. Angelo developed enough of my offensive ability to make me comfortable.
“There was a lot of off-ice skill development, whether it was working on your stick handling or shooting.”
Carey, who played Bantam through Midget 18U there, added, “I learned how to play the game the right way. Angelo knows how to make you develop as a player, and I developed more that year (16U) than any year I played.”
More specifically, it’s perfect practice making perfect, DU coach Jim Montgomery said.
“I think all of their habits, especially if I’m talking practice habits, are really good,” the third-year Pioneers coach said. “Angelo Ricci has done a phenomenal job with the Thunderbirds program. I’ve been to many of his practices and he runs a really good practice.
“If players aren’t doing something right they have to do it again until they get it right, which is something we try to do here at Denver. The pacing of the practicing, the demands on the accountability of doing things right are very similar.”
Shore said that theme was a constant during all of his seasons with the T-Birds.
“Just looking at where all the players are now, the development speaks for itself,” he said. “I had unbelievable coaches growing up at every level, and they helped me have future successes at higher levels. You can see that with all the kids playing at the D-I level.”
Taking it to the next level
Make no mistake about it, the T-Birds want to win games, but one of the macro-level goals is not just moving players on but equipping them for that move.
“I came from playing AA in Arizona my whole life before I played one year of AA in Littleton and then went to the Thunderbirds,” Hawkinson said. “That helped with the jump from juniors into college and even midget into juniors. The way everything was structured, the way they prepared us turned out well for us at the next level.
“The one thing (Ricci) was really good at letting you know was, ‘You’re going to play here, you guys are paying to play, but at the next few levels, it’s not guaranteed every night.’ That stuck with a lot of us in juniors – you were playing for your job. It didn’t make it easier, but you were a lot more aware of it.”
Then there is establishing an atmosphere that is levels beyond youth hockey.
“In AAA, you miss a lot of school,” Heil said. “Angelo was on top of all of us. We had to take report cards around to our teachers, get our grades checked and turn them in. That’s how it is in college hockey.
“All the coaches really care, and they can single out strengths and develop them further. Especially with younger kids everyone wants to be Patrick Kane or Sidney Crosby, but they’re one-in-a-million players. If you’re not, that doesn’t mean you can’t make it in another role. (The T-Birds staff) does a good job identifying what type of player you can be.”
It’s also interesting to note that Arnold is one of only three two-year captains in the history of DU’s program, while Hartner and Carey are captains at Air Force. Slavin wore a letter at CC as a sophomore.
“The players we’ve had from there – Max Hartner, Dylan Abood, Ben Carey – all of them are leader types – and Max Hartner is one of the top three captains we’ve ever had,” said Air Force coach Frank Serratore, who is in his 19th season at the Academy.
The coach played a large role in 2002 in founding the T-Birds, who are named for the Air Force’s elite pilots and initially were based at the Academy.
“All of these Colorado kids felt they needed to leave the state to develop,” Serratore said. “We provided a vehicle so they wouldn’t have to.”
Hartner said the T-Birds’ environment facilitates a breeding ground for leaders.
“They do a great job developing people in general, establishing a professional work ethic where you’re held accountable if you don’t show up to things on time, which is a big deal when you get to junior and college programs, and you’re in charge of showing up to things on your own,” he said.
Shatzer added, “It prepared me for prep school and college. It forced me to grow up because of the more demanding schedule. My coach, John Seymour, pushed me to my limits and helped me focus on what I wanted to get out of life and out of hockey.”
Strength is a strength
Another oft-mentioned component of the program’s success is its long-standing emphasis on strength and conditioning.
“We had a strength and conditioning coach, Ryan Herzog, who was amazing,” Carey said. “It became a habit. Once you got to juniors, you were ahead of the game a little bit because a lot of those guys weren’t used to doing that stuff. The Thunderbirds were pioneers of doing that.
“Going into juniors, I knew what I had to do off the ice to prepare for the season. When I got to Air Force, I was used to doing the work that is demanded here.”
Montgomery and Serratore can ice lineups that are one-quarter T-Birds on any given night.
“It’s one of the top five Midget programs in the country, and we’re one of the beneficiaries of that,” Montgomery said. “For us to have talented players like that right in our back yard come out of there is huge. There’s been some we’ve tried to get that we haven’t been able to. It speaks volumes about what they’re doing.”
Added Serratore: “For me, having a hand in those first teams, it’s very gratifying to see all these players getting drafted into the United States Hockey League and playing on Division I, Division III and ACHA rosters all over the place.
“It’s simply exploded.”
— Chris Bayee
PHOTOS: The dozen Colorado Thunderbirds alumni playing NCAA Division I hockey at in-state schools this season all gathered recently to represent their youth hockey days. The Air Force players (left to right) are Evan Feno, Ben Carey, Max Hartner, Tyler Ledford and Dylan Abood. The Colorado College players (left to right) are Derek Shatzer and Christian Heil. The players from the University of Denver (left to right) are Troy Terry, Brad Hawkinson, Dylan Gambrell, Quentin Shore and Grant Arnold. Photos/Team DMI (Air Force), Colorado College Athletics, DU Athletics