Tryouts begin today for a new hockey program that organizers say will boost the quality of hockey on the Kenai Peninsula up a notch.
A new Midget AAA program will hold tryouts today at 4 p.m. and Wednesday and Thursday at 4:15 p.m. at the Soldotna Sports Center. The tryouts will last about an hour and are for players that will be 16, 17 and 18 years old next season.
"I think this is a real big step (for the peninsula)," said Brian McIntosh, who will coach the area Midget AAA team. "It will keep kids here, give the young kids something to look up to and give the community some good hockey to watch.
"It will be the best hockey on the peninsula to watch."
The peninsula, mainly through the Kenai Peninsula Hockey Association, always has had the ability to develop youth hockey players as good as players in any area in the state.
Just two years ago, KPHA's Bantam B, PeeWee B and Squirt B teams all were in the state finals.
The problem area hockey players have always faced is figuring out what to do when they get to high school.
In order to make the jump to junior hockey and then to professional or college hockey, high school players need the exposure of a Midget AAA program. Midget AAA programs are commonly referred to as "Midget A" or "A" programs.
"The trend across the country is going to A because you get to go to high-profile, highly recruited tournaments," McIntosh said. "All your Junior A scouts go to the Midget A tournaments.
"Junior hockey is the step between high school and college."
However, the closest Midget AAA programs available to peninsula players were in Anchorage. Because these teams can practice four or five times a week, it becomes a burden on the player's families to shuttle the player back and forth between the peninsula and Anchorage.
This year, about five peninsula players competed with Midget AAA programs. One of them was Brian Gabriel Jr., the son of Brian Gabriel Sr.
"The main reason it's tough is because of time and expense," Gabriel Sr. said. "What we did with our son is enroll him in an Anchorage school and have him transfer to Kenai at the quarter so he could play hockey here.
"That saved money and we didn't have to worry about driving too much."
Several other families in the area have made the sacrifice of getting their kids to Anchorage to play Midget AAA hockey and have been rewarded by their sons getting Division I scholarships. Examples are Brian Canady, Lee Green, Drew Kriner and Jeremy Downs.
McIntosh would like to spare the families the trouble of having to get their kids to Anchorage. He said one parent told him it cost $15,000 one year for his son to play on an Anchorage Midget AAA team.
Two reasons McIntosh feels the time is right for the peninsula to throw its hat into the Midget AAA ring stem from the increasing numbers of Midget AAA teams in Anchorage.
"What's happening in Anchorage is there's four Midget A teams, where there used to be just two," Gabriel Sr. said. "Each team is getting a bit diluted. You're not facing the 20 best kids in Anchorage on one team anymore.
"This year, we had an excellent Midget B team here, and with the kids who were in Anchorage playing A, a team from here probably would have been competitive with most of the A teams."
McIntosh said the increasing number of Midget AAA teams in Anchorage also has led to those teams searching the peninsula for talent.
McIntosh said one Anchorage Midget AAA program had tryouts on the peninsula last week, while another AAA program sent peninsula players recruiting letters.
"I would have rather had tryouts later on," said McIntosh, who has been scrambling to organize the team the last couple of weeks. "But with a team from Anchorage actually coming down here and holding tryouts, I decided we're going to go A and we're doing it now.
"We want to be able to keep our own guys down here."
Thus far, McIntosh said he has heard no negative comments from the high schools or KPHA. Because the Midget AAA season starts in August, stops for the high school season, then starts again after the high school season, there will be no conflict with the high schools.
The cost for playing on the team will be $1,000 a year, which is the same amount KPHA players paid for the Midget B team this year.
The area Midget AAA team plans on going to three Outside tournaments. McIntosh said the Kenai Kings over 35 hockey team will help raise funds for the team to go to those tournaments.
One Kenai Kings fund-raising game that is already generating considerable chatter around the community is the game against the NHL Hockey Legends scheduled for Nov. 11.
McIntosh already has three assistant coaches in Pat Nolden, a longtime coach and assistant at Soldotna High School; Dennis Moeglein, who coached the Midget B team this year; and Matt Stetz, a former assistant with the Peninsula Chinooks Junior B hockey team.
McIntosh also has a director of tournaments, an academic adviser, a director of player placement, a team physician and a team lawyer. He is getting close to finding a director of finance, a director of recruitment and a web page creator.
The final benefit of the team should be some top-notch hockey for the community to watch.
"It will be great hockey," Gabriel Sr. said. "It would be the game in town on the weekends in the fall because of the level of play."
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