Growing up in Minnesota, a kid who wants to find a frozen pond to play hockey on doesn’t have to look too far.
But a hockey player growing up in a warm weather area such as Phoenix? Well, finding a sheet of ice can be a little trickier.
These days, however, location doesn’t matter too much when it comes to producing top-notch hockey players. Case in point, this year’s CCM/USA Hockey All-American Prospects Game features 42 of the best up-and-coming players who hail from 19 different states. That easily breaks the previous record of 15.
Five of those players come from non-hockey hotbed states Arizona (Mark Kastelic, forward from Phoenix), California (Brannon McManus, forward from Newport Beach and Patrick Khodorenko, forward from Walnut Creek), Texas (Max Gildon, defenseman from Plano) and Florida (Michael Pastujov, forward from Bradenton).
“It’s really showing that those guys and myself, the regions we grow up in, it’s not really about the label. It’s just more about the players within it – putting in the work, being effective and showing they can be a top player in the country,” said Kastelic, who will play for Team LeClair in the fifth annual All-American Prospects Game held on Thursday, Sept. 22 in Philadelphia. “It really just shows how the organizations they’ve worked with are really providing them the opportunities to be the best and play in the top of the country.”
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There’s still a perception that Arizona is not a huge hockey hotspot, but the players coming out of the state known more for football and Cactus League baseball are starting to change opinions. Auston Matthews, the No. 1 pick in the 2016 NHL Draft by the Toronto Maple Leafs, is a Scottsdale native. The seventh American ever to be selected first overall, Matthews is drawing lofty comparisons to Chicago Blackhawks superstar Jonathan Toews.
“A lot of people are starting to open their eyes and see that a place like Arizona is capable of producing good hockey talent,” said 17-year-old Kastelic, who plays juniors for the Calgary Hitmen of the WHL. “I believe that the organizations in Arizona are really doing their best to develop their players and move them on to higher levels. You’re starting to see that from a lot of guys coming out of there lately.”
Also, having the Arizona Coyotes in the state now for 20 seasons certainly doesn’t hurt the image of hockey in Arizona, a history that has included the game’s greatest player, Wayne Gretzky, as the team’s head coach and minority owner.
Are the hockey players coming out of the South and West just as skilled as those guys being produced in the hockey-rich Midwest and East?
“The number of players that we have maybe might not be as big as some of the huge hockey markets, but there’s still some really good players I got to play with in Phoenix,” Kastelic said. “I think it just depends on the timing and the year, I guess.”
Kastelic – whose father Ed is a former NHL player and got his son on skates and playing by age 7 – doesn’t feel like he was at a disadvantage living in Phoenix and trying to learn how to play hockey.
“There’s other ways in the South where a lot of us grew up playing roller hockey and street hockey,” Kastelic said. “That’s a lot of skill development as well. Just off-ice training was a big part, too. We had a lot of that.”
USA Hockey has witnessed a steady spike in recent years in its numbers of players coming from non-hockey hotbeds. In Arizona in 2011-12, there were 227 kids 6-and-under playing. That number this year has grown to 620 for that age group. For all age groups in Arizona, there were a total of 4,113 skaters five years ago, whereas now there are 7,510. During that same timespan in Texas, there were 11,531 in 2011-12 and 13,384 for 2015-16. California saw the biggest increase, up from 24,101 total players to 28,296 five years later. Florida’s figures jumped from 11,721 to 13,276.
“Every rink now has a lot more programs and such to get more players started and more advertisements and more ice so that players can start to play hockey and learn the game,” Kastelic said.
Playing on the traveling team, the Jr. Coyotes, Kastelic was able to compete against the best players in the country. Growing up in Phoenix certainly didn’t slow him down.
Now, Kastelic is looking forward to the All-American Prospects Game where he can show off his skills against the nation’s best on a big stage.
“I’m sure there’s going to be a lot of eyes there watching and most importantly it’s going to be good for personal development,” Kastelic said. “It’s just another step on the way towards the main goal and that’s playing pro. It’s just going to be a great experience.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc