Merger of youth hockey programs in KC showing benefits


AUGUST 2015 – Nearly six months after the merger between the two largest youth hockey programs on opposite sides of the state line was announced, things are progressing nicely. The biggest effect so far happens early this month as the Kansas City Youth Hockey Association (KCYHA) will hold its first combined tryout for the traveling teams.

The KCYHA—the new name for the combined effort—will hold tryouts August 13-16 at the Kansas City Ice Center. The KCIC is the home of the Kansas City Stars youth program in Shawnee. The next week, the Independence Events Center, the home of the Missouri Mavericks ECHL team and the Junior Mavs youth program, will host the second round of tryouts.

“What this merger does is unify travel hockey in this area,” said Dean Nelson, general manager at the KCIC. “All the travel tryouts will be together with all the kids trying to make the top teams from the area.

“On the first weekend, there will be eliminations, because it will be very evident that some kids can’t compete at that level and we don’t want to put them through the full five-day tryout if it’s that apparent to us. This is true on both ends. Usually the top kids are locked into the spots after the first three days, and the bottom kids are sent back to the house teams. Then you take the other two or three days to take the kids in the middle and kind of shape your team.”

“We’ll have independent evaluators who don’t have kids in the program at that age, who will look at all the kids. This will be an important year, because it’s the first year we’re all getting together. We want to make sure the biases and the politics are removed from it.

“We have guys who played at the highest level who will come in and help with evaluations. There will always be those coaches’ choices when you get down to the last few spots. They might know the character of the kid because they know the family. Those things weigh in when you’re going to spend six months with him.”

Nelson said it’s like the manager’s choices for the MLB All Star Game. Kansas City manager Ned Yost already had four starters on this year’s American League roster. But he added two pitchers he was familiar with and selected Mike Moustakas as one of the players for the final fan vote.

“Most of the kids are picked because you can clearly see that they have the talent. But the final two or three spots are a little murkier. That’s why we’ve added the second round of tryouts. We want to make sure all the kids get more looks. There’s always the possibility of an off day for everybody.”

kcicecenter.comAfter the traveling teams are selected, the Kansas City Jets will hold their tryout. This high school team is the highest level of competition for youth hockey in the area. The travel teams only go up to age 14, so the Jets take kids from age 15 to 18.

If they don’t make the Jets, they can still try out for the Midgets, which hold their tryouts another week later. The Midgets have teams for under-16 and under-18 age groups. Some kids don’t try out for the Jets because they know they can’t compete at that level. But there might be another reason they don’t try out, and the new KCYHA allows for plenty of opportunities for those kids as well.

“There might be kids who don’t want to try out for the Jets because of the cost, because they bus for all their road games,” Nelson said. “It’s a full-scale league, run very smoothly by Gary Emmons and his crew, but it does cost more money to be involved at that level. They can try for the Midget teams or just play in the house leagues.”

The goal is to form three teams at each age level and to give the kids on these teams an opportunity to play in a very competitive league. The combination of two youth organizations makes that possible, without diluting the level of play at the house leagues at each facility.

The merger and formation of the KCYHA coincided with the purchase of the Missouri Mavericks by Lamar Hunt Jr. in February. The discussions were already in progress, but they really got kick-started with the infusion of influence by Hunt, the son of Chiefs founder Lamar Hunt Sr., and the brother of Chiefs Chairman and CEO Clark Hunt.

Nelson knows Hunt’s name brings a lot of clout in the world of sports.

“Lamar Hunt Jr. has been a positive influence on all of us in the hockey community,” Nelson said. “The things he is trying to do and the things he has already done, including forming committees to build new rinks, or putting us all under one umbrella, it’s going to mean a great future for hockey in this area.”

Under Hunt’s leadership, the Mavericks have signed an affiliate agreement with the New York Islanders of the National Hockey League. That will only bring more attention to the Mavericks, which, in turn, will lead to more interest in youth hockey.

That means more rinks in the area. Nelson said the first expansion probably will take place near The Legends in Kansas City, Kan. Future growth could come in St. Joseph and Topeka, two areas that supply youth hockey players to the Kansas City area.

But change, even if it is positive change, can be a problem. Hunt has helped that process as well.

“It’s not going to come without growing pains,” Nelson said. “Any time you have change, anything that affects your family, it’s going to be hard. But if you look at the whole picture, and the way it affects the kids, everything he has put his hand on has been positive.”

Nelson said that the KCYHA won’t be held back by a “we’ve always done it that way” attitude that so easily slows down progress. At the same time, he said that if something is working, the organization won’t change for the sake of change.

“There are things we have done for the past few years that we want to continue to do, because it makes sense to do them that way,” he said. “The Kansas City Stars organization is growing rapidly, according to the numbers. All the programs are growing, but the Stars program is growing even faster. It’s great having good, qualified people in there running the organizations, bringing new ideas.”

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The Kansas City Ice Center is wrapping up another year of camps and clinics, and for the fourth straight year they have experienced record numbers of participants.

“We have run close to 400 kids through here in six weeks,” Nelson said. “To tell you how much this has grown in four years, in 2011 when I first got here we ran 23 kids through here in two weeks. That’s rapid growth.”

Article by David Smale

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