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From Sticks to Diplomas

By Steffan Waters, 09/16/18, 8:00AM EDT


Despite bumpy offseason, Fighting Irish move forward with mission of helping players realize college dreams

RIVERVIEW, MI -- Not much has gone according to plan for the Detroit Fighting Irish during the 2018 offseason.

Dan Vazquez, the General Manager of the Fighting Irish, knew he was going to need to replace the four players on his roster who were aging out after the 2017-18 season. But what he did not expect was to lose another eight players in the following months, leaving his team with just 17 players heading into September’s tryouts. Of the eight, six players departed for college earlier than expected and the other two moved on to join Tier II junior programs.

While not ideal for his Fighting Irish, Vazquez takes solace in knowing that ultimately, the goal of his team is to get guys to the next level. The eight players that left achieved that goal.

“One major purpose of our program is to get our guys to college,” said Vazquez. “We have always wanted them to continue their hockey careers while also being able to get quality educations.”

While facing the prospect of replacing an additional eight players can be somewhat daunting under normal circumstances, Vazquez had to watch all of this transpire while on the mend from an offseason surgery that took longer to recover from than anticipated. The good news? Vazquez is back to full strength and ready to lead the Fighting Irish into the 2018-19 season as GM. The bad news? Vazquez is very hands-on in the recruitment of new Fighting Irish players and was not able to do much recruiting at all while recuperating.

If there is a silver lining to anything, it’s that the Fighting Irish’s season does not start until the end of September this year, two weeks later than most other teams. This allowed Vazquez to conduct some late-summer recruiting and schedule tryouts during the first week of September instead of mid-to-late August.

“We’ve thought about moving our tryouts back before, but this year it became more of a necessity due to some extenuating circumstances,” said Vazquez. “So far, it hasn’t presented any problems, in fact, it’s allowed us to wait out some of the Tier II programs in the United States and Canada who will be releasing players as more rosters get finalized. They’ll need a home and we have the spots available. We don’t have to be one of the programs holding players in limbo while all roster movement takes place.”

In any given year, the Fighting Irish are made up almost entirely of Detroiters, with 95 percent of an average roster being located within 20 miles of the Brownstown Sports Center, the Fighting Irish’s home rink. It is something that Vazquez, the coaching staff, and team ownership are proud of and make a point of emphasis each season.

“We’ve always wanted to give kids an opportunity to play competitive hockey close to home,” said Vazquez. “This way, they can mature as hockey players while still going to their own schools, with their long-time friends, and be with their families throughout the process.”

This year’s team makeup is already going to have fewer than that 95 percent mark and that is before the conclusion of tryouts during the first week of September. The Fighting Irish have inked a defenseman from Latvia and skaters from Manitoba and Florida.

“Having three players from so far away is unusual for us as we usually only have one billet each year,” said Vazquez. “With that said, we’re really excited for all three players to join us for the 2018-19 season.”

Vazquez has nothing but good things to say about the three current non-Detroit-area players on his roster, but he is quick to reiterate why, traditionally, such a high percentage of players come from the surrounding communities.

“We pride ourselves on being the only junior team in the Downriver area,” said Vazquez. “We give kids from this area an opportunity to play high-level hockey, gain exposure in front of Tier II teams, and eventually play hockey in college and obtaining a degree.”

The Downriver area is a collection of 18 Detroit suburbs all located south of Detroit. It includes a vast mix of demographics, but through Vazquez’s 12 years working within the area with the Fighting Irish, he has noticed that college is not often at the front of people’s minds there. Vazquez, in conjunction with Fighting Irish ownership and his coaching staff, sought to change that and encourage using hockey as a way to attend college.

The Fighting Irish are proud to boast low tuition rates and their ownership continues to invest financially to make sure the program provides quality development opportunities and an overall high-level experience for its players.

One of the first things the Fighting Irish did was add U18 and U16 programs, which will be run by Steve Glover, a heralded youth hockey coach in the Detroit area for over 40 years. This was a natural move for the Fighting Irish. For years, their most successful teams had players formerly taught by Glover. With the desire to expand the organizational footprint and offer a true developmental program from U16 through juniors, bringing on Glover to run the U16 and U18 programs was a perfect fit.

The logical next step after that was to add a development specialist to the coaching staff. This was accomplished by bringing Jeff Bond back to the organization as the Skills Director. Bond had previously been with the Fighting Irish in various capacities, helping the team achieve much success. Now he is being counted on to create and implement a development program that can be installed across the entirety of the Fighting Irish organization. The vision is to have each player that comes through the Fighting Irish program follow the same skills-learning curriculum throughout their developmental years as hockey players.

The organization is striving to mimic what some of their counterparts in the east offer, announcing they will also have both USPHL Premier and Elite teams for the 2019-20 season. This news, coupled with the addition of Glover, Bond, and the U16 and U18 teams, allows the Fighting Irish to offer a more complete experience for players, especially those in the Greater Detroit area.

“Being the only junior team in the Detroit area, we feel that we have a responsibility to expand our offerings as much as we can to further our mission,” said Vazquez. “There are plenty of good hockey players in this area that shouldn’t have to travel too far from home to play. If we can grow what we do, get more players into our system, show them how hockey can advance their lives, I know we’ll all be better for it in the end.”

Vazquez has worked tirelessly to explain to players and parents of players how hockey can help provide a college education with less out-of-pocket expenses. He knows the allure of being a NCAA Division I hockey player. Earning a scholarship, playing in front of passionate fan bases, getting noticed by pro scouts, the Frozen Four, John Buccigross coverage on ESPN, all of it is immensely appealing.

But there are only 60 teams playing Division I hockey limiting the number of scholarships and roster spots available each year.

Choosing to play for a NCAA Division III program is a great consolation prize, but Division III institutions are restricted from offering athletic scholarships, so all financial aid is provided on academic merit and need alone.

There is, however, a third college hockey outlet that people often overlook, going to a school that offers ACHA hockey.

“One thing that gets lost sometimes is that ACHA hockey is a viable option,” said Vazquez. “There are a lot of NCAA Division III schools out east, so really all those kids look at when growing up are getting good enough at hockey and having good enough grades to play at DI or DIII colleges. We don’t have a large number of Division III hockey-playing institutions around us here in Michigan. It’s a different mindset for our players. That is why I routinely tell them to look at ACHA programs.”

While the ACHA hockey landscape is different than the NCAA, with part-time coaches often leading the charge and programs not fully funded by the school, there are numerous opportunities within ACHA programs at well-known institutions each year. Because of that, Vazquez views ACHA programs as a viable option for those players who are not Division I-caliber players and may find themselves playing for Division III programs without much in the form of academic or need-based assistance. Fighting Irish alumni have chosen the DIII route, just last season Brock Grandbois committed to Aquinas University for the 2018-19 season, but more often than not, Vazquez sees ACHA hockey as the most cost-effective way for players to get an education while playing hockey.

With student loan debt at an all-time high, Vazquez has worked with a number of his players over the years apply for and receive grant money from ACHA-affiliated institutions, including ACHA Division I powers Adrian and Davenport. Other ACHA commits have included Western Michigan and University of Toledo. Over the last five years alone, Fighting Irish alumni have received hundreds of thousands of dollars in grant money to attend ACHA institutions and play hockey, forever changing the lives of those players.

“Hockey has changed lives for a number of kids here in the Downriver area,” said Vazquez. “We have a few players every year go from having no desire to even go to college, to wanting to get a degree and play hockey while doing it. I’m all for winning games, but those stories are wins in my book.”

Former co-captain Tyler Blackburn will suit up alongside four other Fighting Irish alumni for the ACHA Division I Davenport Pathers this season.