By Joshua Boyd
Even after its darkest day, Las Vegas continues to shine like a desert diamond.
On Oct. 1, 2017, 58 people were killed and 549 were injured when a shooter fired into a concert audience, firing over the famous Strip.
While the emotional healing certainly took time, Las Vegas immediately rallied around its real heroes – its first responders, police, fire and EMTs. The town also came together to celebrate life with its new sports heroes, the NHL’s first-year Vegas Golden Knights.
The Knights set the record for the greatest start by a new NHL team, winning their first three games and eight of their first nine. The Knights continue to keep the party rolling, and they want to spread the good-time vibes for this rapidly healing city.
This month, the Knights will welcome the Western States Hockey League to their brand new practice facility, the City National Arena, for the WSHL’s annual showcase. All 23 teams – from Long Beach and Seattle to Springfield, Mo., and Dallas, Texas – will play at both the City National Arena and the SoBe Ice Arena between Dec. 19-21.
The WSHL, now in its 23rd year, is an Amateur Athletic Union-affiliated U.S. junior league that brings players together from around the globe to pursue their hockey and academic goals. The
WSHL teams put all of their efforts into development on the ice, and making sure each individual player has their best educational option off the ice.
Bob Armando, the WSHL’s Deputy Commissioner, is also the coordinator for the annual showcase. He had 80 confirmed college coaches and/or scouts coming to the showcase as of a week before Thanksgiving.
“It’s a mixture of NCAA Division 3 and American College Hockey Association Division 1 schools, along with coaches from some select ACHA Division 2 and Canadian universities,” said Armando. “We push the education in our league. The reason we invite a lot of the ACHA schools is because we have a lot of kids on our rosters at that level. They will get a chance to go to some great universities and get a great education, while also playing hockey.”
“This will be the first year that we’ll have half a dozen Canadian universities, which is important due to the amount of Canadians we have in our league,” added Commissioner Ron White.
Chris White, head coach of the Western Division-leading Long Beach Bombers, said that the 2016 WSHL showcase brought in just under 100 college scouts.
“They are there to find players, not hit the slot machines – they can do that any time,” said White. “I get contacted constantly about our players from coaches at all different levels. Last year, we even had NCAA Division 1 coaches at the showcase. One of my former Quinnipiac teammates is an assistant coach at Quinnipiac now, and he was there, and they were interested in some Of the younger guys in our league.
“Our league has a cross-section of 20-year-olds who might show up for a year and go right into college, or 15-and-16-year-olds who can move up to the United States Hockey League or into the [major junior] Canadian Hockey League,” White added.
This season, there are 106 former WSHL players who have seen regular time at the NCAA Division 3 level, and another 56 who had seen time early in the ACHA Division 1 season. The league has also sent 15 younger players to either the North American Hockey League or the United States Premier Hockey League’s tuition-free National Collegiate Development Conference. Others have found regular ice in the various Canadian Jr. A leagues. Some have returned home to Europe to play pro hockey at various levels.
It’s quite clear that the Western States Hockey League can open dozens of different doors for players – and they keep as many doors open to the global hockey community.
Finding their hockey fortunes
The Western States Hockey League made a very important and future altering decision just five years ago when the WSHL changed its affiliation from USA Hockey to the Amateur Athletic
This decision led to the league’s current cornucopia of home nations for players, since the league has very liberal import rules. Canadian-born players are not considered “imports” to the WSHL, and teams are allowed up to 14 players from Europe or other countries outside of North America.
Some teams are much more international than others, as it’s all up to the coaching staff and general managers as to which players will make their team. But the teams do like having that option to fill their rosters where the right players can make the right fit.
The Ogden Mustangs made the Thorne Cup finals last spring. They came close, but the Wichita Jr. Thunder came away with the Cup. While the Thunderhave struggled this season, the Mustangs remain one of the WSHL’s toughest schedule draws, leading the Mountain Division as they have in so many years.
Seven of the 21 players on the Mustangs’ roster as of Thanksgiving were from overseas.
“I think our import rules have definitely given us the competitive advantage and the teams who have utilized this have benefited from it,” said Mustangs general manager/head coach Jake Laime. “I only take imports who are interested in school. Ogden is not a pro developmental program.”
Over the last five years, several dozen European players have come to the WSHL and gone on to either NCAA or ACHA schools. Where do the teams get these players? Most imports know
someone who has played in the league already.
“Players have been some of my best recruiters,” Laime said. “When a quality player comes and has a quality experience and that experience concludes with the opportunity to play NCAA hockey, the players talk. [Players] work hard to help build the program not only for the program, but to continue to surround themselves with players who they know will make them better.”
The Long Beach Bombers have 12 imports this season, comprising almost exactly half of their team. He said that bringing these players over to the U.S. is not an easy sell.
“We can get some high-end players and help their transition to the U.S. college game, including seven months of playing a North American game,” said Chris White. “These import players have paid for university in their home countries through their tax systems, so it’s tough to convince them to come here and spend $100,000 on college, but they have that dream and desire to play
American college hockey.”
This year, a couple of European alumni of the WSHL, Sweden’s Adam Zollner and Victor Carlsson, were clicking at a point-per-game pace or better for New England College and Johnson and Wales University, respectively. Swiss alum Dominic Naass was the 15th leading scorer in ACHA Division 2 for McKendree University.
As proud of these players as the league is, the WSHL is proud of all the players, no matter where their birth certificate says they’re from.
Erich Jaeger, a native of Couer d’Alene, Idaho, played a full season for the nearby Missoula Maulers. He then played two years in the NAHL and is now skating a regular shift for the NCAA Division 1 Air Force Academy team.
Blake Box, of Plano, Texas, played in 21 WSHL games before playing two seasons in the BCHL. He’s now skating in his final season with the U.S. Military Academy, also at the NCAA Division 1 level.
“NCAA placements are first and foremost in Ogden. I think in placing players into desired levels not only helps the team, but all the teams within [the league],” said the Mustangs’ Laime. “I think the more eyes on more teams placing players can only help with exposure.”
Putting on the big show
From the Mustangs and Bombers to the El Paso Rhinos, the SpringfieldExpress and the Seattle Totems, every team will pack up and hit the road for an epic week before Christmas, that being
the WSHL Showcase.
WSHL teams are used to traveling for three-game weekends, so doing the same for three weekdays in Las Vegas won’t come as a shock to any of the league’s experienced players.
Every team will get a chance to play equal opponents, as the league takes its standings from just after Thanksgiving in order to set each team’s three-game schedule. Every division’s first place team plays the other divisions’ first place teams. The second place teams play the second place teams, and so on down the line.
“I like the atmosphere the Showcase brings,” said the Mustangs’ Laime. “Every team in the building watching, wondering. It gives everyone an opportunity to see and scout and it generates a competitive environment.
“This year we have gone to a three game format. I’m pretty excited forthis. It will give us the ability to dig a little deeper in each game, not having to save ourselves for that fourth and final
game,” added Laime. “With Las Vegas now having an NHL footprint, I’m also hoping it brings some new hockey fans in to watch and experience what the WSHL has to offer.”
The Golden Knights will be, unofficially, part of the festivities, as it turns out.
“There are a couple Golden Knights practices scheduled during the showcase, when we’ll surrender one of the rinks,” said Armando. “The [WSHL] players that are there, after they just got through playing a game, can watch the Golden Knights practice.”
Armando said the league is truly blessed to be able to hold its showcase at the City National Arena.
“It has only been open for three months. Scouts can sit in a big, huge restaurant in the middle and see two games going on simultaneously,” Armando added.
The WSHL will cover the hotel bill and meals for anyone scouting the tournament from an educational institution.
“It’s a costly venture for the owners of the teams, but last year, we had nearly 100 recruiters, coming hundreds if not thousands of miles,” added Ron White.
“We want to see our players advance. We’re not at the point where we have players drafted into the NHL. A lot of the ACHA Division 1 schools are really great academic schools,” he said. “We want to see the kids continue their education. We want them to have fun in school and continue playing hockey. The WSHL wants to be an important part of the educational process.