Goaltender Will Ryan helped lead the Oklahoma City Midget Major AA squad past Geno Catalano and the Wheeling Nailers in the quarterfinals of the USA Hockey 18 & Under Tier II 1A Nationals.
A quick glance through the list of USA Hockey’s National Championship teams from 2010 is likely to induce long-time fans to do a double take, at least in one instance.
In Division 1A of the 18 & Under Tier II age group, an Oklahoma City team prevailed over the Omaha Jr. Lancers, 3-2, to the claim the title.
Mike Hoskins, president of the Oklahoma City Youth Hockey Association, loved witnessing that same reaction from parents of other teams around the country.
“Just being in those rinks when they announced a team from Oklahoma at the USA Hockey Nationals, you’d hear them in the crowd saying, ‘Oklahoma? They have hockey in Oklahoma?’ ” Hoskins recalled.
The answer is a resounding “yes.” In addition to the 18 & Under national champions, Oklahoma City sent another team to the 12 & Under Tier II National tournament that advanced to the quarterfinals, and has also produced several up-and-coming elite players.
The most prominent local is 19-year-old defenseman Matt Donovan, who contributed three goals and five points in seven games at the 2010 World Junior Championships for the gold medal-winning Team USA, and was selected by the New York Islanders in the fourth round (96th overall) of the 2008 NHL Entry Draft.
Donovan, who grew up in the OKC suburb of Edmond, played his youth hockey in Oklahoma before moving at 16 for one season with the Dallas Stars Midget AAA squad. Then, following two years in the USHL with Cedar Rapids, Donovan accepted a scholarship to Western Collegiate Hockey Association powerhouse University of Denver, where he is now a sophomore.
“I definitely think it’s growing,” Donovan said of the quantity and quality of youth hockey in Oklahoma City.
“And I think that now that some good players are coming out of there, and people are starting to hear about it in Oklahoma, a lot more kids are starting to realize they can make it.”
Donovan isn’t the only trailblazer. Mick Berge was the first Oklahoman to play pro hockey, suiting up last season for the Allen Americans and Texas Brahmas of the CHL following four years at Minnesota State-Mankato. And there are several more Oklahoma kids playing at elite levels, including Mick’s younger brother Josh, a youth teammate of Donovan’s currently with Lincoln of the USHL, and Chase Grant, now a freshman at Minnesota State-Mankato.
Oklahoma City’s participation numbers may be relatively low in an area where football is king, which only makes it more remarkable that they’ve been able to develop such impressive talents.
Exceptional coaching, such as that provided by former NHL defenseman and three-time Stanley Cup winner Mike McEwen, the man behind the bench for the Midget national champions, has been key.
“The good thing about hockey here is we’ve got two rinks, and one is a dual-sheet facility, so we’ve got three pads and we’ve got about 300 kids that play hockey,” said McEwen, who totaled 404 points in 716 NHL games over 13 seasons.
“So if a kid wants to develop, there’s ‘stick-and-puck’ every day, there’s all kinds of programs and stuff we do all year round if he just wants to get on the ice. To get on the ice four to five times a week, that’s how kids develop.”
And having coaches of McEwen’s caliber leading the way definitely helps.
“It goes back to the abilities of our coaches,” Hoskins said. “These guys really understand the whole concept of skill development as a priority. And because we are a small association, we get together as groups, and work through these skill development sessions and the kids probably have a lot more quality ice time out there.”
Another coach heavily involved in the process over the last few years is Mark Berge, Mick and Josh’s father. Berge skated for the NCAA national champions at North Dakota in 1980 after being selected by the Philadelphia Flyers in the 1978 NHL Entry Draft, and now serves as the head coach of the Oklahoma University club hockey team.
“We don’t have a lot of numbers here. Whoever tried out for the team made the team. But we put a lot into practices and they were on the ice a lot here,” Berge said.
“Every time they could get on the ice, they were on the ice. A lot of it has to do with their own work ethic and their love for the game.
“I’m from [North Dakota] and how we learned to play was being a rink rat, being on the ice. They learn more being out there on their own.
You need good coaches, don’t get me wrong, but putting that extra time in when they could, to go play pick-up and go play ‘stick-and-puck,’ that’s where they learn how to play the game.”
With fewer kids playing hockey, there is more personalized instruction, and more ice time available than in most other areas of the country.
Still, the local numbers have been rising lately, primarily thanks to McEwen’s innovative Kids First Beginners Hockey Program, which has resulted in an average of 68 new players joining the organization each year.
“We offer the first six weeks on the ice for free, with new equipment. If the kid doesn’t like it, return the equipment, there’s no obligation,” said McEwen, who arrived in town back in the early 1990s as coach of the CHL’s now-defunct Oklahoma City Blazers and never left.
“If you offer stuff for free, people will come. We do four sessions a year, we try to cap it off at 45 kids per session, and every session is full. About four years ago, we were down to about 150 kids, and then we started this program and now we’re back up to about 300.”
The arrival this fall of the Edmonton Oilers’ top farm club, the AHL Oklahoma City Barons, should help boost hockey’s local profile even further.
Plus, with local kids like Donovan continuing to advance up the hockey ladder and Oklahoma teams like the U18 champions enjoying success on the national stage, more young Oklahoma kids will undoubtedly be inspired to give hockey a chance.
“Of course, Mike McEwen and his Midget team winning the national championship, it’s huge,” Hoskins said. “And that carries weight, too. You had kids coming back wearing these USA Hockey national championship medals and the younger kids are saying, ‘Wow, one of these days, that’s going to be me with one of those medals around my neck.’
“And the kids are wanting to follow in the footsteps of Matt Donovan. And there’s not a kid on the ice here who doesn’t know Mike McEwen used to play in the NHL, so they all have this dream of being NHL players, too.”
As for Donovan, he is determined to become the first Oklahoman to reach the NHL, and he is on the right path.
“I think my development’s going real well, I love it here in Denver,” said Donovan, who registered seven goals and 21 points in 36 games last season as a freshman.
“I think I’m getting better every day and hopefully, within the next couple of years, it’ll happen, the next jump. We’ll see. I just have to keep getting better.”
Just like the hockey back home.