Saturday, August 13, 2011

NAHL has potential in Blue Water Area

The Port Huron Fighting Falcons’ second season in the North American Hockey League officially begins next month in Blaine, Minn., where the team will play four games in the league’s annual showcase.

For head coach Bill Warren, however, the season started months ago, just after the team played the final game of their inaugural season.

In preparing for his first full season as the Tier II Junior A team’s head coach, the Port Huron native has overseen three tryout camps and the franchise’s first NAHL draft. Throughout the summer, Warren has worked with the rest of the team’s coaching and scouting staff to put together a roster he says should compete for a playoff spot.

Warren took over as head coach for the franchise at the midway point of last season, after the team struggled mightily, with just one win in the first half of the year.

The team showed many signs of improvement in the second half of the season, but ultimately finished with an overall record of just 6-46-6.

Despite their struggles on the ice, the Fighting Falcons’ 27 home games at McMorran Arena averaged attendance of well over 600.

While Warren knows that winning will help raise that number, he understands that educating the community about the team, the league and the career paths of the players will go a long way as well.

Until last season, Port Huron and McMorran Arena had hosted minor professional hockey teams since the mid-90s. The Border Cats, Beacons and Flags competed in the United Hockey League. From 2007 to 2010, the Port Huron Icehawks played in the International Hockey League, a re-incarnation of the league the original Flags played in during the 60s and 70s.

The Icehawks, like the other professional teams before them, consisted of players aged 20 to 40 with experiences and resumes that varied as widely as their ages. Some players were fresh out of college, just beginning their professional careers. Others were near retirement following decades in hockey. A handful had reached the NHL once upon a time.

Most players hoped to reach or return to the NHL based on their play in Port Huron. More than once, teams in the American Hockey League, the league that serves as a farm system for the NHL, called upon players to skate for them because of injuries to other players.

“There’s no question that it was exciting for our community to be able to host professional hockey for all those years,” said Warren. “I remember when the Border Cats brought in Wayne Gretzky’s brother and Sergei Fedorov’s brother, and I know that Kris Vernarsky had a stint with the (Boston) Bruins before ending up in with the Icehawks.

“I know that a lot of people around here had a lot of strong ties to those professional teams,” he added. “Our team has a unique opportunity to show those people a different part of a player’s career path.”

Junior hockey is perhaps the most vital step in the career of a young hockey player. The players are between 16 and 20 years old and working to earn a college commitment. Dozens of NAHL players earned scholarships to NCAA universities based on their play throughout the season.

Jimmy Davis, who had been tendered to play for the 2011-12 Fighting Falcons earned a scholarship to play hockey at Michigan Tech University instead, following weeks of practice in Port Huron. Rudi Pino, who was an assistant captain on last season’s Fighting Falcons team will also go to Michigan Tech as a preferred walk-on.

Marysville’s Brett D’Andrea will join the Fighting Falcons this season after already earning a commitment to play at Bowling Green State University in the future.

“The kids we have coming in this season are all focused on making their way to collegiate hockey, and I’m confident that we will be able to help them realize that goal,” Warren said.

Junior players are not paid so that they may retain their NCAA eligibility. More than 20 players from this season’s Fighting Falcons team will stay with billet (host) families that welcome them into their homes, making the player comfortable and keeping them safe throughout the course of the season.

Players are encouraged to find part-time jobs or take high school or college classes, and are expected to be role models in the community both on and off the ice. This season, each member of the Fighting Falcons will volunteer with a minor hockey team in the community.

A lack of local players was a concern often voiced by the community last season, and the Fighting Falcons have made local recruiting a priority this summer.

Over 200 players from around the world competed for a roster spot, and the talent from the team’s back yard proved to be superior, with over two-thirds of the training camp roster hailing from the Great Lakes State.

The Blue Water Area is well represented on the Fighting Falcons, with Marysville’s D’Andrea and Nick Horne and Port Huron’s Alex Archibald making the training camp roster.

Last season’s roster was initially built around players in their last year or two of junior hockey, hindering the coaching staff’s ability to develop talent and expand skill sets. This season’s team will show a larger focus on development, with many players competing in their first or second season at the junior level.

“With my background in high school hockey, I know what it takes to develop raw talent into a skill set that can help a hockey club,” said Warren, who coached at Port Huron Northern High School before moving on to the Fighting Falcons. “Our coaching staff will get the most out of this group of kids, and when that happens I think people will get a real sense of what Junior hockey can be. They saw glimpses of it last year, but now we’re ready to bring it on a nightly basis.”

Warren is joined behind the bench by newly-hired assistant coach John Heasty, who had coached at the junior level in Flint, as well coaching for a variety of minor hockey programs. Warren’s brother Matt will return for a second season as assistant coach. Matt Warren played in the NAHL in the 90s for the now-defunct Compuware Ambassadors.

“The bottom line is that we are going to be a team that should be almost unrecognizable to the fans that supported us last season in terms of our competitiveness,” Warren said, adding, “Fans will have 28 chances this season to see some truly special talent this season, and if they follow us long enough they will see a player that shows up in the NHL some day. Tim Thomas played his junior hockey in this league and all he did this year was lead the Bruins to the Stanley Cup.”

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