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Careful planning helps Alaska All-Stars keep in-state option for players

03/04/2014, 3:45pm EST
By Tom Robinson - Special to USAHockey.com

Geographic challenges can leave young hockey players from Alaska separated from their counterparts in the continental United States for much of the year.

By carefully selecting out-of-state group trips, the Anchorage-based Alaska All-Stars make sure those challenges don’t result in a lack of opportunity for their girls — both to play and to get noticed.

The All-Stars won the USA Hockey Tier I 14-and-under national title last season and went unbeaten in pool play to reach the 19-and-under national quarterfinals. This season, they appear to be building a potent 16-and-under team.

“What is unique about the girls up here … is they are highly recruited by the academies,” All-Stars coach Cristy Hickel said. “What we’ve tried to do here in Alaska is for people who want to raise their kids and keep them home, we give them an option.

“They have good coaching, they have a solid program, and they get visibility through the showcases without leaving home.”

The All-Stars, already faced with the expenses of running a program at home, carefully choose about four trips a year, factoring in the expense and logistical challenges placed on the players’ families. Once flights and lodging are arranged, the team saves money where it can, such as shopping together for team meals on the road.

The latest trip, in February, was to Washington, D.C., where the team was sure to visit historical sites as part of its adventure.

“We just flew out to D.C.,” said Hickel, a Level 5 USA Hockey coach who has been on the staff for three Olympic Winter Games. “That’s a pretty big trip to go from Alaska to D.C. You have the four-hour time change and 20 hours getting there and back and still trying to not miss school.

“It’s a unique set of challenges that Alaska girls have.”

Hickel and the others who run the All-Stars are intent on making sure those challenges to do not limit the opportunities for girls dedicated to their program. In just five years, the All-Stars have already sent 35 players on to college hockey. Five All-Stars alums joined NCAA Division I programs this season, adding to a list that includes Hickel’s daughters Tori at Northeastern University and Zoe at the University of Minnesota Duluth.

“Showcase-wise, they’re random throughout the year with the Canada Cup, the Challenge Cup and the very specific times when the coaches are available to come see the girls,” Hickel said. “We’re working really hard with coaches to make sure they know there are some really hard-working girls up here that they may not see that often. They have goals to go to college and play the game they love.

“Families don’t necessarily have to spend large amounts of money to send their kids away to play for the academies.”

Hickel said she tries to make sure players are aware of how limited Division I scholarships are, but also what other options exist. Those not ready for Division I hockey and beyond have options in Division III and college club hockey.

“Most of them are not Kendall Coyne. They’re not going on to the Olympics,” Hickel said, referring to the forward on the 2014 U.S. Olympic Team. “College is their last little bit of hockey. We’re trying to emphasize the journey.

“I have some girls that ref and I have some that want to coach. We’re trying to give them that spectrum that you’ve just given 13 years of your life to hockey, what can you give back or what can you get out of it?”

The All-Stars have players who make the trip as far as eight hours from Fairbanks to Anchorage just to participate in their “local” schedule that features games against boys’ teams.

The two teams the All-Stars have this season, 16U and 19U, hope to be back on the road soon. Anchorage hosts the Pacific District Girls’ Tournament on March 5-9, where the All-Stars will try to earn another national trip for two teams. The 16U team already has a silver medal at the USA-Canada Cup Series in Ontario and a semifinal appearance at the Presidents Day Challenge Cup in Washington this season.

Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.

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