Millions of visitors make their way to Wyoming, Montana and Idaho annually to visit Yellowstone Park.
What the region is not known for is hockey. Ryan Theros was tasked with convincing about a dozen and a half quality junior hockey players to spend the winter in Cody, Wyoming at the eastern edge of Yellowstone.
Theros could not market the Yellowstone Quake’s on-ice credentials. He did not yet have any junior hockey head coaching experience to reference as he recruited for the 2015-16 season.
The new coach could, however, point out life experiences, pledging his off-ice philosophies as a coach and pitching life in Cody, including the chance to hike as a team in one of the country’s most beautiful national parks.
Players — and especially parents — listened.
“Millions of people come through Cody every year just to go to Yellowstone,” Theros said. “For kids to be able to say they played hockey here and get that experience is kind of unique."
“We’re right in the mountains so we do a lot of team hiking throughout the season and things like that. That’s what I sell to these kids and families, that the life experience outside the rink is something that they’re always going to remember.”
The Quake put together such a memorable season in the first year under Theros that there was less selling needed for this season. A dozen players, a large number by North American 3 Hockey League standards, returned.
In his first season, Theros took the team from worst to first with a 35-9-0 record and division title.
The Quake may not be climbing as fast these days — there is less ground to cover between their 2015-16 finish and the very top of the North American 3 Hockey League this season — but Theros is convinced the toughest task is behind him.
“The hardest part about it is recruiting to a last-place team,” Theros said. “When you go to these showcases and talk to players, you have to sell yourself for one and letting the players know that you’re planning to turn the program around."
“It’s hard when the kids go on social media and the website and look at the previous year that you only won eight games all season.”
For an encore, the Quake is 29-3-0-3 to lead the Frontier Division.
“There’s pressure to keep it going and make sure it’s not a one-year, fluke-type thing,” Theros said.
By the time Reed Kelly got a chance to join the team in Cody, it was the early progress, not hiking and off-rink activity that was able to sell him.
Kelly, a former Team Wisconsin player in high school in Somerset, was off to a slow start with the LaCrosse Freeze in his junior hockey debut. He was listed among available players on the NA3HL trade wire.
Matt Runyon, a friend who plays defense for the Quake, gave a positive review of the team to Kelly and praised Kelly’s play to Theros.
A trade was worked out and the matchmaking paid off.
More than a year later, Kelly is one of the top 10 scorers in the 48-team league and the top point producer on a deep and balanced lineup that has already clinched a return to the Silver Cup Playoffs.
“I had known how they were in the past, but when I got there, it seemed like they were a team right away,” Kelly said. “The way that they welcomed me in what really a good sign for me that things were going well there.”
With 28 goals and 42 assists in 34 games this season, Kelly leads a group that features 11 players with at least 10 goals and 14 with at least 20 points.
“Having a lot of vets is nice,” Kelly said. “We have so many guys who just know their roles. It makes it easy for guys to play together.
“We can switch up the lines so often, just to get new feels.”
Theros said he is a firm believer of switching up lines when things start to go “stale.” He separated right wing Kelly from center Jesse Lawman and left wing Max Doner for a while, then put them back together recently and got the boost he was seeking.
Lawman and Doner are tied for second on the team with 51 points and part of an offense that averages more than six goals per game.
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.
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