In the midst of setting new NCAA commitment records and witnessing unprecedented success, the North American Hockey League is as strong as ever.
Just ask Scott Langer. The Aberdeen Wings head coach and general manager has more than two decades of coaching experience, and recently helped guide the Wings to the franchise’s first-ever Robertson Cup National Championship. As he watched his team celebrate on the ice and showcase the league’s success in front of fans, college coaches and scouts, he knew they’d etch that memory into their minds forever.
“You can’t take that away from them,” Langer said. “They’ve experienced the sheer amount of hard work it takes just to get there.”
Six players with NAHL ties heard their names called in the 2019 NHL Draft, but the league’s view of development goes beyond hearing one’s named called in the NHL Draft. For many, the NAHL is a vital step en route to the USHL, NCAA or even professional hockey ranks. It’s no surprise that the focus on development – and placing players in the collegiate ranks – still leads to players finding success in the NHL. Every road is different, and the NAHL has proven to be a successful avenue.
We caught up with Langer to learn more about clinching the 2019 Robertson Cup, the high-caliber competition within the NAHL and how playing in the league can be a great opportunity for all – especially goalies.
Q: How would you describe the quality of hockey and the level of excitement and energy at the Robertson Cup tournament, and how does that fuel a good environment for players?
Langer celebrates with his team on the Wings bench. Photo courtesy of Scott Langer.
A: This year was pretty special because the top seeds coming out of their divisions all made it to the Robertson Cup. It was the best of the best all in one setting. In a lot of years, you get teams knocking the top seeds off and finding their way to that tournament. But having it in Fogerty Arena in Blaine, Minnesota, with those top four teams in that setting — you look at the fan bases that were able to travel. Even for our opponent, most of the Fairbanks players are from the state of Minnesota, so their fan base was huge. Our fan base all traveled, so it was like a home game.
It was very well put on by the North American Hockey League. I thought the caliber of play was excellent. That’s a tough tournament to win, based on having to win a three-game series and then one game and you’re done, and I thought the talent in that entire tournament was outstanding.
Q: Are there a lot of scouts and college coaches that come to watch these players?
A: Yes, and you have a lot of head coaches in the NCAA that get to be there. They don’t get to see the players throughout the season — most of their assistants do. To have the head coaches there is really good and obviously a lot of NHL teams are represented there. It’s a big opportunity for these players.
Q: How beneficial is it for young players' development to go through a full NAHL season and a grueling playoff tournament?
A: When you get through it, it’s something they can never take away from you. Because for us, in the division we play in, there’s just so much parity. So for our guys to be able to get through a regular season, then playoffs, then a Robertson Cup — that experience is something they’ll take with them for the rest of their lives.
Q: What are some of the most important things young players learn in the NAHL as they continue to develop and aspire to play at the next levels?
A: For most of these young guys coming in, they’re learning how to manage their body and the amount of effort they have to put in each and every day.
Every one of our teams is practicing every day, playing on the weekends and playing a 60-game schedule. They learn how to manage all that and grow as a player. There’s a lot of time put into their development.
The coaching staff in the NAHL is all very good. I’ve been in this league a long time, and I have to give credit to the NAHL. The ownership groups have hired some really good coaches that take a lot of time developing their players. These players learn how to get through a grueling season and they learn how to manage it all — especially the teams that get all the way to the Robertson Cup. Those players are going to utilize that throughout their lives. Even when they go on in their careers, they’re going to know how to get through the tough times.
Q: The NAHL has set new NCAA commitment records for five consecutive seasons now. How does the level of competition within the league foster that growth?
A: The players here are hungry. You get some of these players that have been overlooked and they have such a chip on their shoulder to prove that they’re worth playing NCAA hockey. For the NAHL, just watching the growth from where I sit, it’s a testament to teams putting the right staff in place and it’s also a testament to the types of players. There are a lot of blue-collar players that play in the NAHL that haven’t gotten the opportunity in different leagues, and they put the time in. It tends to be a little bit of an older league, and you’re playing against older players night in and night out and navigating through that. The coaches seem to look at our league and know they can win at the NCAA level with NAHL players.
Q: Why is the NAHL an excellent choice for goaltenders to develop?
A: I just know that if you’re a goaltender and you’re playing in the NAHL, your opportunity to play at the next level, and potentially pro hockey after that, is really good. We’ve proven that as a league — that goaltenders can be majorly successful utilizing the opportunity of the NAHL. I think it’s because of the bigger, stronger players and it’s the talent level. There’s a lot of talent in the NAHL and it pushes these goaltenders. The ones that come out on top, they just seem to get those opportunities. You look at Matt Vernon for us. He was a guy who split time last year, put time in during the offseason and became the league MVP this season. He’s going to go on to do big things because he persevered through all that adversity.