The Marietta Ice Center had served the Atlanta Junior Knights well since the association began in 2005, but the arena came with a caveat.
“It’s the oldest facility in the city by far,” said Youth Hockey Director Mo Morrison. “It came with a historical background.”
Over time, the owners were confronted with repair challenges, including the need to dig up piping through cement under the main ice surface in order to repair leakage problems.
Through the support of Dr. Domenic Didomenicantonio — known as Dr. Domenic — the association has been able to overcome those challenges and remain a stable home for the game in the Peach State.
Didomenicantonio, a native of Winnipeg, purchased both the association and the rink along with his wife, Kimberly, in 2012. They immediately commenced a broad renovation plan that modernized the MIC and, in turn, had a positive effect on the Atlanta Junior Knights youth program.
“Among other things, the new owner made [the MIC] more family friendly, and the ice is the best it’s been, and I’ve been here for five years,” Morrison said. “Our numbers are up. We never had a house league before. That’s kind of my baby. It’s what I’m the most proud of because you start at the grassroots level and teach players how to play so that they eventually become better as they grow older.”
This season, besides the Knights House League, the Junior Knights will be fielding travel teams at the Squirt All-Star, Peewee, Bantam minor and major, Midget 16-Under Elite AA and Midget 18-Under AA levels.
The renovated MIC has not only helped keep the Junior Knights viable but also helped them grow. Didomenicantonio told the Marietta Daily Journal in April that the organization is in the process of building an additional rink in Cobb County.
“The Knights are a hidden gem in the city,” Didomenicantonio said, according to the Daily Journal. “The whole idea of the program is to put young athletes in college and get them college scholarships. The last five years, we’ve been in seven different national championships, and that’s great PR. Winning helps a lot.”
The KHL is proving to be a solid foundation for that overall mission.
“The way our KHL works is we have four teams,” Morrison said. “You don’t practice as a team. You practice in your age category.
“This isn’t a volunteer environment. I design stuff whose purpose is to elevate boys’ skill development level. If a kid rides his bike once a week, he’s not going to be very good. But if he rides it more often, he will become more proficient.”
In the KHL, boys practice at least twice a week and play 20 games. The nature of the renovated MIC is perfect for USA Hockey’s American Development Model.
“Every practice for Mites through Squirts is on our small sheets with skill stations,” Morrison said. “We do some 3-on-3 on the little sheet.”
And, not surprisingly, players get more touches.
“We participate in cross-ice jamborees,” Morrison said. “Every rink in town belongs to the Atlanta Youth Hockey League, which basically consists of house league all-star teams.”
Because of the numerous rinks in Atlanta, “we try to facilitate in-city hockey instead of traveling, say, to Nashville to play one hockey game,” added Morrison.
Morrison takes a two-pronged approach with the youth program: to help boys develop the necessary skills to play hockey to the best of their ability, and to help boys understand there’s more to hockey than Xs and Os.
“Hockey is a vehicle to teach kids great life skills,” Morrison said. “In life, you have to be a team player and you have to be honest. There’s discipline on and off the ice for everyone in our program.”
The approach has led to success in the Junior Knights’ greater mission: helping its players get to the college level. Among the former Junior Knights who have made the transition are Nick Webb (Southern New Hampshire University), Aaron Dusek (Plymouth State University), Alex Goodhue (SUNY Potsdam), and Michael Farino and Tyler Pionk (Western New England University).
“Developing players from within our youth program to our junior program and hopefully college is definitely something we’re trying to do,” said Morrison.
Morrison, in turn, goes above and beyond the call of duty to insure the youth program meets his specifications.
“I’ve been with the youth program for three years [Morrison previously worked two years with the association’s junior program] and I’m on the ice with every team at least once a week,” he said. “I get here at 6 a.m. and leave at 10 at night in order to make sure practices are run exactly how I want them to be run.
“Obviously, just seeing players develop is very satisfying. We’re in a non-traditional hockey market. But this is a place here I want to make a difference. Developing kids at the grassroots level is a very rewarding part of my job.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.