“Fueling the Passion” isn’t just a catchphrase for the Junior Reign, a youth hockey program serving both Riverside and Carlsbad, California. It’s the foundation of the club’s core values, built around an environment where kids are encouraged to embrace a sport they can fall in love with, and learn life lessons that will benefit them on and off the ice.
“We’re not trying to create something [kids] have to fit into based on our definitions,” explained club president Ben Frank, who played hockey at the University of Toronto and with several minor league teams before becoming a youth coach. “If we can create an environment that’s fun, exciting, inspiring, motivating and encouraging, that’s going to fuel their passion for the sport. They’re going to want to be there and develop special relationships. That will open up opportunities to be receptive to athletic and personal development.”
Originally known as the Anaheim Wildcats, the program officially became the Junior Reign in 2017, partnering with the Los Angeles Kings and their AHL affiliate, the Ontario (California) Reign. In 2014, the club was recognized by USA Hockey as a Model Association. Its travel program consists of 275 players and 17 teams, while the rec program has an enrollment of around 400.
While the numbers are impressive, it’s all about the kids, according to Chief of Hockey Operations Paul Esdale. He says USA Hockey’s American Development Model has had a major impact on the Junior Reign’s current success.
“We knew the science and long-term athletic development was something we had to dive into,” said Esdale, who has been with the program since 2012. “The growth [of the club] is a byproduct of doing the right things for the kids.”
The road to achieving model status was not without its share of twists and turns. Frank, who joined the club in 2008, believed he could do more than coach and conduct private lessons. He and his wife Joyce, who played youth basketball, tennis and track, wanted to pass along the same lessons sports had taught them. In 2010, the couple used practically all their life savings to purchase the Wildcats.
“It helps to be young and naïve sometimes,” Frank said. “I didn’t really know what I was doing, to be honest. But I felt like it was something I couldn’t pass up. I had the opportunity to go beyond impacting teams I was working with and create something bigger.”
The Wildcats were growing and having modest success. But it didn’t take Frank long to realize the program’s philosophy needed a facelift. Other organizations were constantly recruiting the Wildcats’ top coaches. The focus was more on winning with the best talent, instead of long-term athletic development for all.
In 2011, Frank received a last-minute invitation to attend an ADM symposium in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. After watching presentations on athletic development and sports science by hockey experts from around the world, Frank experienced an epiphany: the model his program had been following was all wrong. The full-ice practices and the win-at-all-costs mentality were adult-centered goals that had nothing to do with the kids’ dreams or development.
Frank returned home knowing the resistance he would face in overhauling an entire culture. How do you tell your coaches, players and parents that the method they were using was wrong and out of date? Frank realized a complete commitment from everyone on the club would be required if his plan was going to work.
“We were either going down with the ship or we were going to sail,” he recalled.
It took three years and an entirely new staff before the club achieved full model status. But more challenges lay ahead. After failing to reach an agreement with the rink owners to continue in Anaheim, the Wildcats moved to Icetown Riverside, 30 miles away. Many families found it difficult to make the commute, and the club had to build trust in a new community. But Frank and his staff worked hard to rebuild.
By the second season in Riverside, they expanded to an additional rink in Carlsbad in northern San Diego County, built two training facilities, and formed a partnership with the Kings. The program continues to see record enrollment and player retention. Frank, who is also the ADM coordinator for the California Amateur Hockey Association, hopes to spread the message of how the ADM can help other organizations.
Esdale believes his club has only begun to scratch the surface of what it can accomplish through the ADM.
“We want to ensure the kids have a great experience, but also become the best players and the best people they can be,” he explained.
The Junior Reign’s journey is, in itself, a reflection of successful core principles: teamwork, discipline, and perseverance. Their story is an inspiration to kids looking for an environment that allows them to ignite their passions.
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.