A town that is more than 1,000 miles from the birthplace of the sport has dedicated itself to bringing in the best hockey players from all over the country.
The Alabama hockey team has developed relationships in hockey’s most important areas across America and even Canada. The result is a rising program.
“We go about things in a very professional way,” said Alabama head coach John Bierchen. “We define ourselves by how we approach things. People see the writing on the wall that our program continues to get better, and if they come in, they can help it continue to take those steps.”
Alabama hockey finished 19-14-0-2 last season in its second season playing ACHA division I club hockey under Bierchen. Since the team made the jump from division III under former head coach Mike Quenneville, it has tried to create a professional environment.
Bierchen, who used to to be an assistant coach for NCAA division III school SUNY-Canton, has formed a team full of players from places where hockey is almost religious.
“I learned to recruit in an NCAA way,” Bierchen said. “That’s basically how we try to recruit our players is to a similar structure. So, we try to identify the best players that we can that will fit The University and our program then go after them in an NCAA way.”
Bierchen and Quenneville scouted and contacted players who have played NCAA division III hockey or junior professional hockey. They also found players who were raised in the Northeast, Canada and the Midwest.
James Benedetto, a defender from New York, is one of these players. He went to boarding school in Connecticut to play hockey during his high school years. After the scholarships for the schools he wanted didn’t come in, he made a decision based on academics.
He chose Alabama based on their journalism school, and he joined the team to keep playing the sport. The first time he stepped on the ice, he was blown away by the team’s level of talent.
“I was expecting to be the only player that even played relatively competitively,” Benedetto said. “I knew there had been travel leagues down here, but from a northern perspective, I thought that it wasn’t as strong. I really underestimated the players down here.”
Benedetto is one of the many players who came to Alabama from outside of the south. Currently, the team has 11 players that hail from the Northeast.
Alabama was even able to draw in four players from Canada. Jeremy Hannah, Taylor Joseph, Pierre Ouellete and Chris Skeates were some of the most important players for the Crimson Tide last season. Joseph led the team in points (57), goals (26) and assists (31). He played in both the OHJL (a junior professional league) and NCAA division III hockey at SUNY-Oswego before coming to Alabama.
The other three have similar backgrounds. Hannah played at Daniel Webster College and scored 15 goals this season. Ouellette also played for SUNY-Oswego and had 41 points for the Crimson Tide. Skeates played at Daniel Webster College as well and appeared in five games this season as a goalie for the Crimson Tide.
“People in those areas have followed Chris and Taylor and Pierre and Jeremy,” Bierchen said. “Those followers say, ‘Hey, this might be an up-and-coming program, and look at what they’re accomplishing and they’re having fun.’ They tell me and their parents tell me that people in Canada are asking about the university.”
Most of the time, the team can find players by forming relationships with their current players. They will scout one player, and he will pass it on to one of his friends who will learn about the program. That is how Alabama landed the four Canadians.
Beyond word of mouth, the team does try to actively recruit players. Bierchen said the team tries to video chat with the players when recruiting them.
“We do try to get in front of them before we get them on campus,” he said. “We want to make that connection and build that relationship. At the end of the day that’s what makes a team successful, is the culture and being on the same page.”
Once the players make the decision to come to Alabama, leaving their homes and traveling to the South is actually not a difficult decision as it would seem. Many hockey players are used to traveling and spending time away from home. Players who are serious about the sport usually play junior professional hockey, or juniors.
Playing juniors causes many to leave their hometowns and play in places far away. For some, it can still be in the Northeast. For others it can be in Canada or other states such as Michigan.
“I think when you play hockey, you are used to having to travel a lot or be away from home to play like junior hockey or go to tournaments,” Bierchen said. “Everyone is kind of used to having to be away from home.”
Alabama’s influence is also stretching into areas where the sport is on the rise. Dylan Teed, who is from Arizona, learned about the program through his brother who played there. Currently, hockey is growing in Arizona. The state has an NHL team in the Phoenix Coyotes. Auston Matthews, who was the first American to be selected No. 1 overall in the NHL draft since 2007, comes from Arizona.
“I had no clue what to expect when I got here,” Teed said. “It’s nice having everyone from different parts of the country. It gives you different perspectives.”
One of the few players that comes from the South is Alabama native Griffin Butler. Butler is Alabama’s only in-state player. He believes the team has gone in the right direction by finding players from outside of his home state.
“People just understand the game better,” Butler said. “Everyone plays at a high IQ. It just makes everyone mesh really well.”
Butler has formed close relationships with his teammates. Being one of the few players from the state, Butler has helped his teammates adjust to life in the South.
“Griffin and all of our returning players have …read more
Source:: The Crimson White Sports