The path to nationals gets tougher every year for the Atlanta Phoenix, a program based in the Atlanta suburb of Duluth, Georgia. But the Phoenix once again rose to the top in 2014-15, qualifying for USA Hockey’s Tier II 16U National Championship.
It’s a return trip of sorts. Atlanta claimed a 14U national title in 2013 and several players are holdovers. The coaches, too, are tournament regulars. Robert Cernich and Gregory Galloway helped pilot the 1999s and 1998s, watching them grow in the program from true youngsters into slightly more grizzled youngsters.
“They’re a little more serious now,” said Galloway, following Atlanta’s 5-2 pool-clinching win today in Plano, Texas. “The first time, you’re just having fun. Now they’re starting to think about the next level, and for some, they know that this might be the last hurrah.”
Grew Up Thrashers
The NHL made a major impact on Atlanta, even if the Thrashers did eventually fly to Winnipeg. Prior to their departure, a Thrashers-led grow-the-game effort helped spawn youth programs like the Phoenix, which uses Atlanta’s former practice rink as its home.
“It provided good access to NHL people that helped facilitate hockey growth in the area,” said Galloway. “Darren Eliot helped lead that and he did a great job.”
Where the seeds were planted, hockey grew. Then it became increasingly competitive. Now no one takes the Phoenix lightly.
“I think this is the highest we’ve ever been ranked, and we’ve won almost every tournament we played this year,” said Galloway. “The kids expect to get here now, but it’s gets harder every year.”
It gets harder because of the increasingly competitive southeastern hockey landscape, which makes victory anything but automatic. Contributing factors to that improvement include USA Hockey’s American Development Model, which Galloway credits as a component of Atlanta’s success.
“We stick to the ADM; the kids have really developed with it,” he said. “Because of the limited ice availability down here, we share the ice twice a week with another team, so that puts 25 to 30 kids on the ice and we do a lot of station-based practices and battles. Now other teams are catching on, too. It works.”
Notes from Plano:
People power a great national championship, from players to coaches and parents to officials. Not to be overlooked in the “officials” category is the army of local directors and volunteers who staff essential roles, like penalty-box management, or hospitality functions, like operation of the greeting desk.
One unique way to help fill those roles was on display in Texas, where hosts worked with qualifying teams to provide volunteer opportunities for traveling family members. Using an online volunteer management platform, attendees could register in advance to assist and earn incentives for their efforts, like free tournament gear, food and passes. The solution not only helped fill key roles, it also provided everyone with a chance to be involved in the production of a great event.