COLUMN By PATRICK STROHECKER
Every September, the sports world is overtaken by the beginning of football season, both college and the NFL.
But when the calendar flips over from August, that also signals the beginning of the Delaware Valley Hockey League, the travel league that the local hockey teams play in. And while it might not seem like a huge deal, and for most people, you probably didn’t even know it existed, it’s something that should start catching your attention.
Over the past five years, the York Devils — primarily the Midget 18-AA team — have not only become the premier travel hockey program in central Pennsylvania, but one of the best organizations in the nation.
This area isn’t widely considered a hockey hot bed. Usually when people think of good hockey in Pennsylvania, that thought is reserved for the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh regions. And rightfully so, since those are the two major cities in the state and possess the only two NHL clubs.
But over the past four years, the Devils have thrown their hat into that discussion, consistently finding its showcase team, the Midget 18-AA squad, in the top-40 of the national rankings. Since the 2010-11 season, when the 18-AA team finished the season ranked 39th in the country, the squad has gradually increased its standing in the national polls.
York improved to No. 27 in 2011-12, No. 16 in 2012-13 and then finally capped everything off by being ranked as the fifth-best travel team in the country last season. The Devils competed in the national tournament, facing off against teams from Delaware, New York, New Jersey and Chicago.
Growth and development: For years, York always played second fiddle to the Hershey Jr. Bears travel program, an organization that boasted multiple teams at all five age groups, as well as several girls’ teams and the Quebec Team. Players came from all over the state — and even out of state — to play for the Jr. Bears. Now, the Devils have the teams that kids want to play for, getting some of the best instruction from coaches in the area.
“What we’ve done here, in the last 10 years that I’ve been here, it’s been a very attractive option for kids,” said Mike Cleveland, the head coach of the 18-AA team for the past 10 seasons and hockey director of the York Devils program. “It takes a special kid to want to play and commit themselves to this level. So, I think the attractiveness of our club, the years of having success, draws people to our program because of that attractiveness and being able to play at a higher level.”
The rise of the York organization has made it what Hershey used to be, fielding multiple teams at every age group, while still being competitive. That’s left the other travel teams in the area grasping for straws to come up with enough players to fill out their teams, let alone stay competitive.
But it isn’t just success at the top level that is making York the go-to destination for hockey-crazed kids. The program throughout is well run and has shown that through its results on the ice.
The Devils have a number of strong younger teams that constantly play above .500 hockey and are competitive within the DVHL. But, with those younger programs, as much as you want to see the teams winning, you also want to see player growth and development, the main focus of the York program.
“We have committed to skill development and player development versus winning and losing,” said Rick Lefever, president of the York Ice Hockey Club. “Our coaching education program, we go beyond what USA Hockey requires … And that commitment from the coaches and members is what has made our program better.”
There might not be a better sign of that progression than seeing how the younger players have developed over the years in the organization, with everything culminating at the pinnacle of travel hockey, the midget level, where the players are competing with some of the best teams in the country.
So when you’re sitting around during the weekends in the coming months, and football is engulfing your life, don’t forget about the sport on ice. Because believe it or not, York has turned into quite the hockey hot bed and owns one of the best travel programs in the country.
— Reach Patrick Strohecker at email@example.com.