BY RON COCQUYT
After the most recent NHL draft, I sat back and reflected on my life and the lives of my colleagues as coaches of youth hockey in the metro Detroit area. We were the pioneers. In the early 70s, there was very little youth hockey and little or no contact with our Canadian brothers, who dominated the sport at every level. In 1973 the gentleman who sponsored and owned the midget team I was coaching decided that he wanted to elevate the team’s status to AAA. This meant that our team would be competing against other teams in southeast Michigan who were recruiting and developing elite 15 and 16 year old players. In order to determine how well our team was developing, he regularly scheduled games across the border, in Canada. We played teams in Windsor, Sarnia, London, and Chatham. What made this challenging was that we were looked down on by the Canadian players, their coaches, and the parents. Even the officials took a dim view of Americans who thought they had what it took to defeat the always dominant Canadian hockey teams.
For the first two years, there was no doubt that we were out of our element. Even some of the most prestigious teams in metro Detroit were being challenged across the border. Detroit Little Caesar’s, J J Curran, Slasor Heating and Cooling, and Roberts Pools were only a few of the sponsored teams that were beginning to emerge in the metro Detroit area. Hockey rinks were under construction everywhere; there were both privately owned and community arenas. Ice time was becoming impossible to get. Often, Midget AAA teams were practicing later than 10:00 p.m. at night in order to provide ice time at a reasonable hour for the younger kids.
By 1977, we were beginning to show some degree of success in competing with our Canadian neighbors. We were even occasionally being invited to a Canadian tournament. We were even demonstrating skills and speed that the Canadians admired and had not yet mastered. Some of us coaches were attending clinics held by Herb Brooks (soon to be world famous as an Olympic coach), Bob Johnson, and other elite coaches supplied by AHAUS, the Amateur Hockey Association of the United States (prior to the creation of USA Hockey).
New styles of the game were evolving; new techniques; new practice methods; more clinics; more instructions; certification programs; and the biggest event that powered U.S. Hockey forward, especially in metro Detroit, was the “Miracle on Ice.” There was a surge in exciting programs coming out of Chicago, western New York State, and Detroit continued to maintain its dominance in youth hockey. The most significant Junior league in the country was created in Michigan in the early 80s. Every team in the NAHL, with the exception of Buffalo (New York), was based in metro Detroit. The United States Hockey League had its presence in small towns in the Midwest. But the NAHL and the idea of developing American hockey players, especially Michigan-bred hockey players, led to the creation of College Days, which then evolved into a pre-season Showcase Tournament that highlighted the best of the best for the Midwest college coaches to see, evaluate, and recruit. Some of us were involved in the earliest days of getting U.S.-born, Detroit-bred hockey players recruited by colleges in the CCHA and the WCHA; previously both these leagues were dominated by Canadian players and coaches. With the exception of the University of Minnesota and the two schools in Boston, Massachusetts, there was no place for or interest in American hockey players until people like me busted down the doors, presented our players for consideration, and got them recruited. There was a revolution going on in the state of Michigan that was being fueled by irate parents who paid taxes to support Michigan schools and yet whose sons were not considered good enough to play hockey there. We changed all that. The success of all these efforts was put on display last month. The United States dominated the NHL Draft. Players now even come from California, Texas, Florida, Arizona. No fewer than ten players from the National Development Squad were drafted in the first round. The best goalie on the planet, a young American man, Spencer Knight, was drafted by the Florida Panthers. American players dominated the draft.
To my colleagues, who were the pioneers in creating this situation: It’s time to sit back and take pride in the accomplishment of a long but worthwhile mission. There are many sideline stories that feature U. S.-born players, but to my recollection, this is the first time that American hockey players were the focus of such an important draft.