New U16 Mustangs team in the works

The Yukon Amateur Hockey Association is taking steps to prevent the exodus of top young hockey players the territory sees each season.

The Yukon Amateur Hockey Association is taking steps to prevent the exodus of top young hockey players the territory sees each season.

This past season a total of 12 midget-age players left Yukon to play on Tier 1 and 2 teams down south instead of playing for the Whitehorse Mustangs, a Tier 3 rep team.

As a result, YAHA had no midget rep program, forcing the association to forfeit hosting duties of the B.C. Tier 3 midget hockey championships that were to take place in Whitehorse in March.

To battle the flight of top talent, YAHA is creating a U16 Mustangs team for elite 15-year-olds.

“Last year we had 12 midget-age guys play down south and the result of that is we had no midget program last year here in Whitehorse,” said YAHA president Russ Smoler. “It got us thinking: what can we do to keep our guys here? And part of it was to have high-end hockey here because these kids are going off to play high-end hockey.”

“The midget age is 15-, 16- and 17-year-olds and the 15-year-olds, unless they are super, are not going to get a lot of playing time. So six years ago, about the same time the midget program (age) span was put in place, the sports schools decided to do an elite 15 league – so just high-end elite 15-year-olds playing.

“So teams can keep their older midget players but the sports schools are taking the best of the 15-year-olds letting play in a league of their own. We thought that was a model of what we should try to do and how this whole idea got started.”

Smoler, who took over as YAHA president five weeks ago, knows the costs of playing down south first-hand. His son Riley played for the Pursuit of Excellence sports school in Kelowna last season. Whitehorse’s Mathew Cooper and Gavin Lawrie – the son of YAHA head coach Martin Lawrie – played for the Pacific Coast Hockey Academy in Victoria.

“We put our heads together and said, ‘This is just dumb. Why are we spending so much money to go out? We play out there, we lose our kids,’” said Russ. “These are good athletes all the way around, they are leaders in schools, and we lose them.”

YAHA will hold an identification camp for the U16 Mustangs August 14-17 in Whitehorse. The team will be open to elite players born 2000-2001 from Canada’s three territories, northern B.C. and even Alaska.

“It would augment our higher talented guys here at the U16 age and put together a high performance team that would travel to tournaments, travel to exhibition-type games either in B.C., Alberta or Alaska,” said Russ. “Part of that is because of our partnership with Air North.”

The creation of the U16 team comes with good timing. Many of the top players from the Bantam Mustangs will be moving up into midget next season. The Bantam Mustangs won Whitehorse’s first-ever gold at the B.C. Hockey Championships in March.

“A lot of that alumni could move forward into this U16 squad, is the idea,” said Russ.

In addition to the U16 Mustangs, YAHA is working to put hockey in schools as well. Porter Creek Secondary School and YAHA are partnering to install a Hockey Canada sanctioned program that the sport’s governing body has made available to schools.

The program will be offered to Grade 8 students with the possibility of expanding to more grades in coming years.

“When we approached the school, they had already given out electives to a bunch of the kids, so they couldn’t start the first semester, but they’re willing to go the second semester,” said Russ. “I’ve bumped into two parents who have been to the Grade 8 orientation and they said the presentation on the hockey side was great. They loved it, the kids loved it, so I think it’s going to be really positive.”

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