The Combat Hockey/North American Hockey League (NAHL) Showcase held from September 12-16 at the Schwan Super Rink in Blaine, MN, may go down as the best in event’s 10-year history. Just as it did last year, this year’s NAHL Showcase set new marks and records for attendance by fans and scouts alike, who attended the five-day event which is considered one of the greatest hockey festivals of its kind, providing unmatched exposure to thousands of North America’s best young hockey prospects.
“Awesome…,” remarked NAHL Commissioner Mark Frankenfeld. “That was the first thing I thought when all of the competitive forces were brought together to celebrate our 10th anniversary of the Showcase. I am thrilled for our hockey community, which consists of all of the players, coaches and teams that compete, and that all their hard work created a product to attract a record number of scouts. I am not sure how we can top this year’s event, but we will certainly give it our best efforts, because the players deserve the best and we are committed to providing that opportunity for them.”
Earlier this week, six NAHL players were listed on the NHL Central Scouting ‘Players to Watch’ list and there have already been a number of NCAA commitments for the 2012-13 season. That commitment number is certain to skyrocket based upon the players performance and the interest shown by scouts at the NAHL Showcase. It comes on the heels of a season which was a record-breaking year for NCAA commitments for players in the NAHL. Over 190 players that played in the NAHL this past season or were an alumni of the NAHL from last season, committed to an NCAA school.
All 24 NAHL teams played four regular-season games at the tournament, which was highlighted by three teams (Texas Tornado, Kalamazoo Jr. K-Wings and Wenatchee Wild) posting perfect 4-0 records, with the Tornado taking home the NAHL Showcase title thanks to the best goal differential. It was the first event of the season for the North American Prospects Hockey League (PHL), in which 36 Midget Major (18U) and Midget Minor (16U) teams competed at the Tier I level. The event also featured eight teams from the Upper Midwest High School Elite League (UMHSEL), six 18U Midget Major Tier I teams from High Performance Hockey League (HPHL) and six at-large 16U Midget Minor teams that participated in the Future Prospects Tournament at the event. In total, 80 teams were in action over a five-day span.
The most eye-popping number from the event was that a record 324 scouts who attended the Showcase during the five days, shattering the previous high number set last season of 253. 55 NHL scouts attended, which included all but one NHL team and also included members of NHL Central Scouting, a department within the NHL that ranks prospects for the NHL Entry Draft.
Having previously attended the NAHL Showcase as a scout for the NHL’s Calgary Flames, Greg Rajanen, who now works for NHL Central Scouting, was at the event and said that this year’s NAHL Showcase met every expectation. “It is a very good event in the sense that teams come from all over the United States and it allows scouts to watch any number of players in one setting and under one roof. More older players are being drafted and signed in the NHL right now, so that is where the majority of players from the NAHL become a factor,” said Rajanen. “Scouts have to come to this Showcase event and prepare to be very organized because there is a lot of scouting and sorting of players,” continued Rajanen. “We are looking for the diamonds in the rough and the NAHL does a great job at providing their information and resources to us. Based on this event we anticipate some players from the NAHL being drafted into the NHL in the Summer of 2013.”
Two players from the NAHL, Anthony Stolarz (Corpus Christi) and Connor Hellebuyck (Odessa) were drafted in the NHL this past season. Both were goaltenders, a position that the NAHL has a strong track record of producing such as current NHL goaltenders: Ryan Miller, Tim Thomas, Brent Johnson, Al Montoya and Ben Bishop. “I think for goalies in particular, it is a numbers game,” said Rajanen. “There are only so many spots available at the Junior A levels, but there has always been a lot of buzz surrounding goalies in this league.”
The largest representation of scouts came from the NCAA. 153 NCAA scouts were in attendance during the five-day event, including 84 NCAA Division I scouts. Out of the current 59 NCAA Division I programs, all but two were represented at the NAHL Showcase.
One of the NCAA Division I teams that have tapped directly into the NAHL pipeline is the Air Force Academy Falcons of the Atlantic Hockey Association (AHA). This past season, head coach Frank Serratore had 19 NAHL alumni on his roster. Serratore said he was impressed with the 2012 NAHL Showcase in particular because of the competition and level of parity of teams. “This year’s Showcase had the best parity I have seen in years. The expansion teams have caught up and there are no bad teams or bad games. I think the league is deeper from top to bottom than it has ever been, and the gap has narrowed considerably between teams, which make the games fun to watch and is a real positive for the league this season.” With 29 of the 30 NHL teams and 57 of the 59 NCAA Division I teams in attendance, Serratore believes that the NAHL Showcase has to be an annual, mandatory event for any scout. “I think if you are not at the NAHL Showcase as a scout or a coach, you have to ask yourself…are you doing your job? This is a must-see event for our staff every season because from our perspective you can’t leave any stone unturned and the NAHL has a great track record and history producing some very good NCAA talent each season.”
Serratore said there are several reasons he looks to the NAHL to fill the majority of his roster at Air Force each season. “The players we get out of the NAHL fit our culture at Air Force. They come to us as mature adults, they haven’t been pampered, they come in with a great work ethic and they are humble,” said Serratore. They want to get to continue to learn and become better hockey players at the NCAA level and they are appreciative of what we provide. Everyone has to have a primary recruiting ground, or ‘go to’ league, and for us that league is the NAHL.”
Another one of the NCAA Division I scouts in attendance was Gary Shuchuk, an Assistant Coach at the University of Wisconsin of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association (WCHA). “The fact you are able to see so many different levels of hockey and players, makes the NAHL Showcase probably the biggest recruiting event we attend,” said Shuchuk. “It is amazing and is literally one-stop shopping for everyone here. Players and teams are represented from all over the country and it is a great atmosphere to watch players, identify those that may be a fit for your program and then follow them through the season.”
“I think there is a lot of talent in the NAHL. It is a little bit of an older and more grittier league, but you are going to find players in this league that are college ready, experienced and know what it takes to win,” said Shuchuk. “All players develop at their own pace, some earlier and some later. I like players in the NAHL because they have a strong work ethic and carry a little bit of an edge and a chip on their shoulder. Just because two players aren’t equal in talent at age 16, doesn’t mean they won’t be by the time they are ready to play college hockey. The reality is that in today’s NCAA, teams aren’t just looking to fill the voids left by seniors because players may leave early, they go the NHL, they transfer, etc… so besides looking for the guys who may fill that initial spot left by someone who graduated, we have to be prepared to fill all the voids. We also can’t limit ourselves to just players who are college ready, but we have to prepare two, three, four years down the road and that’s where the younger players at an event like this factor into it.”
Finally, an event like the NAHL Showcase would not be possible if it weren’t for the Schwan Super Rink, the largest facility of its kind in the world. From its eight sheets of ice to its experienced staff, no other building matches what the Schwan Super Rink delivers. “For five days in a row, we run games from morning till night and their staff is there and helping every step of the way,” said Frankenfeld. “It is not only a testament to the facility, but to the staff and their professionalism, management and accommodations for the thousands of fans and players that attend on an annual basis.”
“The NAHL Showcase has evolved into an event with a great tradition and history, and we are thrilled to be a part of it each season,” said Schwan Super Rink operations and program director Pete Carlson. “We have a great partnership with the NAHL and we are continually impressed by the professionalism shown by all the staff, coaches and players that participate on an annual basis.”