By Denis Puska
For the second year in a row, the Amarillo Bulls are the NAHL’s regular season champions and also regular season Champions of the South Division. It is also no coincidence that for the second straight season, they are at the top of the NAHL college commitments list with 12 players on this year’s team currently committed to NCAA schools. So, therein may lie the answer to why the Bulls have been so successful.
It is really the sum up the focus for any teenage hockey player – to get an NCAA Scholarship. The Bulls have had great success in moving players on to the NCAA level in this last two and a half seasons. Twenty-nine players and counting have received a scholarship, the most of any team in such a short time span. For these players who get the scholarship opportunity, it means everything.
“It’s the money, time, sacrifices, along with the emotions, that my parents have made to get me to get me where I am today,” said Bulls Captain John Rey who will head to Robert Morris University this fall. “My parents have given me the opportunity to come to Amarillo and find my dream. With my mom and dad, along with Coach (Dennis) Williams and Coach (Rocky) Russo pushing me along the way, it’s just been remarkable to realize a dream. That is just one of the few of hockey dreams.”
One person who understands about that dream is Bulls Head Coach Dennis Williams, who attended Bowling Green State University on a scholarship. The Stratford, Ontario Canada native has spent nine years coaching at the NCAA Division I and Division III levels. Williams said the process really begins when they recruit their players to Amarillo.
“What we look for is do the players want to work hard, do they have tough skin, want to give back to their community, and get the guys who have the right skill set, and what colleges are looking for,” Williams explained. “During the summer, all of our tenders get the team’s off season workout program, and everyone of them has to fill out a weight card and email them to me once every two weeks.
“Before they even step foot in Amarillo, they have 10 solid weeks of lifting. With them having to send it in every two weeks it keeps them honest. If they are saying they are lifting a certain amount of weight and they get here in August and they are not, then they are cheating themselves.”
Williams said during the season the phones don’t stop ringing as the coaching staff is in constant communication with NCAA Coaches and Scouts.
“I would like to think I have become part of their bridge to the next level and to college,” he commented. “If it’s myself or Rocky (Assistant Coach Rocky Russo) or Harry (Assistant Coach Harry Mahood) making those calls then that is our job as coaches. We email all colleges on a weekly basis, to give them updates on our guys.
“All of the players have to take the SAT, ACTs when they are offered. We give them preparation courses to help them with that. We hold them accountable just like they would in college, like they are going to school. We have the ice every day from 8 am to 4 pm, we practice skill set in the afternoon, we do individual video and team video.”
But why do the players come to the Texas Panhandle to play hockey for the Bulls? Many of them say it’s about the coaching staff preparing them and giving them the tools to succeed on and off the ice. It’s also about the prior knowledge of the NCAA level and what the schools are looking for.
Coach Williams said they hear it from the college coaches all the time that Bulls players are ready to play when they arrive at the schools.
“Two and a half years ago, I didn’t know what to expect from junior hockey because I spent nine years in College hockey and it was all that I knew,” he said. “When I hired Rocky back then the biggest thing I told him was that what I wanted to run here is no different than a Division I institution. When I coached at Neumann University (Division III program) I ran it like a Division I team.”
Williams said it was the first group of players like Joe Kozlak, Luke Jenkins, Nikifor Sczerba and Matt Johnson who have paved the way and got the Bulls up and running to the success they are enjoying now.
“I look back at the team we brought from Albert Lea and some of those players Joe Kozlak, Luke Jenkins, Matt Johnson, Brandon Lubin and Nikifor Sczerba, and they are all pretty good hockey players,” he said. “We had to instill confidence in them that they can do this. I bet two years prior to that those players never thought once about playing Division I hockey or never had the opportunities.
“They could have easily said this is way too hard and leave. We have had kids who say this is too hard and leave us. All we are trying to do is get them ready for the next level. Already we have had three players get rookie of the month, Joe Kozlak, Karl Beckman and John Gustafsson. Seeing them excel that is what gets me excited.
“I get phone calls from these guys all the time asking for advice or thanking us because at the time they didn’t know why they were a healthy scratch. They don’t know that at the time it was for them and their future.”
Williams said it has certainly been a journey with early success but that first year has set the bench mark and the high level of success.
“Everyone questioned where we would be this year and how good we would be because we lost 13 players to college hockey,” he said. “The players that were tendered and drafted were pretty good hockey players as well, like Brady Ferguson, Carter Penzien, Tyler Gernhofer, Joe Grabowski; and along with our players from last year Mike Davis, Ryan Cole and Tyler Deresky, we have built a pretty good culture. You come in here to learn and get your feet wet and play a couple of games.”
Defenseman Derek Hills was part of the Amarillo Bulls in the inaugural season. A native of Campbell River British Columbia Canada, Hills came over from the British Columbia Junior Hockey League to play with the Bulls. He’s now in his freshman season with Bowling Green State University. Hills, who is one of many Canadians who cross the border to play hockey in the states in hopes of attaining an NCAA Scholarship, said after talking with Coach Williams he was quickly sold on the type of program that was going to be built, and the opportunity at the next level.
“That was one of the reasons why I came down there is that Dennis Williams had good ties with college coaches, not just the CCHA but everywhere,” said Hills who also served as Bulls’ Team Captain in that first season. “It was great to have him in my corner and he was trying to help me out and get me what I wanted. I was pretty sure an NCAA Scholarship was going to happen with Dennis Williams at the helm. On a day to day basis it was a lot of work, but well worth it when it happened.”
Garrett Peterson is a defenseman with the 2012-2013 Bulls who committed to Army earlier this year. Peterson, a native of Coppell, Texas, signed with the Bulls as a free-agent from the former St. Louis Bandits. He said he came to Amarillo because the team plays that high energy fast paced game that goes well with the college level.
“When I went to Army for my visit, all the coaches could do is sing the praises of Coach (Dennis) Williams and Coach (Rocky) Russo,” Peterson explained. “They really like the way they handle their players. They treat us like professionals and grown men. If you are not playing well then you are not going to play. I think that pressure and high expectancy, forces you to get ready for the next level.”
Army has become a great location for Bulls players with defenseman Luke Jenkins and forward Joe Kozlak concluding their sophomore seasons. Peterson along with forward Clint Carlisle will head to West Point in September.
Kozlak joined the Bulls roster in the inaugural season from the former Albert Lea Thunder. After a tough first year in Junior hockey, Kozlak quickly developed into one of the Bulls go-to-players, and became a fan favorite with his tough-nose, gritty style of play that’s become a back bone of the Bulls success along with the winning atmosphere.
“First and foremost they have created a winning atmosphere and every college teams wants winners,” Kozlak said from West Point. “The coaches teach a college level style so it’s an easier adjustment to go from Amarillo to college than some other teams. My coaches like to recruit in the South Division because it’s tough-nose hockey and gets you ready for college hockey.”
Kozlak said he wasn’t going to give up and kept working hard towards his dream of playing college hockey.
With good coaching and hard work, I realized my dream was possible,” he said. “To come to Army was getting the best education that I could and fulfilling my dream of playing college hockey, so it made it a real easy decision.”
Defenseman John Rey said hockey is only one aspect of how the Bulls prepares players for the next level and added they also help you grow as a person.
“Coming to the Amarillo Bulls organization is not about the player you are on the ice but it’s about the complete person that you are off the ice, in community services and finding out who you are through the obstacles that you have to overcome,” Rey said. “Coach Williams has been a coach and player at the Division I level he understands what it takes to succeed at those levels. He has coached many players who have gone on to those ranks. The combination of those two really is just second to none.”
Defenseman Dan McDougall spent one season with the Bulls before moving on to Neumann University in Philadelphia. In didn’t take long from McDougall to make his way into the Neumann line-up on a regular basis in his sophomore season. He said he wished he could have played another year with the Bulls to further develop his skills.
“The adjustment from Amarillo to Neumann has been pretty easy,” said McDougall who hails from Michigan. “When I got here, I got a chance to play every game and in all situations from power play to penalty kill. At the end of the game, I was one of the guys on the ice. That is a credit to what went on in Amarillo. They got me ready to fit right in. I didn’t notice a change when I got there but my parents said they did.”
Forward John Gustafsson came over from Sweden and spent one season with the Bulls before moving on to Merrimack College. He said the Bulls were able to help him work on the defensive side of the game which is key at the next level.
Last year I learned more defense and how to protect the puck,” Gustafsson said. “I also learned how to play on the smaller ice surface which was also helpful.”
For many European players like Gustafsson coming over to North America to play hockey can mean for them one goal and that’s to play professional and at the National Hockey League level. Gustafsson said getting a Division I scholarship was not high on his radar when he arrived, but that quickly changed.
“If it wasn’t for the Bulls I wouldn’t be at Merrimack right now so I have Coach Williams and Coach Russo to thank for that,” he said. “Actually, I didn’t want to go to College when I first came to Amarillo, but the coaches talked me into it and I am really happy that they did. I am really enjoying my time here and the hockey is really good. It was a good idea to play junior hockey before I decided to go to college.”
A new crop of players are waiting in the wings to join the Amarillo Bulls roster this summer. Tendered players as well as draft picks and those who come from open try-out camps will vie for spots on the 2013-2014 team. Ryan Stephens who is from the Dallas, Texas area said one of the main reasons why he chose to sign a Tender with the Bulls is that he likes the fact that the Bulls move players on to the next level.
“I think it would be great if I can get a scholarship and repay my parents for all they have done,” he said. “Coming to Amarillo early in the season for a few games gave me a sense to see what the North American Hockey League was like and I really enjoyed it. It gave me a sense of what I have to do next year to play well.”
Max McLain and Dean Rhymer are two players who will join the Bulls next season from California. The success of the Bulls on the ice and moving players on are reasons why they are headed to Texas.
“I’ve heard they have had a great reputation of winning and of the coaches,” said Rhymer who is a defenseman with the Los Angeles Jr. Kings program. “They also get quite a number of NCAA looks and commitments every year so that definitely was important to me when I was looking for because one day I aspire to play Division I hockey.”
“If you look at the numbers and what the Amarillo Bulls have done on the ice and in the number of scholarships of players moving on it’s pretty amazing,” said McLin. “It’s been about two years since I have thought about taking the NCAA College route and I think the Bulls can get me to my goal.”
The process to become an NCAA Athlete is a never ending one. The hard work, sacrifices, the blood, sweat and tears the players have put in to get them to that point doesn’t go unnoticed. As the Amarillo Bulls race towards the North American Hockey League playoffs and a possible third trip to the Robertson Cup National Championship tournament, the work continues fulfill more dreams, goals and scholarship opportunities.
Head Coach Dennis Williams said the best news he receives when he gets yes from the players and the school that another spot has been secured.
“I would take that over winning hockey games any day,” Williams explained. “When we talk to a player and he says that’s where I want to go, and they have offered something. They come into our office and you see that smile that’s what it is all about. Don’t get me wrong I like to win hockey games, and that is why I coach. But I love it more when I see these players, particularly like John Rey who two years ago come in from a camp in Philadelphia to be the NAHL Defenseman of the year last year and commit to Robert Morris. Seeing him progress from day one to now – he came here as a young boy and will leave as a man.”