In the era of one-and-done, a popular thought experiment for college basketball fans is to imagine what certain teams, especially Kentucky, would look like if players had stayed for all four years.
A similar thought experiment is now sweeping across the Alaska prep hockey scene, and the Kenai Peninsula is no exception.
This season, the Kenai Central hockey team could have returned forwards Jake Eubank, Ross Hanson and Baxter Cox, and steady defensemen Michael Tilly and Conner Johnson. But all five played hockey in the Lower 48 this season.
At the same time, Soldotna lost the services of Kenny Griffin and Preston Weeks to Lower 48 teams.
Vince Redford, the owner of Red Line Sports who started playing hockey on the Peninsula in 1973 and started coaching in 1978, said the level of hockey played on the Peninsula keeps improving.
“It’s the evolution of the development of hockey on the Peninsula,” Redford said. “Kids are getting better and getting to higher levels of hockey.”
Redford said a big reason for that is the Kenai River Brown Bears. The Brown Bears are a Tier II Junior A club. The only junior league higher in the United States is the 17-team United States Hockey League.
“The Brown Bears have a lot to do with it,” Redford said. “The kids now have a local team to aspire to. It helps with motivation and the dream factor.
“They can actually watch kids playing at the level they want to get to.”
The Brown Bears have played eight seasons, and 12 players from the Peninsula have seen at least one game in the local sweater. Alaska also has been able to keep the team stocked with talent, as nine players with Alaska ties saw time with the team this season.
Kenai River head coach Geoff Beauparlant said it is impressive that a community the size of the central Peninsula has had 12 players reach such a high level of hockey in eight years.
“We don’t pull any punches,” Beauparlant said. “We’re up front with each and every player about where he stands.
“The reality is every player is not going to make our hockey club. But if you are a good enough local player, you’ll make it.”
Redford also said the Kenai Peninsula Hockey Association has struggled at times, but it has to be given credit for the players that it is producing.
“It’s still developing and getting better,” Redford said. “Coaches are coming into the area that are helping the program be more successful.
“We still don’t have enough, though, and we still need more with more qualifications.”
KPHA recently got a nice feather in its cap when the Tier II Girls 14U team became the first Ice Hawks squad in 40 years to win the Pacific District tournament. The same squad then went on to a top-four finish in the USA Hockey National Championships in Lansing, Michigan.
Redford said another factor that hasn’t been fully felt yet is the summer ice program at the Kenai Multi-Purpose Facility. This will be the third summer that hockey players have a chance to hone their skills in the summer, which was never possible before.
“I think proof of it is a little premature, but people will see it when it happens,” Redford said. “We’ll see in two or three years how much it has helped those who started as Squirts or PeeWees.
“For so many years, we’ve seen kids compete and improve so much over the season, then take a half step backward until they can get back on the ice. Now, that rate of improvement isn’t suffering.”
When players go Outside to play hockey, it is either for junior teams, for a prep school or for Midget squads. Here is a look at each.
Junior hockey, such as the Brown Bears, the USHL and lower levels, is for players 20 and below.
There is a long list of Peninsula players who have gone on to play junior hockey after high school, but Tilly and Cox speeded up the process a little.
Tilly, a junior in high school, played this season for the West Sound Warriors of the Northern Pacific Hockey League. He appeared in 19 games in the regular season on defense and had five assists. Tilly was the youngest player on a team that won the league playoffs to qualify for the national tournament.
The team also had a strong Homer contingent, including Homer graduates Tommy Bowe and Carson Duggar and assistant coach Justin Adams.
Cox is a sophomore in high school and appeared in 11 games for the Eugene (Oregon) Generals of the Northern Pacific Hockey League, getting a goal and three assists.
Tilly, the son of Mike and Christine Tilly, said the Warriors scouted him when he was on a pair of KPHA teams that went to an international tournament in British Columbia.
When he got the offer, he had to make the tough choice of leaving home at such an early age.
“Both my parents and myself, after talking to a lot of people, were convinced to send me down here,” said Tilly, who left the Peninsula in August and returned this week. “We definitely made a great choice.
“My teammates made it a lot easier on me. It was probably one of the best years of my life.”
Tilly said the key to the junior experience is the program. He said his educational needs were taken care of because he was enrolled in a high school in Washington.
“Some junior hockey teams will go through so many kids,” Tilly said. “Our team didn’t go through as many kids and that’s what made it great.”
The Brown Bears definitely loomed large in Tilly’s hockey career. When his family hosted former Bears player Chris Nuth, Tilly learned a lot about how a junior hockey player has to act to succeed.
“I also got to practice with them,” Tilly said. “It was an eye opener seeing that I could keep up with those type of players.
“It boosted my confidence and made me think, ‘Hey, I could go out and play.’”
Tilly said he would love to continue with the junior experience. The only question is a bad shoulder that will require surgery in the offseason.
“I don’t regret anything,” Tilly said. “Coming here is the best hockey decision I ever made.”
Midget hockey is limited to players 18 and under, but it is the route Hanson, Eubank, Johnson and Weeks took to improve their skills.
Hanson and Eubank played for the Pikes Peak Miners program in Colorado. The Pikes Peak program produced Brown Bears players Alec and Evan Butcher of Anchorage. Alec was the MVP of the North American Hockey League before getting a scholarship to Sacred Heart University, while Evan just completed his first season with the Bears.
The Pikes Peak program has put Hanson and Eubank in a similar position to make the Bears. Both signed tenders with the team. That doesn’t mean they have the squad made, but it does give the Bears their exclusive NAHL rights.
Hanson led the Miners’ 16U National AAA Tier I program in goals and points in both the Colorado league and the 16U North American Prospects League. Eubank led the Miners’ 18U National AAA Tier I team in goals and assists in 18U NAPHL play.
Johnson played for the California Titans 16U AAA team. The defenseman had a goal and seven assists in 29 games.
Weeks is on the U-16 Varsity Midget roster at Complete Hockey Academy in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho.
Like Tilly, Eubank said the decision to leave home for his senior year was difficult. He left the Peninsula in the middle of August and returned about three weeks ago. Since returning home, he even appeared in a Brown Bears game as an affiliate player.
“I didn’t get to play my senior year at Kenai,” Eubank said. “I went to a whole different school with nobody I knew for three-quarters of my senior year. That was the hardest.”
But Eubank, son of Terry and Tawni Eubank, said the exposure he got made the sacrifice worthwhile.
“There’s a lot more exposure and looks playing in this league,” Eubank said. “It is a long way to travel to Alaska, so you don’t get to be seen a whole lot.”
Also like Tilly, Eubank enrolled in a high school in the area where he was playing.
“It was pretty similar to what I would have been doing in Kenai,” Eubank said. “I just went to school, did my work, then went to practice.
“The big difference is it wasn’t as social because I didn’t know anybody.”
Eubank said he improved more under coach Greg Vanover than he would have at Kenai Central, but he also notes he would have improved plenty during his senior year on Kenai Central’s squad.
He also said going away for a year helped him with more than just hockey.
“It shows you how to grow up, you have to grow up a little bit when you move away from home,” Eubank said. “I had to do a lot more than I normally do, and a lot of little things around the billet house that my parents would normally do.”
Another option is to send players to prep school to play on a hockey team. Griffin enrolled at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, but a number of former Peninsula players were already taking advantage of prep school.
Max Hegge is a senior and Ben Barton is a junior at Cushing Academy in Massachusetts.
And the solid girls hockey being played on the Peninsula also has resulted in Taylor Shelden and Elizabeth Cho playing at New Hampton School in New Hampshire. Shelden is a sophomore forward while Cho is a junior forward.
For Griffin, the son of Mike Griffin and Laura Griffin-Tasker, the opportunity to get a degree from one of the most respected academic prep schools in the nation was one he could not pass up.
“College hockey is still a big goal, and I feel like being an Andover grad will help me meet that goal,” Griffin said. “What I’m focused on now is staying on top of the academics.
“I know that I can be a phenomenal hockey player and get bad grades and still look bad for college. But if I get good grades here, I can be a semi-OK hockey player and still appeal to colleges. I know I’m not the greatest hockey player ever to touch the ice.”
Mike Griffin said he drove the wheels off a Subaru getting Kenny to Anchorage three or four times a week to play on the Alaska All-Stars for five or six years.
It’s not entirely clear that Griffin received his three-year scholarship to Phillips Academy due to his hockey ability, but it didn’t hurt.
Kenny said he has asked, and he has been told he was accepted based on his academic abilities, and it just so happened he was a solid hockey player and a great addition to the school as well.
Getting accepted to the school is something Griffin will always remember.
“Just the only way to describe it is speechless,” Griffin said. “And later I found out it was on full scholarship.
“Nothing I could say could measure up to the feelings I had inside. It was completely surreal, and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
Being at Phillips Academy has meant a big adjustment, both on the ice and in the classroom.
“The academics is insanely difficult compared to back home,” Griffin said. “I still haven’t quite figured out why.
“I was thinking about it, and we move at such a faster pace and cover so much material in so little time. It’s all condensed. But it seems like the same material inside the textbooks. I keep wondering why it’s so much more difficult.”
Griffin said hockey is also a new game, with the prep game showing more depth, a faster pace, more puck movement and more big hits.
Griffin had worked his way onto the first line before an elbow injury and concussion hampered his season.
While hockey and academics are different, perhaps the biggest difference has been in baseball. Griffin recently started that sport and said four or five players on the team are committed to Division I schools. He was an all-conference catcher at Soldotna, but he is a third-string bullpen catcher at Phillips Academy.
Griffin said baseball definitely has him thinking about getting back home.
“I can’t wait to get back to my friends and get back on the field,” he said. “I think about it every day.”
While the improving level of hockey on the Peninsula, and the standard set by the Brown Bears, has resulted in multiple opportunities for players, it also presents challenges.
“It’s a good thing, but it’s unfortunate that parents have to fly their kids Outside and see their kids leave for the school year to do it,” Redford said.
He said that because college hockey is the goal in all of this, academics are crucial.
“Kids need to get that extra level of competition, but ultimately nobody is going to take care of their kids better than parents,” Redford said. “They make sure they are studying and all of that other stuff.”
Redford said the next big goal is to have a program on the Peninsula that can serve as a route to the Brown Bears and college hockey.
But he said multiple problems must be solved in order to make the happen, including the massive financial cost, finding enough ice time and the dual participation rule of the Alaska School Activities Association, which prevents members of high school teams from competing in comp or junior hockey during the high school season, except during Thanksgiving and Christmas.
“We’re trying to figure out a way to make it work,” Redford said. “I’m not saying it’s going to happen this year or next year.