Dreams Come Closer

Area's Hockey Players Have More Alternatives On Their Way to College

Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 9, 2009; Page D01

Chris Bond wasn't ready for the culture shock when his family moved back to Northern Virginia from Canada when he was 10 years old. He had spent the previous four years learning to play hockey in an environment where all his friends were on the ice every day. Inside the Beltway, the sport made him an outsider.

This past Sunday, Bond, now 17 and an All-Met defenseman for O'Connell, attended the Washington Capitals' home regular-season finale at a sold-out Verizon Center. Today he'll be in the stands again to watch both semifinal games of the Frozen Four. Not that long ago, he never would have fathomed that either could happen here.

"It's incredible for me to see the city I grew up in finally get so excited about the sport I love," Bond said. "So much has changed these past few years. People are always talking about hockey, whether it's us or the Capitals, and now we have the teams to match the interest."

For those like Bond who plan to pursue a college hockey career, the development of higher-level junior and travel teams is possibly the single biggest change in the D.C. hockey landscape. It's no longer unheard of for multiple area players to reach Division I hockey, and the fact the tournament they hope to play in someday is on F Street is icing on the cake.

Unlike many who came before it, this generation of Washingtonian hockey players can stay at home without harming its potential for a future career on the ice and compete on teams such as the Atlantic Junior Hockey League's Washington Junior Nationals, or travel clubs such as Team Maryland, the Little Capitals or Ashburn Xtreme.

"Ten years ago, if you were a really good player you had to get out of here at the very latest by the time you were 16 to keep progressing," said Jeff Nygaard, general manager of the Junior Nationals. "Kids still need to leave at some point . . . but some are getting scholarship offers while they're here. If you would have told me in 1995 that someone in this area was going to get a scholarship or serious looks from national teams without having to leave, I wouldn't have believed it."

While there won't be any D.C. area natives on the ice when Bemidji State faces Miami (Ohio) at 5 p.m. or when Vermont takes on Boston University in the second game, there is a more significant local presence on Division I rosters than ever.

For example, on just the 16 teams that reached the NCAA tournament, the local contingent features Northeastern's Greg Costa (Crownsville) and Chris Donovan (Fairfax Station), Ohio State's Corey Toy (Round Hill), New Hampshire's Jamie Fritsch (Odenton) and Air Force's Matt Fairchild (Ashburn).

The region may not be overlooked, but in many cases it's still up to teams, coaches and players themselves to make sure deserving kids are noticed. The local travel teams and the Junior Nationals make regular tours of major tournaments in Boston and Pittsburgh; players harness the power of technology to put highlights online or create Web sites -- they also track which teams are searching for their position and then reach out to them.

Team Maryland participated in the under-18 nationals in Pittsburgh at the start of this month, and although it lost all three games, players seized a prime opportunity to showcase themselves.

"A lot of the programs we faced up there were expected to win," team member Casey Thrush said. "Sure, the results didn't go our way, but we know we can compete against some of the top teams in the country. So we go in with a blue-collar attitude looking to show what we can do. "

The common path to Division I hockey for many players usually includes a year or two of experience in junior hockey leagues that allows players to mature physically and improve their skills. It's rare for 18-year-olds to go directly to elite programs, so Thrush, who also plays for DeMatha, like many juniors is considering leaving to play for a junior team.

"It's definitely an option," Thrush said. "But after seeing this year's progress I'm leaning to staying home if I can."

In the days since the under-18 tournament ended, numerous Division I programs, including Princeton, Yale, Northeastern and Harvard, have expressed interest in Thrush. His Team Maryland linemate Nick Sorkin has already committed to play for New Hampshire in 2010 after a year in the Eastern Junior Hockey League.

"You're going to continue to see a steady stream of players coming out of this area," said Gary Pouliot, who is the executive director of Ashburn Xtreme and an assistant coach at Stone Bridge. "When we first started the program at Stone Bridge we'd have 25 kids try out. It's almost double that now with 40 to 50 tryouts."

While there is organic growth in the sport, Pouliot says the Capitals' success along with the presence of a player like reigning NHL most valuable player Alex Ovechkin has created a surge of interest.

At Ashburn Ice Palace, home rink of the Xtreme, enrollment for the mini-mites program -- the youngest level offered for ages 4-6 -- jumped 56 percent between 2006 and 2008 and the July-August summer hockey camps saw a 20 percent rise during that same time period, according to hockey director Troy MacCormick.

"I think a lot of it has to center around the Capitals and Ovechkin," MacCormick said. "People are starting to follow the winning team, and we're seeing a lot of kids who are 12 years old who are jumping on the ice for the first time, too -- a lot of them in Caps jerseys. Those are things we didn't see five or six years ago."

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