October 22, 2008
Polar Ice brands ‘Arizona Hockey Union’ banner
Five sweaters. One vision. Welcome to the Union -- the Arizona Hockey Union.
"The goal is giving the kids the highest level to play at no matter what talent level they're at," said Gina Quinn, of the Phoenix Polar Bears organization.
In order to do that, Quinn said, directors at all three Phoenix-area Polar Ice facilities -- Chandler, Peoria and newly-opened Gilbert, all owned and operated by Chandler-based Spiral Inc. -- came together to take each travel unit that calls those facilities home and essentially put them under one umbrella.
Along with the conjoined efforts of the Phoenix Polar Bears' Tier III Junior A team, the youth Peoria Roadrunners and Polar Bears programs and the new Arizona Heat youth group (formed as the travel component associated with the Gilbert facility), organizational leaders worked toward creating a fourth youth program, one that would take the best players from each facility and program and put them together as the most competitive group of players at any particular age level in the state.
That set of teams, inherently, has begun this season to skate under the purple and black banner of the Arizona Hockey Union.
"The goal is to have the Union program be Tier I, to become a collection of the best players from all three rinks and all the programs we have to offer," said Jim Beyer, general manager of Polar Ice Gilbert.
Quinn, who credits the creation of the Union to Beyer, Junior Polar Bears coach Harry Mahood and longtime Polar Ice Arizona head Brad Berman, explains that the Polar Ice organization now operates five highly-competitive programs built with the intention to feed off of each other.
"It's the synergy," she said. "There is a synergy there of feeding the players up, and if you look at the Junior A history, and if you see the success of that junior team and what they've done, they've got the formula working. Now we're just spreading it down to the lower ranks."
With the recent rise to prominence of programs such as the P.F. Chang's Tier I organization, Quinn and Beyer agreed that by now utilizing three geographically dynamic facilities, six sheets of ice and drawing players from clear across the Valley -- if not the entire state -- creating an organization that encouraged each set of teams within to feed off each other was a no-brainer.
"The Union matches the business model of Polar Ice," Beyer said. "Again, by doing this, we're giving kids the chance to play competitive hockey with the Polar Ice family no matter their skill level," Quinn added. "We can now compete at keeping our own players within our family."
Top of the Pyramid
It started as the brainchild of a national hockey visionary. It now serves as the beacon of what is -- and what will become -- the Arizona Hockey Union.
When Harry Mahood created the Phoenix Polar Bears Tier III Junior A team nearly a decade ago, competitive junior hockey of that kind was nothing more than an afterthought in Arizona.
In his decade at the helm, Mahood has guided to the Polar Bears to more than 250 wins -- compared to just 10 losses -- seven consecutive national tournament trips and a national title in 2003.
And despite graduating more than 140 players to various levels of junior, collegiate and professional hockey, directors of the Junior Polar Bears program realized that that number could have actually been more had there been a direct path for youth players to work their way up to the junior ranks.
"With Harry taking a bigger role in hockey operations (in Chandler) and with what he's been building with the juniors, the creation of the Union is even better," Quinn said. "Our kids at our awards banquet at the end of the year saw all these [junior players] stand up and say, 'This is where I'm going to play college hockey.' Seeing the look on the younger players' faces as they watched, that visual is something special.
"They have something to shoot for."
Quinn said that for too long youth players within the Roadrunners and youth Polar Bears programs have left the Polar Ice family as they got older, simply looking for more competitive hockey, only to never return to play for the junior team.
The creation Arizona Hockey Union might make that phenomenon a thing of the past.
"We have the Junior A program that we use as the top of our pyramid," Beyer said. "We want kids to aspire to play for that team from the ground up."
Third Time's a Charm
September 12 was poised for a celebration.
Sure, on the surface, that was the date of official grand-opening party of the third Polar Ice facility in greater Phoenix, this one serving the town of Gilbert and the Southeast Valley.
But, eyes pointed straight ahead, that night signified something bigger for the Polar Ice family of hockey players, directors, coaches and volunteers.
"This is the thing that brings it to the forefront. The Gilbert facility does that," Beyer said of the partnership between Spiral Inc.'s third Valley facility, the newly formed Arizona Heat and the Arizona Hockey Union.
With the two newest sheets of ice in the state finally going in last month at the intersection of Greenfield and Knox roads, the Polar brand now operates more than half of the available recreational ice in the Phoenix area.
Talk about a one-two-three punch.
"The Union wouldn't be as successful -- as we hope it will be -- without the third facility," Beyer said, adding that the Gilbert rink, because of it's central location to a virtually untapped hockey resource, will cater toward the organization's goals of encouraging new youth players to learn about hockey. "We're using Gilbert as basically a developmental rink to develop new players. We're interested in bringing new people to the sport, and this gives us the opportunity to do that."
Right Faces, Right Places
Mahood's coaching credentials may speak for themselves, but he's not the only big-time hockey instructor tied into the Arizona Hockey Union.
Earlier this year, longtime Desert Youth Hockey Association coaching head Kurt Goar, long considered one of the most dynamic coaching minds in Arizona, headed south from Oceanside Ice Arena to head up hockey development and coaching at the new Gilbert Polar Ice facility. Add to that the knowledge and experience of Larry Gibson in Peoria, and the Polar Ice family has found itself a virtual triumvirate of coaching luminaries to guide the next Gretzky or Lemieux.
"Larry's been Arizona's coach in chief for some 20 years," Beyer said. "You have Kurt in Gilbert, Larry in Peoria, Harry in Chandler. … Those are probably the three guys that stand out more than any other, anywhere."
But Beyer contends that while the name-recognition of Mahood, Gibson and Goar might be an obvious attraction to parents and players alike, it's the hoards of volunteer coaches and assistants from the ground up that truly make the Polar Ice family special.
"Those three have been around the block, but there are a zillion guys underneath them that give up their time and everything else," Beyer said. "Those are the ones that deserve some recognition."
Five Teams, One Banner
Quinn admits it can get a little confusing trying to understand that there are really five travel programs that operate under the Arizona Hockey Union banner, essentially with five different logos.
And it's not like creating a "banner" to band players from multiple organizations is anything new in Arizona. In a way, that's what P.F. Chang's is doing playing under the Coyotes Amateur Hockey Association banner, as well as groups like Team Arizona, a competitive bantam team based out of both Oceanside and Arcadia Ice Arena.
But, Quinn said, sooner or later, the Union itself, or "AHU," should be the rally cry heard around the state, and maybe even one heard around the nation.
"We're already working on that. It's that synergy again," she said. "Interchangeable Web sites, policies, business models…
"But I am interested to see that Union label become a little bit more distinguished. I think we're already seeing that every time we see a parent cheer "Go AHU!"
This story appears in the October issue of Arizona Rubber magazine. Click here for a PDF of the issue.