“Things have been going really well and there’s good energy from the kids”
by Than Acuff
Hockey for local high school players in the Gunnison Valley continues to ramp up with West Elk Hockey Association (WEHA) in place and the coaching staff getting the players prepared for the upcoming season.
The effort actually started earlier than it ever has for local players, as WEHA Wolverines head coach Joey Otsuka and assistant coach Todd Carroll had between 20 and 25 players, both boys and girls, on the ice throughout the fall.
The Wolverines jumped into the Colorado Prep Hockey League (CPHL) starting back in mid-August and spent the better part of the fall traveling to Aspen for ice time and throughout Colorado for games.
“We wanted to get kids on the ice and provide an opportunity for kids new to the program to get some confidence and allow some of the first- and second-year kids to progress and get in some extra work,” says Otsuka. “I think it went really well.”
Otsuka felt the girls U19 players really benefitted as they played with the boys in the league.
“They were playing at a high and fast pace,” says Otsuka. “When they get to their league games, they’ll be primed for success.”
He also saw some benefit for his high school players when they hit the ice for preseason workouts on November 12 to prepare for the 2015-2016 season.
“I definitely noticed that first practice that the kids who played this fall were ahead,” says Otsuka.
All told, Otsuka has 30 players out for high school hockey this year with five of those as goalies. The team is getting three workouts in per week, including some early-morning sessions, and the attitude appears to be strong so far.
“Things have been going really well and there’s good energy from the kids,” says Otsuka.
He has noticed that there’s a different element to this year’s team. Last year Otsuka had an explosive offense with a very offensively minded defense.
“We’re assessing what kind of team we have out there,” says Otsuka. “Last year we had an offensive powerhouse. This year’s team will be different.”
Still, he sees the more experienced players stretching out a bit and finding some creativity within the systems in place from last season.
“We’re finding out what kind of ingredients we’re cooking with,” says Otsuka.
Otsuka has Carroll and John Solanik working with him and they just hired Billy Watson to coach the JV program. All four coaches are busy getting the players ready for the upcoming season as well as assessing the talent to eventually break them into JV and varsity teams.
“I have it pegged on my calendar to have it figured out by the end of the month,” says Otsuka.
The JV team will compete in the CHSAA high school league, while the varsity will return to the CPHL for the winter season to face teams from Telluride to Ft. Collins. Otsuka expects the Wolverines to be near the top of the league at the varsity level.
“Just from looking and speculating what’s going to happen, there will be two or three top teams and hopefully we’ll be in that group,” says Otsuka.
He hopes by next year the Wolverines will be scheduled into the CHSAA varsity league as well.
“Given the athletes we have here and the hockey frenzy in the valley, I think that’s where we need to be,” says Otsuka.
The JV season is scheduled to open on December 19. The start of the varsity CPHL season is still up in the air until all of the teams are declared but the league is tentatively scheduled to start mid- to late December.