Keeping the cupboards stocked at the youngest levels is paramount to the sustainability and success of any youth hockey program, and the Los Angeles Jr. Kings hold that reality in high regard.
Year after year, the club, thanks in part to the highly-successful learn-to-skate and learn-to-play programs offered at El Segundo’s Toyota Sports Performance Center (TSPC) - home of the Jr. Kings and LA Lions girls program – works diligently assembling a strong 8U contingent built on a passionate coaching staff coupled with an equally enthusiastic core of players and families.
“It’s a vital component of not just our club but any youth hockey club, and one we take a lot of pride cultivating and strengthening,” said Jr. Kings general manager of hockey operations Nick Vachon. “Ultimately, a lot of these kids represent the future of our club, so we want to make sure we have them developing the basic skating and hockey skills and mindset in a healthy, age-appropriate environment, on and off the ice.”
This season, the Jr. Kings and Lions have six teams total skating in the 8U age group: three Jr. Kings teams at the A level and two Jr. Kings and one Lions team at B. Stephane Desjardins (A1), Kelly Stirzel (A2) and Derek Johnston (A3), along with Dimitri Voulelikas (B1) and Jeff Bain (B2), lead the Jr. Kings squads, while Bill Mendes heads up the Lions’ team (the Lions also have a 6U learn-to-play program that practices twice a week).
Bain and Voulelikas, both of whom grew up playing in the Jr. Kings program, have been mainstays amongst the organization’s 8U coaching contingent. They know firsthand the value of grooming the club’s youngest and agree the teaching experience is rewarding on a number of levels.
“First and foremost, the enthusiasm the kids bring to the rink can’t be beat,” said Bain, who also coaches the Jr. Kings’ 12U AA1 team. “They have so much energy and, when you have a group of kids eager to learn and learn what it means to be part of a team, it creates a special environment.”
“Skating and skill development are extremely important, but maybe even more so is the kids’ willingness to learn and improve,” added Voulelikas, who also heads up the club’s 10U BB team. “A big part of that is keeping the drills challenging but fun while also instilling a sense of teamwork and respect for each other.”
All Jr. Kings and Lions 8U teams are afforded two full-sheet joint practices a week at TSPC and, outside of the Lions’ 6U group, also play season-long Southern California Amateur Hockey Association jamboree schedules.
The club also expanded its 8U tournament offerings this season. In addition to their annual Labor Day Festival, Thanksgiving Extravaganza and Presidents’ Day Challenge, the Jr. Kings have included 8U within their Holiday Showdown (Dec. 27-30) along with introducing their 8U-exclusive Crazy 8 Jamboree over MLK Weekend (Jan. 18-20). In the spring, the club will again host its always highly attended Carmen Starr Memorial Day Classic (May 22-25).
“They’re another way to get the kids on the ice and a good measuring stick, too, when it comes to seeing where our kids stack up against others in the same age group,” Desjardins said of the tournament experience. “It also allows them to translate what they’re learning in practice into a little more competitive environment.”
And it’s TSPC’s learn-to-skate and learn-to-play programs, along with its in-house league, that help those young players get a firm grip on the basics before many find themselves donning a Jr. Kings sweater.
“A lot of the credit goes to our coaching staff, which does a great job developing these players,” said TSPC senior hockey director James Gasseau, who acknowledges the efforts of Troy Adams, Dominique Beaudoin, Kevin Caprioglio and Mikus Sprinovski. “We’re very grateful to have such a good group of experienced instructors.”
“Many of our older, higher-tiered teams receive a lot of well-deserved attention, but this is where it starts for a lot of our players,” Vachon said of the Jr. Kings’ 8U program. “It’s an underrated - but certainly not underappreciated - segment of our club.”