Thickening the ice
Steamboat's junior hockey team hopes to provide opportunity for young skaters
September 25, 2016
It's been 32 years, and thinking about it still draws a pause from Misko Antisin.
It was 32 years ago, 1984, when Antisin attended his first National Hockey League training camp.
He was 19 years old, a defenseman out of Vancouver, British Columbia, and a scout for the Boston Bruins had spotted him playing junior hockey.
"The most amazing experience of my life," he said Tuesday, looking out from his desk buried in Howelsen Ice Arena in Steamboat Springs.
Thirty-two years later, he was considerably further from the NHL, the nearest arena about three hours away for someone traveling via car and years away for someone trying to get there via hockey.
Antisin is days away from his debut as the coach and general manager of the Steamboat Wranglers, a semi-pro junior hockey team that will open its inaugural season with a home game at 7 p.m. Friday.
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Exactly what that means — a junior hockey team in Steamboat Springs — takes some explaining.
Athletes, between 16 and 20 years old, come from across the country to play on the team. They pay, too, $7,500 per season for the right to wear the uniform.
Junior hockey is a minor league of sorts, but more akin to a high school summer baseball traveling program than an A-ball farm team.
It's an avenue, Steamboat's coaches say. It's certainly not the first step toward a hockey career, but it is a significant one, even if it's still so far from the spotlight of the NHL, or even the relative flashlight of college hockey.
What is junior hockey? It's an opportunity, and while Steamboat may now be a remote outpost on that journey, it's not the end. It's the beginning.
Division 1 dreams
The Wranglers have about 20 players on the roster and more are arriving daily —athletes who tried out for teams on higher tiers but got cut late in training camp and are now looking for a place to play.
Steamboat's near the bottom of that ladder, in the third tier. It's small time in the world of hockey, but those who took the ice Tuesday did so with large ambition.
The first big target is making a college team. That's what had a trio of Wranglers working overtime after Tuesday's practice, firing slap shots into the net even after the goalie had gone home.
Kameron Fink, Jarrett Sturtz and Ethaen Barriga are three of the team's older players.
Barriga and Sturtz joined from California while Fink is from Colorado. College — a good Division 1 school — is the motivator for all of them.
"My cousin's playing at Penn State right now," Sturtz said. "He's a pretty big inspiration on me. I'm just working for what I can get. If a D1 school works out, great. If not, I'd still love to play D3 somewhere."
He figures he needs to add muscle to make it to the next level.
Fink also hopes to break through at a D1 school, though, at 20, he's at the upper age limit for juniors hockey.
He almost quit this summer and seriously considered joining the military.
"Hockey's a political sport, and I was getting sick of getting turned down from teams I knew I could play on just because I didn't know someone in the organization," he said. "I'm glad I didn't quit. I love the game, but I needed a little break."
About half the squad is still in high school, now enrolled at Steamboat Springs High School, and they had to bail early Tuesday to make their first classes.
They spend their week working on homework between time on the ice, time in the weight room and time in class, and they get no shortage of time management and work ethic advice from their coaches.
That's at the very core of what the Wranglers are trying to establish.
"What we do here is get them ready for the next years of their life," said Troy Mick, president and managing partner for the team. "If they never make it to the highest level, they're going to get something out of what we have here in Steamboat."
Most of the players are living with billet families — families in Steamboat who offered a room and some meals to a young athlete chasing the dream.
Playing on the Wranglers comes with plenty of rules, including a strict curfew.
Antisin and Mick insist they aren't trying to be parents. They're trying to be coaches.
"It's not parenting," Antisin said. "It's life coaching."
That means a lot of different things. Sometimes, it means community service. Other times, it means guest speakers at practice, including a police officer, a Navy SEAL or even a banker.
It also means stories from coaches and administrators, and Antisin and Mick have plenty of those.
Mick was chosen in the seventh round of the 1988 NHL draft by the Pittsburgh Penguins, and his stories relate to what he hopes to help impart to the Wranglers. He spent four years playing in the Penguins system, sharing a line with and even taking an assist from Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux.
But Mick never made the cut for the NHL roster.
"I wasn't as dedicated as I should have been," Mick said. "I have to live with that every day. I'm blessed where I am today, but there hasn't been one day that's gone by in my life where I haven't kicked my own butt, because I had the world, and I became too cocky."
Antisin, too, has the story about the time he almost made the NHL, 32 years ago, when he tried out with the Boston Bruins, stories about how great those days were and the questionable decisions that followed them.
His story is at the heart junior hockey.
Picking the path
Antisin can wonder now, looking back, if he took the right trail.
There are numerous ways to the top in hockey, but two primary veins. On one side are leagues such as Steamboat's, in the Rocky Mountain Junior Hockey League, which will be composed of six teams from across the region.
Leagues such as Steamboat's are the start, and players flow from there into more elite tiers. Steamboat's parent team, the Salmon Arm Silverbacks, based in British Columbia, is a Tier 1 junior hockey team and regularly puts a dozen athletes into Division 1 college hockey.
The top collegiate programs are a stretch for a player coming directly out of Steamboat but wouldn't be with a stop or two in between. From those top juniors teams, and even more so, from college programs, the NHL is suddenly a somewhat realistic goal.
On the other side of the aisle are leagues that pay their players. It's potentially a much faster trip to the big leagues, but it's an all-or-nothing gamble.
College options become severely limited and extremely complicated once a player's been paid, so there's no going back. If a player can't hack it, his career could end well before it needed to.
Antisin shot for the shortcut.
What is junior hockey? It's plenty of things.
Team officials hope it's a hit Friday and Saturday nights, drawing crowds of rowdy locals and appealing as unique, post-skiing entertainment to tourists.
Players hope it's a step, a good investment that can pave the way to a college scholarship and, maybe, just maybe, eventually to the NHL.
Antisin hopes it's an opportunity, a chance to help players make better decisions than he did after those glistening days with the Bruins.
You don't carry your own equipment bag at that level, and you get ready in the locker room next to players you grew up idolizing.
"I was just sick," Antisin said, his eyes lighting up as he recounted his pinch-me moments.
But, he got cut, one of the last from the training camp to be sent home.
"They had just signed a kid out of college, and I was a free agent pick-up. I was a better player, but he was under contract. I was expendable," Antisin said. "That's just how hockey works."
He was able to go back to his juniors team for the season and got another chance in 1985. That went well, too, but, again, not quite well enough.
He didn't wait for a third opportunity. Instead, he traveled to Europe and played in the top league in Switzerland, starring there for 19 years. He scored nearly 200 career goals and played in three World Championships. He lived the life of a successful hockey player, and when it was finished, he transitioned into a career coaching.
But, playing in Europe, at the time at least, wasn't a likely path to the NHL.
Then, organizations didn't respect the leagues there as they do now, and he never got as close to making the NHL as he did 32 years ago, in 1984.
Antisin did-n't have to leave. He didn't have the time to grow into the sport that he would have gotten playing college hockey, but he still could have played in North America for another season. And, a year bigger, stronger and wiser, he could have given the NHL yet another shot.
Antisin sat in his office last week, deep inside Howelsen Ice Arena, and he recounted it all. And he wondered.
What if he'd stayed? What if he'd gotten different advice? What if he'd had a coach — a coach like Antisin strives to be now?
Junior hockey, to Antisin, is the chance to make sure his skaters make the right decisions, and junior hockey, to them, is the chance to do something he, despite a heap of success, never achieved.
"Almost," he said, grinning. "I almost made it." ■