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PHOENIX HOCKEY RISING

Tuesday, 01.22.2008 / 7:02 PM / Features

Courtesy of USAHockey.com

By Paul LaTour

When Jim Johnson looks down his PF Chang’s midget major roster, he sees more than a half-dozen players capable of playing NCAA Division I hockey, some of whom have already made commitments. It’s a group of kids who were just beginning their hockey days at about the same time the Phoenix Coyotes arrived from Winnipeg.

The two events are not mutually exclusive.

“There is a direct correlation to these players playing at a high level and having an NHL team in town,” said Johnson, a former Coyotes defenseman who is now Chang’s program director. “It’s a pretty powerful impact that an NHL team can make in a community like this to get kids interested in playing the game when you can watch it at a high level. You take those kids who started playing when the Coyotes got here, they are now playing on my U18 team.”

PF Chang’s Team Celebration

While many have criticized the NHL for expanding into non-traditional hockey markets, Phoenix – and more specifically, PF Chang’s – stands as an example of how expansion has helped grow the sport.

Proof is not only found in raw numbers, but the number of quality players produced by Chang’s, which Johnson formed two years ago after spending the prior four years with the Valley of the Sun Hockey Association Mustangs. Johnson guided that team to the 2005 14U Tier II national championship. Many of the players from that team followed him to Chang’s.

“This team has been six years of my hard labor,” said Johnson, who noted his club’s commitment to fundamentals is essential for its success. “My No. 1 goal was to give these kids an opportunity to stay at home, go to high school, and yet continue to play at a high level.”

As evidence, Johnson points to players such as defenseman Danny Heath and forward Colten St. Clair, a pair of Division I recruits who committed to WCHA schools in October. St. Clair, one of the nation’s top 1992-born prospects, gave his verbal commitment to Colorado College for 

PF Chang’s Forward - Colten St. Clair

2010. He impressed scouts at the USA Hockey Select 15 Festival last summer in St.Cloud, Minn., finishing second overall in scoring with nine points in five games, including five goals. Heath is headed to Minnesota State in 2009.

“Our high-end players are as good as anyone’s in the country,” Johnson said. “I’ve got six defensemen that I believe – and every coach tells me the same thing – are (potential) Division I players. If you look at our roster, there are probably six to eight players being looked at seriously by colleges and another six to eight who are going to play in the USHL next year. I’ll be real honest, though, some of our kids on our 18 team are not getting the recognition they deserve.”

Recognition continues to build, however, as Chang’s solidifies itself on the national stage. It started with a meeting between Johnson and Rick Federico, president of the Scottsdale-based PF Chang’s restaurant group. Federico provided the seed money to start the organization, which provided Phoenix something that had been lacking in the area.

“We put together an organization that wasn’t affiliated directly with any facility, one that was going to capture all the players,” said Brendon Shaw, coach of Chang’s U16 midget minor team. “Instead of one team having a couple good guys and another team having a couple good guys, we tried to bring everybody together.”

Having Johnson as director, the club gained instant credibility. After a stellar four-year college career at Minnesota-Duluth, the Minnesota native spent 13 years in the NHL. He played for Pittsburgh, Minnesota, Dallas and Washington before ending his journey with two seasons as a member of the Coyotes.

But it’s not all about hockey for Johnson. He’s just as proud of his players’ success in the classroom, noting one of his players who wants to be a doctor.

“He could probably play low-level DI, but he just wants to go play club hockey and become a doctor,” Johnson said, adding the player scored a 33 on his ACT. “That end of it is very rewarding.”


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