GOAL ORIENTED

Hockey isn't an official high school sport in Nebraska, but one metro school is home to 40 of the best youth hockey players in the country. At Douglas County West, players find the schedules, teachers, and environment they need to make it to the next level.
STORY BY HENRY J. CORDES | PHOTOGRAPHY BY MEGAN FARMER | THE WORLD-HERALD

By Henry J. Cordes / World-Herald staff writer

Saturday, April 16, 2016


Hockey isn’t an official high school sport in Nebraska. But if it were, it would be hard to imagine any school beating Douglas County West.
Of the roughly 280 students in the small high school just northwest of Omaha in Valley, about 40 are top-flight youth hockey players — among the best in the Midwest.
The players come from Omaha, Kansas City, Chicago and Des Moines and as far away as Europe to play for the Omaha AAA Hockey Club, carrying dreams of college scholarships and future pro careers.
Douglas County West in recent years has evolved into the home high school for the hockey club, most of the players opting in from wherever in the metro area they live with their host families.
Affiliating with a single school provides a big assist to the team given its grueling travel schedule, which includes busing out of town for extended weekends competing all around North America.
At Douglas County West, players say they’ve found a close-knit environment and teachers who will accommodate their demanding weekly regimen, whether it’s the ability to take a test early or email homework from the road. While the hockey players obviously do their share of skating in the rink, they say they aren’t allowed to skate in the classroom.
“They understand what everyone is going through and work with you,” Jordan Wishman, a junior from Clive, Iowa, said of his teachers. “It’s a big help.”
School officials say the relationship has also been good for Douglas County West, boosting the enrollment of one of the metro area’s smallest high schools and enriching its student life. Collectively, the hockey players are some of the school’s best students.
“They are great kids,” said Melissa Poloncic, superintendent of Douglas County West Community Schools. “They are competitive, they are disciplined, and school is very important to them and their families.”

Omaha AAA Hockey Club players practice at the Tim Moylan Tranquility Iceplex. Photo gallery: Omaha AAA Hockey Club

Dane Johnson, Douglas County West senior, Overland Park, Kansas

'I'M JUST STRIVING TO PLAY HOCKEY'

To grasp what’s happening in the district, one must first understand the world of elite youth hockey.
In most cases a talented football or basketball player hoping to earn a college scholarship can showcase his talent playing for his local high school.
But hockey is different. Even if you are tearing up the ice for your local age-group team, opportunities to play high-level hockey in high school are extremely limited outside the states of Minnesota, Michigan and Massachusetts.
To compete with the best, gifted high school-age hockey players in Nebraska, Iowa and most other states often leave home by age 15 or 16 to play for regional Tier I youth teams like Omaha AAA.
Those playing Tier I hockey — the highest level of youth hockey in the United States — hope to ultimately gain the notice of junior hockey league teams like the U.S. Hockey League’s Omaha Lancers or Lincoln Stars. The best players on that level then compete for college scholarships, and perhaps even a chance to be drafted into the pros.
Tier I hockey represents a major commitment for both the players and their families.
Parents typically pay more than $10,000 a year to cover the costs of their kid’s coaching, equipment, travel and a monthly allowance that goes to the host “billet families” who feed and house the players.
It’s also not easy for any teen to leave behind friends and family to live with strangers in another state.
But Omaha AAA players say it’s worth it for the chance to play hockey at the highest level and to share that experience with others equally passionate about the sport. Once these teens take the leap, their lives revolve almost completely around school and hockey.
“I’m just striving to play hockey on the highest level I can,” said Dane Johnson, a Douglas County West senior from Overland Park, Kansas. “I didn’t know what I was getting into until I got here. But it’s fun.”

David Wilkie, Omaha AAA Hockey Club founder

WHAT IS OMAHA AAA HOCKEY?

Team draws high school-age players from all over the country to compete at Tier I, the highest level of youth hockey in the United States.
History: Founded six years ago by former NHL player David Wilkie, it operates out of the Moylan Tranquility Iceplex in Omaha.
The players: The 48 players on this year’s roster came from 18 states and two foreign nations (Canada and Austria). About 40 attended Douglas County West High School.
Competition is stout: Omaha AAA teams routinely rank among the top 10 nationally out of more than 100 Tier I teams. It’s good hockey; Tier I players hope to earn spots on junior hockey teams like the U.S. Hockey League’s Omaha Lancers, and to go on to play in college or the pros.

'THERE REALLY ISN'T MUCH DIFFERENCE'

Omaha didn’t have a team on the Tier I level until six years ago. That’s when David Wilkie, a veteran National Hockey League pro who settled in Omaha five years earlier, started Omaha AAA.
In a short time, Wilkie’s program has become one of the best in the country, its teams regularly ranked in the top 10 nationally among more than 100 other Tier I teams.
Omaha AAA’s 16-and-under team, made up of mostly high school sophomores and juniors, and 18-and-unders, made up of juniors and seniors, both this season fell just short of reaching the Tier I final four, falling in the regional finals of the national playoffs.
Omaha AAA has become a magnet for ambitious and gifted hockey players from Omaha, Kansas City, Chicago and Des Moines, the cities from which it draws the most players. But to compete with the best, Wilkie also recruits players from around the nation and internationally, too. The teams this year include players from 18 states ­­— ranging from New Hampshire to Washington, and Florida to Arizona — as well as Canada and Austria.
The Omaha team is also beginning to rack up an impressive list of alumni in the college hockey ranks. Wilkie’s son, Chris, plays for the University of North Dakota team that won the NCAA national championship last weekend. Three Omaha AAA alums have been drafted by NHL teams.
When the Omaha program started, its players were scattered in various high schools throughout the metro. But over the past five years, the team has developed a close working relationship with Douglas County West, with about 40 of the 48 players on this year’s rosters choosing to attend the school.
Omaha AAA now advertises the affiliation with the school on its website, saying it helps create “a true hockey academy experience’’ for players.
Now in grades 10 to 12, nearly one out of every five students at Douglas County West is a hockey player.
School officials sometimes face questions from district taxpayers on why the school is educating a bunch of out-of-town hockey players. The officials point out that since the district is part of the Learning Community of Douglas and Sarpy Counties it’s required to accept any students who want to opt in as long as there’s room for them.
“We get a lot of open enrollment students,” said Principal Jim Knott. “There really isn’t much difference, other than these kids play a lot of hockey.”

The young men who come to Omaha in the hope of earning college hockey scholarships congregate in the lunchroom at Douglas County West High School in Valley. Three of them, from left, are Max Haselbacher of Vienna; Kyle Kawamura of Nashville; Tennessee; and Nicholas Doyle of Winnipeg, Manitoba.

Douglas County West Principal Jim Knott

'KIND OF A SHAKY START'

Poloncic said district taxpayers also come out ahead financially in the arrangement. The hockey players add to the school’s overall enrollment, which boosts the district’s share of state school aid dollars. Since Douglas County West is a small school, the added enrollment allows the school to more efficiently fill its classrooms and at the same time offer a wider variety of courses for all students, she said.
“It’s really a win-win for us,” Poloncic said.
Walk the halls of Douglas County West and you wouldn’t guess that many of the boys you encounter play hockey. The Omaha AAA boys look pretty much like any student.
But the new kids haven’t always fit right in at Douglas County West.
The hockey players are mostly big-city kids, and they’re coming into a small school that’s a mix of small-town kids from Valley and nearby Waterloo, farm kids from the surrounding countryside and kids from Omaha’s suburban fringe.
Drew Pflug, an 18-year-old who is among six Omahans on this year’s teams, said there were some senior students a couple of years ago who treated the Omaha AAA kids as hockey-playing interlopers.
“It was kind of a shaky start,” agreed English teacher Trey Baker.
But players and school officials say by now most everyone has adjusted to the arrangement, Pflug describing Douglas County West as “just one big school.”
The players have developed friends outside of hockey, attend school football and basketball games, and take girls to the prom. And some of the local kids even show up at the rink to watch their new classmates play games in Omaha.
Such home games, however, are rare.

Player Jaden Anderson, in orange, laughs while sitting on the bench with teammates Garrett Anderson, left, and Tristan Ashbrook, second from left, before practice.

DID YOU KNOW?

It’s a long season: The 18-and-under and 16-and-under teams play 70 to 80 games from September through March against other Tier I teams all over North America.
Where the players come from: Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Colorado, South Dakota, North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, Oregon, Washington, Maryland, New Hampshire, Tennessee, Arizona and Florida, as well as Canada and Austria. The program this year featured six Omahans among 48 players. The roster also included multiple players from the Kansas City area (three), Chicago (four) and Des Moines (two, with another from Ames).
They start young: The Omaha AAA organization also features high-level travel teams for players ages 12 to 15.

'THIS IS NOT FOR THE FAINT OF HEART'

After daily practices and training sessions during the week, Omaha AAA most weekends packs up its sticks and pads and boards buses to play two- to four-game weekend series against other elite teams in places like Illinois, Michigan, Colorado, Minnesota and Wisconsin.
The road warriors most often bus out by Thursday evening or Friday morning. Include play in some extended national hockey showcase tournaments, and it adds up to about 20 to 25 missed school days a year.
That’s where the relationship with the school and its staff becomes critical.
Given the school’s small size, most teachers have multiple hockey players in their classes. It means fewer teachers to coordinate with as team and school officials work to make sure the missed school time doesn’t keep players from getting in their lessons.
Technology helps. Since all Douglas County West students are issued iPads, turning in math homework can be as simple as taking a picture of it and emailing it to the teacher. Some teachers also record their lectures and post them online. It takes a commitment from both students and teachers to make it all work.
“The teachers and staff out there, we couldn’t do it without them,” Wilkie said.
Fortunately, the road trips provide players lots of down time between games for schoolwork. Additionally, Wilkie has hired an academic liaison who works directly with the school, frequently popping into the building, checking up on students and tracking any missing homework. Coaches make it clear that if players don’t show the expected commitment in the classroom, they’ll be spending their practice time catching up.
Not that that’s usually necessary. If the ultimate goal is to get a college scholarship, it doesn’t make sense to cut corners in the classroom. Wilkie said the kids who are most disciplined about their schoolwork are also usually his best players.
“It doesn’t always happen perfectly, but we do the very best we can to make sure they have every opportunity to do things right,” Wilkie said.
And even if the team returns home at 3 a.m. Monday from a road trip, Wilkie expects kids to be in school by 7. No excuses.
“That’s part of the deal,” Wilkie said. “This is not for the faint of heart.”

Jaden Anderson works out before practice at the Moylan Tranquility Iceplex.

Phil Heisse, of Kansas City, Kansas, at practice

'THEY ARE BECOMING DC WEST FALCONS'

Since Omaha AAA’s latest seven-month season ended last month, most of the players have recently been taking some time off from hockey. A few are playing for the school’s golf team this spring.
But all will ultimately be returning to the ice to get ready for next season — either in Omaha or on the next stop in their itinerant hockey journeys.
Johnson, the player from Overland Park, will be trying out this summer for the USHL. If he doesn’t make that cut, he’s provisionally signed to play with a Texas team in the North American Hockey League, a junior league that’s a step down from the USHL.
First, though, will come his graduation from Douglas County West. And that in itself is another sign of the progress in the relationship between the school and Omaha AAA.
In the early years, many of the senior hockey players would go back home when the season ended in March and graduate from their hometown high schools.
But Baker said that of the nine senior hockey players in his English class this year, every one is staying through May to get his diploma from Douglas County West. School and hockey club are now truly a team, he said.
“They are becoming DC West Falcons,” Baker said of the players. “It’s worked out really well. These kids do an incredible job on the ice and in the classroom.”
Contact the writer: 402-444-1130, henry.cordes@owh.com

Share your thoughts