From high in the stands at Anaheim Ice, donning his school's crimson colors, the focused gaze of University of Denver Head Coach George Gwozdecky is unmistakable. This was the coach's first trip to the Ducks West Coast Prospects Camp, though members of his staff have attended two of the previous three, and if anyone knows the value of a strong California player, it's the University of Denver.
"We've had Rhett Rakhshani, we've had Gabe Gauthier, and we're going to have Beau Bennett," Coach Gwozdecky says of the steady stream of California impact players coming through his program. "Gauthier scored the game winning goal for us in the 2004 National Championship game. He wore number 9, and when he graduated, he passed it on to Rhett, who just left us. And now, Beau's going to wear the number 9, so our 'California Connection' [even] maintains the same number."
The same number and the same stall in the locker room, it turns out. Denver has become a place where a California prospect can not only make an impact but become part of a tradition. And Coach Gwozdecky is happy to seek out players looking to join that tradition, because he finds that California players have an abundance of skill and commitment, both born, perhaps, of the unique process of pursuing hockey in the Golden State.
"A lot of these kids, from what I understand, play roller hockey or have played roller hockey in order to enhance their ice hockey," says Gwozdecky, "And you can certainly see it, just from their stick abilities; their stick skills are uncanny. Rhett Rakhshani was one of those guys. I have never seen a guy in my 31 years with any faster hands than Rhett. His ability to handle the puck and make plays one-on-one on people, including goaltenders, I mean, he would embarrass goaltenders . . . [And] it really is fun to watch these young guys and how hard they play, and knowing how much of a commitment they've had to make to play this sport. Not only financially, but the time they've had to put in to travel in this state to go to practice every night, to play on the weekends . . . It's a huge, huge commitment, and yet they love the sport and they want to be able to excel at it. And when kids and their families are willing to do that, it tells you an awful lot about why they're able to excel and succeed."
With the travel required, just within the state, to play hockey in California, there are a number of advantages to a local evaluation camp like the Ducks West Coast Prospects Camp, but Coach Gwozdecky also praises the Camp's commitment to delivering the complete message of the options at the next level through its informational sessions, like this year's presentation from College Hockey Inc.
"It's hugely important just to be able to educate the kids and their families on their options," Gwozdecky stresses. "Not everybody is destined for College Hockey and not everybody is destined for Junior Hockey, but certainly, I think everybody deserves to be able to know the facts, and know the requirements and know the eligibility issues . . . Because we have to abide by so many rules, and a lot of times, kids and their parents don't know that unitl after the fact. So the great thing about being able to have [College Hockey Inc.] is that they can spread the word. They can inform these young kids and their parents about College Hockey and the rules that are important for their families to know, so that when it comes time to make a decision, they can have the facts available to them."
Perhaps the most stifling rule in the scouting process for NCAA coaches is that they cannot contact a player until June 15th of that player's sophomore year in high school. It's an enormous disadvantage when you consider that the CHL and other hockey organizations scouting teenagers are not bound by any such rule. And the message that the coaches are restricted from sending is usually very simple. When asked, Coach Gwozdecky phrases the advantages of his program effortlessly:
"The University of Denver is a great private university in the Rocky Mountain region. It's 150-plus years old. it's completely self-contained, but it's ten minutes away from downtown Denver. And Denver and the state of Colorado, I don't know if there's a better place to live. We've got more blue sky than you guys do," he says with a laugh. "We've got more annual sunshine than San Diego. We get our snowfalls, but usually it's gone within 24 to 48 hours. So, the quality of life [is great], just becuase the climate is tremendous, and when you combine that with a world class private institution and a world class education at DU, and then on top of that, you've got a nationally recognized and nationally competitive Division I hockey program, where guys are coming in and moving on to the National Hockey League-- if you're one of those lucky ones that gets a chance to be able to play there, it's pretty tough not to say, 'yeah I wanna go.'"
It certainly sounds like an option that every young California player deserves to hear, and the Ducks West Coast Prospects Camp is determined to present it to them. But the Camp isn't just committed to helping the players make an informed decision about their next team, it's also committed to helping the teams make an informed decision about their next players. That is why the Camp focuses on presenting a competitive round robin tournament every year, giving the scouts and coaches as much in-game scouting time as possible on every player.
"To really evaluate a player properly, you have to watch him in a competitive setting, because drills just don't do it." says Gwozdecky. "You have to be able to see him play at a pace where there's intensity and there's physical contact, where there's battling and there's compeition. [You have to see] how quickly they make decisions, whether they continue to compete, whether they quit on certain situations, and you can't do that in drills."
Perhaps the best representation of Gwozdecky's satisfaction with the competitive level of the Camp is the amount of time he spent watching the players in the '96-'97 division. Having seen some of the older, more exposed players in out of state competition, Coach Gwozdecky was particularly interested in getting a look at the younger kids who he said were "not on the radar screen yet." And what a thrill it must have been for some of California's best 12 to 14 year-old players to look into the stands and see one of the greatest coaches at the next level taking notes on their game.
Our complete coverage at the 2010 Ducks West Coast Prospects Camp Main Page.