Jr. Kings continue to build on high standards, on and off the ice

With close to 60 alumni finding their way onto NCAA Division I rosters over the last decade-plus, countless more playing high-level junior hockey and even and handful donning NHL sweaters, the Los Angeles Jr. Kings have unequivocally showcased their clout as one of the state’s - and North America’s - most highly regarded youth hockey programs.

Some would say if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, but for an organization that prides itself on progressive thinking and always striving to enhance the developmental experience for all its players, it’s never one to rest on its laurels.

“While we’re please with what we’ve done,” said Steve Yovetich, the Jr. Kings’ chairman of the board, “the focus has quickly shifted to, ‘How can we do better?’”

The Jr. Kings’ successes ranged far and wide this past season, highlighted by three of their Tier I teams - 18U AAA, 16U AAA Major and Bantam Major - sweeping their way to California Amateur Hockey Association (CAHA) state and Pacific District regional championships while advancing to the USA Hockey National Championships.

At the Tier II level, the club’s Bantam AA1 team also won a state title and competed at nationals, while its Pee Wee A3 team staked claim to both Southern California Amateur Hockey Association and CAHA state championships in its division.

While the banners and trophies might steal the spotlight, it’s the developmental blueprint fostered by the program’s leadership that’s creating a positive, competitive culture for all of the kids to thrive.

That mission intensified after the program’s merger with LA Hockey Club/LA Selects just over two years ago when the Jr. Kings, which calls El Segundo’s Toyota Sports Center home, inherited hundreds more kids to play under their banner.

The question, says Yovetich, was what to do with all the players.

“Do we concentrate on the best and risk losing the others, or do we keep and develop all the kids in the club because we feel like we do it better than anybody else?” said Yovetich. “And how do we successfully manage so many players with different skill levels?”

Jr. Kings coaches and board members were diligent in architecting a healthy roadmap for players at every level. They reached out to NCAA coaches, higher-ups at USA Hockey and others in education and sport development in pursuit of the best approach that would benefit all of the players, top to bottom.

“They said you want players to be challenged, you want players to be at their appropriate level, and you want them playing with others who are at the appropriate level, and that’s what we’ve done,” said Yovetich.

Case in point: the Jr. Kings’ state champion Pee Wee A3 team, an 03 group which could have played as a second-year Squirt squad this past season, and their Squirt A2 team, a first-year 04 club that played a Squirt A schedule and advanced to the CAHA state championship game.

“If we can do that at all levels and age groups, we’re going to be continually strong across the board,” said Yovetich.

“We’ve taken all of our best kids - because we have so many - and put them on a team together, and then we’ve moved them up an age group, and I think what that’s doing is stretching the kids; we’re challenging them to compete, and they’re doing great.”

With a 99 percent retention rate amongst their membership, coupled with plenty of coaching depth and limited turnover, families are clearly buying in to the Jr. Kings’ winning formula.

“And the kids who aren’t yet at their hightest level, they’re all playing with kids at similar age levels and playing amongst the finest in their age group,” said Yovetich. “It just happens to be the kids ahead of them are playing at an age higher than them, but that’s OK.

“Everybody’s at the level where they’re going to properly develop, because nobody wants to be the worst kid on a great team, and nobody wants to be the best kid on a bad team.”

And when those players eventually reach the Tier I level, they have the experience and are provided with all the resources necessary to take their games as far as they want to go.

Situated on the West Coast, the Jr. Kings’ affiliation with the Tier I Elite League, regarded as one of the best both in terms of competitiveness and exposure to high-level junior, college and professional scouts, is major perk for the players.

Couple that with decorated coaching staffs which are comprised of some of the most well-connected and respected mentors in North America when it comes to identifying and evaluating talent.

That recognition didn’t go unnoticed this season, as seven players from the Jr. Kings’ Bantam Major squad were selected in this year’s Western Hockey League Bantam Draft for 99-born players, with six more selected in the United States Hockey League Drafts.

Not to mention the dozens who were invited to the Pacific District Player Development Camp, 12 of which were invited to USA Hockey’s National Select Camps over the summer (nine 2000-borns and an alternate were called on to participate in this summer’s Multi-District High Performance Camp in Colorado Springs).

“We’re focused on doing the right things, developmentally,” said Yovetich. “We’re not just saying it; were doing it. We’re moving the kids on to do all kinds of great things.”

The Jr. Kings have also been proactive in welcoming college coaches to Southern California, namely through hosting the Bauer College Hockey Experience in conjunction with College Hockey, Inc.

The event, which is showcased in the springtime prior to tryouts, attracts NCAA Division I coaches from around the country for seminars and on-ice sessions - both of which are designed to open more doors for players as they take the next steps in their budding careers.

And those connections and influences extend far beyond the hockey landscape which is equally important, says Yovetich.

“If a kid gets the opportunity go (play high-level junior hockey) or in college or wherever, that’s great, but if he doesn’t decide to pursue hockey his whole life, he’s going to be a great citizen because he’s learned from some of the top people in hockey the life skills needed to be successful anywhere,” said Yovetich.

“Here we are putting our players in touch with some of the most successful people in hockey, who by the way also happen to be some of the greatest life teachers.

“If one of our players plays in the NHL or becomes a successful parent or employee of their chosen field, we’re equally proud to have been a part of their development.”