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Spokane Chiefs Liam Stewart during WHL action in Spokane against the Vancouver Giants October 13, 2012. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)
Spokane Chiefs Liam Stewart during WHL action in Spokane against the Vancouver Giants October 13, 2012. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)


The Big Bang: Son of rock legend Rod Stewart among Sunbelt prospects dreaming of NHL career Add to ...

One is the son of an enduring rock legend, Rod Stewart, another the offspring of professional basketball player, Popeye Jones. A third has a dad, Oren Koules, who frightened a generation of movie-goers by producing the Saw film franchise.

All three players – Liam Stewart, Seth Jones and Miles Koules – grew up in non-traditional hockey centres to land in the Western Hockey League this year, against the longest of odds.

Hockey has a long-standing tradition of keeping it all in the family, dating to the era of Conachers and Patricks, Appses and Geoffrions, Hulls and Howes, But now, thanks largely to the NHL’s expansion into every corner of the United States, there is a new generation of prospects coming along, with athletic roots in different sports, who ultimately gravitated to hockey.

For years, the United States had two main hockey hotbeds – Minnesota/Wisconsin and other smaller centres in the Midwest, plus the Eastern Seaboard. But all that changed when the NHL introduced its Sunbelt strategy and put new teams into unfamiliar markets – Florida, Texas, California, Tennessee and beyond.

“As the NHL expanded into some of those markets, with that, came new facilities,” explained Jim Johansson, assistant executive director of hockey operations for USA Hockey.

“You can’t have hockey without facilities and I don’t think there’s any chance we would have the number of facilities we do if had it not been for the NHL in those markets. In some cases, like Dallas, the team got into the facility business. They built a bunch of rinks.

“The byproduct of their being NHL in those cities is that kids said, ‘I want to play hockey.’”

Stewart was discovered by the Spokane Chiefs at a tryout camp in Anaheim, where WHL scouts annually go to see what kind of talent may be available in southern California. It is in its sixth year of operation and falls under the jurisdiction of Rick Doerksen, the WHL’s vice-president of hockey operations.

“The difference between California and Minnesota or some of those other states is they have no college hockey,” Doerksen said. “So when their players get through midget hockey, their options are to go the USHL [United States Hockey League], or come to the Western Hockey League. They’re looking for places where they can go and play hockey.

“With our five U.S. teams, we wondered how, as a league, can we recruit in some of those areas – Colorado, California, even Texas now – where there’s some real good hockey being played. So we decided we would hold a camp down there and it’s really bloomed. We had to turn away a lot of kids last year.”

To Johansson, hockey is now attracting players that might otherwise have veered off into baseball, football or basketball a generation ago.

“We used to say, ‘What if John Elway played hockey?’ and ‘Did he ever have the opportunity to do so when he came through?” Johansson said. “Well, in the case of Seth Jones, there were facilities, there were programs, there was an interest, and it captured this young man, so the system worked there.

“One of our big pushes with the American development model is really all about athleticism at younger ages – and doing more off the ice. In all honesty, there’s limited time, resources and ice available in many parts of the country, so we need more active, fully-rounded kids as athletes, than just specialized hockey players.”

The NHL’s Sunbelt teams invested in infrastructure largely because they wanted to develop the next generation of fans for the sport. But along the way, the quality of play increased substantially, to the point where they are actually producing talent for the pro leagues.

“The nature of youth sports right now is more competitive than ever,” Johansson said. “There’s more specialization at an early age. There are more and more ‘professional’ organizations running youth hockey organizations. We’re talking about hockey, but we could talking about any sport. Quite honestly, I think families and parents are looking for a return on their investment. They are putting a lot of dollars into their kids’ recreation and they expect well-run programs in return.”

Popeye Jones’s three sons, Justin, Seth and Caleb, were among those kids clamouring to play hockey in families that didn’t know the first thing about the game themselves.

“I just thought it was just another sport that they wanted to try,” said Popeye Jones, who played for six NBA teams over an 11-year career. “I was great with that … but it wasn’t like I thought it was something that was going to last. I just thought, ‘When hockey season is over, when the winter is over, then maybe they’ll play baseball or maybe they’ll play another outdoor sport.’ But when the hockey season ended, as they got older, they still didn’t want to do anything else but skate.”

Playing his minor hockey in Los Angeles, Stewart had some ground to make up in terms of his hockey instinct, but the Chiefs thought he could overcome that by channelling his natural athletic ability.

“We have a mile-and-a-half run for our guys, vets and rookies, everybody together – and he blew away the field,” said Tim Speltz, Spokane’s general manager. “He’s a special athlete. So he turns heads automatically, before we’re even on the ice, in the fitness tests. Any player that can do that will impress a coach because it shows they’re dedicated and committed. Those things don’t happen by accident.”

“My mom was a dancer and my dad played soccer, so luckily, I have an athletic side to me,” said Stewart, who realized that he might have a future in the game when he was invited to the WHL tryout camp.

“After that, I started working out every day, training really hard and figured, ‘Why not give it a shot?,” he said. “It was hard my first few games, but once I got used to the speed and adjusted from California hockey, it was just fun. I mean, I loved it. It was a lot of fun.”

Stewart’s first season was “a real interesting year” according to Speltz, “and one of the toughest things, I’ll be honest, was a little bit of who his parents were – because all he wanted to do was prove to everybody he could play. He got a little frustrated with the [attention]. He’d rather have had people interviewing the successful guys on the team, the guys getting the points, the guys making the difference. There was a great article one night in Victoria on a night when he was the first star. That’s one where he felt, ‘I earned that. This wasn’t because of who my mom is or who my dad is. I earned this.”

The International Ice Hockey Federation has granted Liam Stewart permission to play for Great Britain internationally, and that’s something he’d like to do eventually. Playing professionally is another goal. His road to the NHL figures to be more challenging than Jones’s will be, but …

“One day, I’m hoping I can play in the NHL,” Stewart said. “If I ever get the chance, that would be amazing.”

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