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Will Hoenike

IdahoSports.com

 

Idaho is producing top-shelf hockey talent. Yes. Really.
Published: 5/1/2017 1:54:13 PM

Because of guys like Bo Hanson, perception about hockey in Idaho is starting to change.



Last week, Bo Hanson made a proclamation on Instagram that may have gone unnoticed by a lot of people in the Boise area.

“Extremely excited to have signed my NLI to St. Lawrence today,” the Instagram post read. “Grateful for everyone who helped me get to this point.”

Hanson was formally committing to the small, private university in northern New York, probably closer to Ottawa or Montreal than Syracuse or Albany, by signing his national letter of intent (NLI).  So it’s entirely possible a lot of people simply weren’t familiar with St. Lawrence University.

He was also committing to play Division-1 college hockey.

Idaho, to the surprise of few, is not known for producing large quantities of top-shelf hockey talent, but that perception is beginning to change because of Hanson and some childhood friends of his in Boise.  He’s the fourth member of group of boys born between 1997 and 1999 to sign a Division-1 commitment.  Hanson is headed to SLU, Bailey Conger will play next season at RPI - Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute – another small, Division 1 program that reached the NCAA National Semifinals in 2011.  

CJ Walker is a year away from enrolling at Minnesota State, a program that produced NHL star David Backes and former Idaho Steelheads standout (and Pittsburgh Penguin) Kael Mouillierat.  

August von Ungern Sternberg will play college hockey at Brown University of the Ivy League.  And Zach Walker just wrapped up his freshman season at Boston College which, among NCAA Division 1 hockey programs, is analogous to Kansas in basketball or USC in football, having won four national championships since 2001.

Conger prepped at Bishop Kelly, the two Walkers and Hanson all came up together in southeast Boise, near Timberline, and von Ungern-Sternberg is from Eagle.

All five boys played together on a team that was coached by former pro hockey player Mike Hanson and former college player Scott Cyr.

“It was a special team,” Hanson said of that Idaho Junior Steelheads squad. “We carried a smaller roster than other teams but we worked so hard. We weren’t that much better, skill-wise, but we out-worked everyone.”

It culminated for the core of that team in 2012, when the Idaho Junior Steelheads claimed the USA Hockey Tier IIA 14-and-Under National Championship.  Bo Hanson and von Ungern-Sterberg weren’t on that trip, but the other three were and helped the team put up 50 goals in six games en route to the state’s only national title at that level.

(It should be noted that two other players from that team, Cade Talbert and Blake Branscombe, are currently playing college lacrosse)

“It’s a big deal that they won that,” Hanson noted. “We were that good in that tournament.”

Now that group is proving another set of skeptics wrong – those who think Idaho can’t hang with hockey’s proverbial big boys.

The state already lays claim to perhaps the biggest name currently in women’s hockey, Hilary Knight, whose family lives in Sun Valley.  That community also produced a pair of men’s professional players in Cody Lampl and Joey Sides.

Now the next wave is arriving.

“The opportunity is there,” Hanson said of playing in Idaho. “We’re in a good area of the country if you want to go on in hockey.  You want to go through Denver.”

And Denver is where a lot of Idaho travel teams head for tournaments.  Hanson recounted a story of an hour-long conversation with former NHL star Adam Foote, whose team had just played against Hanson’s Junior Steelheads.  The Idaho team – particularly Zach Walker – had made an impression.

It’s this type of momentum the Idaho hockey community is trying to build off of.  Kory Scoran, the director of hockey operations at Boise’s Idaho Ice World, says numbers have swelled in recent years.

“Our hockey ‘Learn to Play’ (program) has grown from twelve kids four years ago to 175 right now just learning to play hockey,” Scoran told IdahoSports.com. “We have a unique situation here in Idaho, where there are a lot of ex-pro players who have made Boise home and are giving back to the hockey community and it is really starting to show.”

Scoran, one of those former pro players who now lives in Boise, foresees “explosive growth” in Idaho in coming years.  The one thing the state faces is a shortage of places to play.  CenturyLink Arena in downtown Boise, the home of the Idaho Steelheads, has ice during hockey season.  Idaho Ice World in Boise houses two sheets of ice.  McCall, Sun Valley, Idaho Falls, Salmon and Couer d’Alene each have rinks, as do Moscow and Lewiston.  That’s pretty much it.  The state of Minnesota has over 400.

“Yes, we’re geographically challenged,” Scoran conceded. “Families have to travel so far just to play in the state.”

Hanson says the 2012 national championship team still keeps in touch to this day and are planning a little reunion this summer to catch up.  If all goes well, future reunions of the team will include tales of how that team helped kids in Idaho realize the higher shelves of North American hockey aren’t out of their reach.

To learn more about youth hockey in Idaho – including a state-wide high school hockey league – visit www.idahoamateurhockey.com.




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