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Blackhawks' misfortune Lexington's gain

Eight-year-old David Neal, left, got his puck signed by Chicago Blackhawks Coach Joel Quenneville at Lexington Ice Center. Quenneville is in Kentucky to watch the Derby this weekend after the Blackhawks lost in the first round of the NHL playoffs.
Eight-year-old David Neal, left, got his puck signed by Chicago Blackhawks Coach Joel Quenneville at Lexington Ice Center. Quenneville is in Kentucky to watch the Derby this weekend after the Blackhawks lost in the first round of the NHL playoffs.

Joel Quenneville's misfortune became good fortune for young hockey players in Lexington.

Quenneville, coach of the Stanley Cup-champion Chicago Blackhawks, visited the Lexington Ice Center on Thursday to support a "Learn To Play" program sponsored by the the Central Kentucky Hockey Association.

Quenneville was able to come because the Blackhawks lost a first-round playoff in seven games to the Vancouver Canucks. He came to Lexington and for Derby weekend at the invitation of a former teammate, Hill 'n' Dale Farms horseman John Sikura.

"We always say it's great to go to the Derby, but we hope we never go," Quenneville said, referring to the conflict with the NHL playoffs. "Unfortunately, this year we have to come to the Derby."

Along with Blackhawks assistant coach Mike Kitchen, Quenneville gave a short talk, took questions, passed out Hawks hats, signed autographs and stuck around for conversations with parents.

"It was great getting to visit, and it's not a traditional hockey market," Quenneville said. "The enthusiasm for hockey and the kids coming out — they're excited to play and they're excited about trying to get better."

Sikura, a Toronto native, played Major Junior "A" hockey with Quenneville. Sikura also played in college for Michigan State and the University of Guelph, then played in Europe.

His sons Jess, 9, and Jackson, 8, play on the CKHA's Squirt (age 9-10) travel team. Jaden, 5, plays in the developmental league.

The CKHA, in its first year, is successor to the Bluegrass Youth Hockey Association.

The American Hockey League's Kentucky Thoroughblades left Lexington in 2001. The East Coast Hockey League's Lexington Men O' War lasted only one year. Since then, youth hockey numbers have declined.

The revived Squirt travel team played this season with nine players younger than the 9-10 age group, including one 6-year-old. After starting with 11 losses, the team gathered steam, won a tournament in Nashville and played in Cincinnati in the finals of the Buckeye Travel League.

"There's no reason hockey players in Kentucky can't be as good as hockey players anywhere," Sikura said. "It's just a matter of getting them to start early."

Michael Poth, president of the CKHA and also a Toronto native, hopes to rejuvenate youth hockey in Lexington. His sons Tommy, 13, and Sean, 11, play at the Bantam and Peewee levels.

Also helping with the 9-and-under Learn To Play group is former T-blades captain Jarrett Dueling.

Another former captain, Cincinnati Cyclones Coach Jarrod Skalde, is scheduled to hold a week-long hockey camp in August, as he did last year.

The planned result is improved play, something to which Quenneville can relate.

"We were disappointed with the way (the season) ended," Quenneville said of the Blackhawks. "I think that we learned that we have to be ready to go from game one (of the season) to position ourselves at the end. ... We didn't have any wiggle room at the end.

"But we've got a great core group and I think everybody's going to come back with a real good appetite."

Ditto for the young players he met Thursday.

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