Brian Gratz, who was hired as head of athlete development at the SportONE/Parkview Icehouse in October, could see right away that the quality of high school hockey in Fort Wayne was of good caliber.
But he came to decide it could get even better. Hence, there's now a 3-on-3 league during the summer.
“Me coming back to Fort Wayne when I did, I was watching the hockey and kind of seeing the level that we have here in Fort Wayne, a lot of quality young hockey players, and the high school hockey was very entertaining,” said Gratz, a native of Fort Wayne who last season coached the Greenville Swamp Rabbits of the ECHL, the same league in which the Komets play.
“I felt that as the season ends, that first week of March, there's a massive hole in programming for our high school and U-16 teams.”
There is a hitch.
Although the winter season featured six high school teams, including Homestead, Leo and Carroll, the high school hockey league has contracted to four teams for next season because the Summit City Panthers, Fort Wayne Bruins and Bishop Dwenger have, essentially, been combined, Gratz said.
The summer 3-on-3 league is much less formal – it has two Homestead teams, Summit City, Leo, Bishop Dwenger and the Bruins – but it's still important and fun.
“They needed something to keep them sharp and with skill development and to maintain that camaraderie with their teammates into the season,” Gratz said.
Heading into last week's games, the Homestead Blue team had the best record (11-4-0), followed by Summit City (10-3-2) and Leo (10-6-0).
Leo's Carter Bonecutter was the unofficial leading scorer with 24 goals and 33 points in 14 games. Hunter Ramos of Homestead Blue had 19 goals and 25 points in 11 games.
Jason Marquardt of Summit City had 20 goals and 24 points in 12 games, and Homestead White's Preston Isenbarger also had 24 points with 12 goals.
Other big scorers included Carter Roach, Collin Showler, Keaton Coulter, Corey Showler, Sean Stutzman and Joe Hacker.
While the players began the summer season showing some fatigue – consider the amount of open ice on which they're skating – the intensity has ramped up recently.
The season will run to June 26, the night of the playoffs.
“You watch the NHL and you've got the All-Star Game and, obviously, it's all being played 3-on-3,” Gratz said. “It really opens up the ice and gives the players a chance to display that 1-on-1 skill, and to do more, and to create more in open spaces.
“It makes it a great skate for conditioning. It also helps them be put into a situation for a longer period of time and really showcase their skills and things through different situations, how to attack at 3-on-3 setting for an extended (period of) time.”
Some high school coaches have been behind the benches for the 3-on-3 league and others have used the opportunity to scout potential players for next season. This could be valuable for them in that respect, since incoming freshmen are playing.
There are rosters of up to 13 players for the teams and, with the freshmen involved, Gratz said: “It's giving guys the opportunity to showcase themselves.”
Gratz also likes that the Wednesday schedules keeps the players accustomed to be at the rink the same night of the week they play their winter games.
“To be able to keep the same nights they're used to coming to the rink, maintain camaraderie and set aside one night to improve their games was the motivation,” Gratz said.