Growing the Game... The Michigan Nationals

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Just over three years ago, the Southside Ice Arena in Byron Center, Michigan was reopened after being shuttered for a full season. The new owners tapped Travis Richards and Mike Slobodnik to start up a new youth hockey association based out of the rink. Travis and Mike not only started the Michigan Nationals, but eventually bought the rink and have built the most competitive western Michigan youth hockey association in three short seasons.

Travis Richards has a long hockey history in Grand Rapids. After growing up in Minnesota and playing college hockey for the Minnesota Gophers, Travis spent ten seasons with the Grand Rapids Griffins, the AHL affiliate of the Detroit Red Wings. Travis is the only Griffin to have his number retired. Mike Slobodnik grew up in Grand Rapids playing youth hockey locally before playing juniors in the NAHL and eventually playing NCAA D3 hockey at Wisconsin-Stevens Point. They had both made commitments to the local area and wanted to make a difference growing the game for local kids. From the beginning, they have fielded Tier 1, Tier 2 and house level teams. The club’s house teams play in the Adray league while their Tier 2 teams play in the LCAHL. The AAA teams play an independent schedule, but their midget teams have been invited to play in the HPHL Showcase series this season.

In addition to running the rink and the club, both Mike and Travis coach teams in the club. Being involved in virtually all aspects of the game has given these directors the insight that the sport is grown from the bottom up. They are strong supporters of the USA Hockey American Development Model (ADM). They both love helping out in their learn to skate program. The goal of their program is to get as many kids as possible involved in and interested in hockey and to give them the tools they need to succeed. They believe that their coaching staff gives them the edge they need to achieve this goal. Their coaching staff has a combined 6900 games of professional hockey experience. While Mike Knuble, an NHL veteran of more than 1000 games, may be their most recognizable coach, the entire staff collaborates to provide the best learning experience for the players and families. Mike and Travis strongly believe that by giving their coaches the support that they need, they will have the ability to be role models for their players. Every member of the Nationals club, coach or player, is held to a higher standard.

The owners have found that the majority of their growth as a program has come from the success of their teams and players. This past season they had their first team finish in the top 10 of MYHockey Ranking’s Tier 1 rankings as their 16U team, led by coach Norm Krumpschmid, finished the season at #9, placing second among Michigan teams. While both men went on at length when discussing their large list of elite level players, a few have been getting recognition at the national level. Players Cameron Orchard and Eric Schuch are both two time USA Hockey Player Development Camp attendees. This past year Orchard was also selected to play in the Select 16 All-Star based upon his performance in the week long development camp in Buffalo, NY. Just making it through the Michigan District selection process is a heck of an accomplishment, but these two have been able to repeat that success for two consecutive years playing for the Nationals. The club also just had their first NCAA D1 college commitment as Bryce Hatten announced he would be attending Miami University in Oxford, OH playing for the Redhawks and coach Enrico Blasi.

From the beginning, Mike and Travis have envisioned building a club that provided opportunities for players at all levels. From learn to skate and their house program, through their Tier 2 travel teams and ultimately culminating with their Tier 1 teams, they want to provide western Michigan kids an opportunity to play at a level that will challenge and grow their game. Moving forward, they’d like to continue to build the Nationals reputation as a top caliber club. They will do this by growing players and ultimately, growing the game of hockey.
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