By Jason P. Skoda
The Arizona Republic
PHOENIX – Claude Lemieux did not spend much time fine-tuning his tremendous hockey skills at places such as the Arcadia Ice Arena, but that doesn’t mean the former NHL star underestimates the importance of the lower levels of hockey.
“This is where they sharpen their skills,” Lemieux said before a recent RoadRunners practice at Arcadia. “They realize they are young enough to be seen and they want to establish themselves as professionals. They want to move to the AHL and bigger dreams.”
That is part of Lemieux’s role as president of the RoadRunners. He, along with coaches Ron Filion and J.J. Daigneault, want to be part of this viable option for young players to refine their skills before moving on to the next level.
“It’s a good league because there is a veteran limitations (four per team) and allows the younger players to develop,” Lemieux said of the ECHL. “These guys are full of desire and passion, and love for the game is what excites us about doing this. We have to give them guidance along the way to be become all-around hockey players.”
It’s a reputation the ECHL, a premier Double-A level minor league, strived to change after being known as a goon league for many years. It started to evolve when the West Coast Hockey League ceased operations after completing the 2002-03 season.
The East Coast Hockey League wanted to be known solely as ECHL as it took on many of the franchises from the WCHL as expansion teams.
More than 260 former ECHL players moved on to the NHL, including recent players Derek Boogaard of Minnesota and Michael Garnett of Atlanta, since the league began operations in 1988.
Lemieux hopes to add a few to the total in the years to come.
“I am excited about giving them the opportunity,” he said. “I had a different route and didn’t have to struggle along at the minor league level and when I watch these guys practice, shoot and pass the puck, it is mind-boggling to think some of these guys can’t play at the next level, but there is something missing.
“Hopefully, they spend a year or two with us and we hope to get to that next level.”