Every Thursday my weekly routine hauls me out to the Oilers Ice Center, 6413 South Mingo. It's an entertaining evening every time.
My friend Cary Eskridge shoots the video for the Tulsa Oilers, oversees the River West Inline Hockey League and runs the Pro-Shop at the Ice Center. I always stop in for a quick visit when his shop isn't bustling with customers.
He turned me on to the Tulsa Rampage, a junior hockey team. One of Eskridge's assistants in the shop every week is Kyle Smythe. Smythe and a few of his teammates thought a story on the Rampage would be an idea worth mulling over. You know what? They were absolutely right.
The Tulsa Rampage plays in the Western States Hockey League. The players range from ages 16-20. The goal of USA Hockey Junior's program is to advance these kids to collegiate and/or professional level hockey.
It's quite the undertaking. The affable Julie Wilson purchased the team two years ago. She is also the general manager. What are her qualifications? She GM'd a minor league hockey team in Cincinnati, Ohio. She knows the rinks.
"We travel all over the country," said Wilson. Her goal is to secure solid players year after year.
"We recruit our players from (showcases) and convince them to come here. Once they get here, it's our job to develop the last little piece they are missing to get them to either move up to tier one or to juniors or to get them into the NCAA," she said. The Rampage are considered tier three.
The players cannot be compensated in any way, shape or form. Paying the players would result in the immediate loss of their NCAA eligibility.
"Many of our kids want to go on to the NCAA. In fact, we are moving a lot of them," she said as she pointed out the 10 or so of her players moving on to college hockey next season.
While in Tulsa, the players live with host families. Only five of the players are originally from this area. Extensive background checks are preformed on potential host families. Wilson takes great pride in the operation she oversees.
"I saw pro hockey players living lifestyles that were a disaster," she said, referring to minor league hockey.
"A lot of those guys had drinking problems and womanizing problems. There were so many problems with those guys. I think a lot of it stems from the fact that they moved away from their home when they were 16 to play junior hockey," she said.
Of course drinking and womanizing are also surefire ways to end up in politics, but I digress.
To play on this squad, players have to check in with Wilson every night, from home, before 10pm. She randomly chooses five or six to verify with a callback each night.
She takes pride in the team and has a fantastic coach to boot.
Toronto native Chad McLeod moved to Tulsa in 1996 and skated with the Oilers for about a month. He first met Wilson when he coached her son.
They worked together in Cincinnati as well. Before Wilson committed to purchasing the Tulsa franchise, she needed McLeod under contract. She realized this team needed a rock like him to lean on and learn from.
"Our goal was to get the junior team in this town, turn it around and bring some success to Tulsa hockey," said McLeod.
"There's nothing fancy about our hockey club. We don't have the most talented guys on paper. Out skate, out hit, out work the other team. We're more of a meat and potatoes kind of hockey team," said the coach who is on the cusp on his 100th victory behind the bench.
The Rampage finished second in the Mid-West Division of the WSHL. They travel by bus. They practice every day. They work a minimum of 16 hours a week. They also perform community service.
One of the goals of both the owner and the coach is to instill life lessons. "Teach them accountability. Teach them work ethic. What you put into things in life is what you get out. This group has brought in tremendously. They work hard every day. They are well disciplined. It's a privilege to coach these kids," said McLeod as the team skated through drills.
"There is a lot of natural skill and ability in some of these kids. The one thing I want to teach these guys is-when you get to the higher levels...everyone is just as good," said McLeod.
As previously mentioned, there are at least 10 players from this talented, fast, highly-skilled squad moving on next year. Five native Tulsans don the Rampage sweaters including the versatile forward Nic Powers.
Powers went to high school at Bixby. Like thousands of other kids his age from this area, he gave the gridiron a chance.
"I played football one year and didn't really like it. We practiced every day for several hours. I just didn't get much fun out of it. I played other sports like baseball.
"I finally decided to go with hockey because I enjoyed it the most," said the workaholic. Powers owns a lawn service, does industrial painting and works part time at QT. Did I mention he plays hockey, too?
Powers wouldn't sing his own praises. His coach, however, offered up a few positives. "He's got over 30 goals this year. Defensively, he's solid and he kills penalties. He's a tremendous athlete," gushed the proud coach.
Hockey comes down to two basic principles. Score goals and stop the puck. Mike Davis excels at the latter.
The goaltender leads the league in several key statistical categories. Save percentage, wins and minutes played. More impressive? His ability to solve a Rubik's Cube in less than one minute.
In fact, his pre-game focusing ritual involves solving the colored box from the 1980's circa. He doesn't even swap the stickers around.
Davis is a big goalie who uses solid positioning to make the stops.
"I didn't start playing until I was nine. I lived in Georgia for the first part of my life," said Davis. The closest rink in the Peach state was more than an hour away from his house.
His parents relocated to Michigan and needless to say, ice time was more attainable. This is his second year in T-Town. "The climate is a bit milder down here than in Michigan. In terms of how it compares to Michigan it's very similar (type of) people," said the goalie.
The WSHL playoffs start this Friday. The Rampage secured a first-round home series against the San Antonio Diablos. Tulsa won the regular season series 6-3.
The games are played at the Oilers Ice Rink. The puck drops Friday at 5:45, Saturday at 4:15 and if necessary Sunday at 3:45. If you decide to catch a game, I'll offer you a guarantee.
You will be pleasantly surprised by the skill level on display.
Visit tulsarampage.com for more information about Tulsa's favorite junior hockey team.
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