Ottawa Senators forward Dylan Gambrell grew up in Bonney Lake, Wash., playing youth hockey for local associations. As his skills grew, he had aspirations to pursue a career in hockey. To do that, he needed to play against better competition and get better exposure to scouts than he could get locally.

At the age of 14, he and his parents decided that he would go to Colorado to play AAA hockey for the Colorado Thunderbirds, one of the top programs in the country.

“That was hard,” he said when asked about it years later. “I remember the day I was leaving. My parents are crying, and I had never seen my dad cry. It was a tough day, but it was totally worth it.”

It worked out for Gambrell who was eventually drafted by the USHL and then went to the University of Denver where he would be drafted by the San Jose Sharks. He is not the only local player to face this decision. The local youth programs are quality programs but don’t have teams that face top talent that can gain their players’ exposure to college and junior scouts.

That can change, however, and the Seattle Kraken’s youth hockey program is hoping to be the fix.

“Washington right now is in a spot where kids leave after they’re 14, 15 years old go to different spots,” director of Kraken youth hockey association Marty Hlinka said. “So, for our region and for our state and for Seattle, and definitely for the Kraken, we want to have a path for the players, where they have a chance to develop, stay at home, go to the same schools, have the same friends.”

That path will be here as soon as next hockey season.

The Kraken and Kraken Youth Hockey Association have been given USA Hockey’s approval to run and operate a AAA hockey program. AAA hockey (also known as Tier 1 hockey) is the top level for youth hockey and the level that many junior and college players are scouted and drawn from.

Seattle Junior and Sno-King hockey are handing their Tier 1 programs over to the Kraken, who will combine the two into one Kraken AAA team.

Tryouts will happen in April, and the Kraken hope to begin play in the fall. Hlinka and his staff are currently looking for coaches and a league to play in, as well as tournaments to travel to and play in.

“The hope is to have the talent actually get better,” Hlinka said. “Because the teams are going to get stronger, I should say, because there’s more talent available, and we’ll see what that looks like.”

For now, the program will include U14, U16, and U18 age groups. Hlinka said they are exploring other age groups and eventually a girls program.

Part of youth development

The Kraken youth program has become a popular place for the area youth to learn and develop as players.

“We opened the building, and since then we have had over 3000 kids take our learn-to-skate program,” Hlinka said. “We have 1000 kids that went through our learn-to-play programs. We have over 400 players in adult leagues and adult learn-to-play… the NHL being here, obviously the kids get more excited. The parents get more excited, and when the Kraken win, it’s a lot more fun. A lot more kids get into the game.”

The Kraken hope to offer a development path from beginner to playing beyond with the AAA program.

“We want to make sure that our development model emphasizes skating, and that’s why all our players that start in our building have to go to a learn-to-skate program,” Hlinka said. “Once they graduate, they go to our learn-to-play program that we’re very fortunate that the NHLPA sponsors.

“So, you learn how to skate, you know how to stand up, fall down without any gear on, so we put the gear on, and now you have the awesome blue jersey with the Kraken logo on it. Then we need to teach you how to skate and play and develop you as a hockey player.”

Hlinka, who has an extensive background playing and coaching at various levels of professional hockey, says that the coaches they ultimately bring in will be experienced in the game and will be in tune with the ultimate development path that the Kraken have implemented.

“There’s a lot of good players here, and we want to make sure that we give them a path if they want to stay. Everybody’s development path is a little different,” Hlinka said. “The hope is we’ll have a Kraken player that started here. We’re here to develop ladies and gentlemen and people, give them life skills that they can use in life when they’re done playing, but at the same time, we’re building hockey players for life.”