Short Pump, Va. - Tucked into the SkateNation Plus facility...surrounded by cinemas and shopping,....dozens of young men lace up their skates each day and keep the sport of hockey young in Richmond.
The Richmond Generals began play back in 2011 and now compete in the US Premier Hockey League. Stretching the length of the East Coast and into the midwest...it's the largest junior hockey league in the country.
Former Richmond Renegade defenseman RC Lyke is the only head coach the Generals have ever had. He remembers what it was like to play in front of sold out crowds at the Coliseum...and hopes to give the same opportunities to his players.
"Our program is an extended family" Lyke explained. "And we do everything with a family first, team first mentality. Even though I have 46 or 47 new players each year, they're all my kids."
"The most important thing that we try to do with our players is not only develop them on the ice, but develop them off the ice as young men" he continued.
"That's the number one purpose."
And many of them are young men, who have come from far and wide to play in Richmond. Junior hockey players range in age from 16-20 before they transition into a college or minor league professional program. Unlike almost every other sport....college hockey coaches prefer their players to be older and more developed than high school graduates.
The Generals play at what Lyke describes as similar to Double-A baseball...where the Flying Squirrels play. Through his connections with colleges and pro organizations, Lyke is able to cast a wide net to find players, both nationally and internationally.
"It helps a great deal" Lyke said. "We're able to target some high end European players that wan to come over here and go to NCAA college."
"It was a childhood dream" said defenseman Edvin Wilhelmsson. "I always wanted to play college hockey. It's difficult in Sweden to have hockey and school align. They don't have school teams really."
Wilhemsson is originally from Stockholm. Teammate Luca De Dona' is from Bolzano, Italy. Just two of the players who have taken a pretty big leap of faith to travel thousands of miles for this specific opportunity.
"My parents always tried to push me and help me with my dreams" De Dona' said. "I wanted to try to play in North America. They liked the idea."
"It was always something I wanted to do, so I was excited to do it" Wilhelmsson said of coming to the States. "But it was also tough to leave everything back home."
There's a great deal to miss from home for many of these players.
"The food" said De Dona' understandably. "Definitely the food."
"Oooh, probaby my family and my friends" Wilhelmsson added. "Hockey over there is different."
But the goal remains the same.
"Everyone has the same goals" said Wilhelmsson. "Everyone wants to move on to play at the next level."
"I really hope to go to college here and study in North America" said De Dona'. "From then on, I hope to move in this country because I think there's better opportunity for people."
"We try to get them acclimated as much as possible" Lyke said. "We try to throw as many things at them as we can, so that they're prepared when they leave our program not only in hockey, but in life."
The Generals opened their season on September 15th. For more information on their schedule, log on to RichmondGenerals.com.
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