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Growth in Arizona hockey evident in Coyotes prospect camp invitees

Coyotes prospects take a knee and listen to instructions for their next drill at Coyotes development camp June 29 (Photo by Seth Askelson/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX — At last year’s NHL Draft, Scottsdale’s Auston Matthews was selected No. 1 overall, a significant milestone for Arizona’s hockey community.

Although this year’s draft didn’t have the same local punch, the growth of hockey in the state continues.

This week’s Arizona Coyotes development camp featured three players from Arizona: goaltender Jaxon Castor, winger Matt Jones and center Phillip Knies. The place where most of the camp was held, AZ Ice Peoria, is the same place where many of these players competed growing up.

“This is where I learned to skate,” Jones said. “I skate here every morning.”

Jones knew he would continue to skate in Peoria, but doing it in a Coyotes jersey was something he never thought would happen.

“I honestly didn’t think if I would step on this ice, it’d be in an NHL uniform,” Jones said, “but I’m grateful that it is.”

For these players, the camp is about learning what it takes to play in the NHL. This is their first experience in professional hockey and they are using it as a learning experience.

“I have a lot to work on,” Knies said. “It’s a really tough league. There’s a lot of great players that come from around the world and everybody is getting better every day. So you have to be consistent in your training and you have to make sure you’re making those strides in your game that everyone else is.”

Playing in the NHL is about the on-ice performance, but that is not all the prospects are learning this week.

They are quickly finding out that their off-ice actions factor into their careers.

“Being a professional, it’s away from the rink, too,” Knies said. “It’s not all the things you do on the ice, but there is so much that happens off the ice and behind the scenes.

“I’m learning both aspects of it.”

Knies, who was born in Slovakia and moved to the United States before his first birthday, credits watching the Coyotes for getting him into hockey.

Hockey was not his family’s first sport. Knies’ father, Miroslav, was a soccer player in Slovakia. Arizona may have a smaller hockey community than those around the country, but it was still a good situation for Phillip.

“There was basically one team in town and if you were not good enough or you started late, you didn’t have a chance to make the team,” Miroslav said of hockey in Slovakia when he was younger. “Obviously if you don’t have a chance to play, then you have no way of getting better and trying to make it next year. So basically you were out.”

Knies, Castor and Jones all play junior hockey outside of Arizona, which can make it hard for their parents to see their games.

Attending development camp has made it easier for those parents to see their son skate.

“They usually watch me online,” Jones said. “So that’s pretty cool for my family to be here.”

Many fans come out to watch camps such as the one that took place this week. Castor, who will play at Arizona State in the fall, was no different.

“Growing up, coming to these camps and watching them every year, it’s been a dream of mine to make this camp and to throw on this jersey is really cool,” Castor said.

Attending Coyotes development camp has allowed Jones and Knies to stay at home rather than a hotel. Jones, who lives a few minutes away from AZ Ice Peoria, is enjoying his living arrangements for this week.

Playing at AZ Ice Peoria has created memories for Jones. His favorite is when he would wave to his mother every game when he first started playing at 7 years old. Even after experiencing development camp, that memory may stand the test of time.

“This will give it a run,” Jones said. “Being young and skating here is always a good memory. But this one will definitely be up there with it.”

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