Ricci has Thunderbirds Flying High
Player maturation, on and off the ice, is a top priority for the highly regarded coach, administrator
By Pat Rooney
Colorado Rubber Magazine
No doubt, Angelo Ricci is a busy man.
Not only does Ricci revel in all the joys and demands that come with being a youth hockey coach - teaching fledgling players basic fundamentals, playing the role of a sports psychologist in order to instill confidence - but the longtime ice rat also dons so many hats that juggling his duties often is as dizzying as a strong check into the boards.
Ricci is the director of hockey operations for the Colorado Thunderbirds, a premier youth hockey organization in the Centennial State. The title alone suggests a world of responsibilities for a club that boasts standout programs from the 11U through the 18U age divisions.
Yet for Ricci, one aspect of his job remains imperative above all else. While he’s charged with the precious duty of developing young hockey players, Ricci is also adamant about helping each and every one of them off to a fitting place in the world once their time with the Thunderbirds is complete.
So it seemed perfectly appropriate when a recent conversation with Ricci didn’t begin until he’d completed a couple of phone calls with a few individuals inquiring about his blossoming athletes.
“I was on the phone with one Division I coach and a USHL (United States Hockey League) coach for 30 minutes talking about players. That’s an everyday thing, promoting our players,” Ricci said. “Obviously with any program you want to have success, but the most important two aspects we look at are developing skills, which allows them to advance their hockey careers, but also creating good human beings away from the rink.
“Because how many of these kids are really going to go on? You don’t really know. It’s our job to create a good foundation for them so they can be a good student-athlete down the road and actually be pretty good in the business world.
“We try to teach them a lot of things about time management, accountability, the way you conduct yourself at the airports and hotels. I think it’s a whole life lesson - your nutrition, your discipline to get your workouts in, your schoolwork. It’s a whole lifestyle you try to create.”
A former standout at the University of Denver - he remains tied for 12th on the legendary program’s all-time scoring list - Ricci joined the Thunderbirds during the 2005-06 season as the head coach of the 16U AAA club, a position he still holds on top of all his administration duties.
During that span, Ricci has helped bring national prominence to the Thunderbirds during a time period in which the popularity and quality of youth hockey in Colorado exploded. During the 2009-10 campaign, Ricci led his 16U squad to the program’s first Tier I national championship, and the Thunderbirds followed that effort by finishing third last year.
“We’ve been fortunate to be where we’re at in terms of advancing players, but some of the other programs are starting to develop players as well,” Ricci said. “We have four Tier I programs in our state. From the Thunderbirds’ perspective, we’ve had a lot of success. I think our alumni (list) is over 110-deep as far as colleges and juniors. I think Colorado is being recognized as a state that’s producing good talent, and I think now is a time where we’re putting the whole package together.”
Given the enduring excellence forged by the Thunderbirds program, many of its alumni are making their mark at higher levels. Former Thunderbirds pepper the rosters at Colorado College, Air Force and Denver, and two of them - DU sophomore Nick Shore (third round) and freshman Josiah Didier (fourth round) - were selected in the NHL Entry Draft in June.
Additionally, the Thunderbirds’ success has lured several prominent former Colorado Avalanche players to join the program at various levels as coaches, including Adam Foote and future Hall of Famer Joe Sakic.
“Every year, all of our kids have been in the top 20 or 30 in the nation,” Ricci said. “You’re talking about 150 programs throughout the country, so that’s pretty good for Colorado.
“And we’re getting better and better. A couple years ago we had every level in the top 15 almost. I think this year is going to be pretty special, too. There are two things you have to have: you have to have the talent, and you have to have the coaching. Coaching needs talent, but it’s also about molding a team and developing that talent; it works hand-in-hand.
“We’ve been fortunate to not only build our own kids, but also get new kids to come in and want to be part of our program.”