Janesville Jets cleared to land
JANESVILLE—When Joe Dibble arrived here for the first time in 2012, the Janesville Jets team that he was charged with coaching didn't necessarily need an image change.
The Jets simply needed an image in the community altogether.
“The team didn't have a bad image,” said Greg Hanthorn, who grew up in Janesville and took over as the Jets' manager of business operations and community relations last offseason. “But we wanted to make it Janesville's team, and it is Janesville's team.”
Dibble's and the organizations' goals were three-fold, with the early emphasis coming in the form of community service. Service initiatives had been a staple of Dibble's past work, which included his most previous stint as a coach in Springfield, Ill.
Jets players took turns volunteering at the Boys and Girls Club, mentoring youngsters after school until their parents got off work. They read to students at schools. Hanthorn said the organization turned down just one service opportunity because it conflicted with a scheduled game time.
The result, Dibble and Hanthorn said, was nearly 2,200 hours of service in less than seven months.
“My players have always done community service … but we were actually trying to turn a hockey team into the town's team instead of our team,” Dibble said. “To see these guys change the image and the mindset, it just shows you how important the things away from the rink are.”
Local fans took notice, judging by attendance figures. The Jets averaged an attendance of about 800 per night at the Janesville Ice Arena, which seats 1,152. And, according to Hanthorn, they sold out a game for the first time last season.
“They start to identify and meet these kids,” Jets assistant coach Jason Dobes said. “These kids have to take a different path to accomplish a dream.”
It didn't take first-year Jets player Elliot Tisdale, who came from a team in Jamestown, N.Y., to notice something different.
“It's taken up a notch here, definitely,” he said. “There are way more hours involved off the ice, with community service and whatnot. But I think the fans appreciate it, and the people in the community appreciate it. That's what it's all about.”
Yet now, with the service portion of their plan implemented and even growing, the Jets enter the 2013-14 season ready to attack the other two goals on Dibble's list.
One of those objectives is to prepare more players to sign at the Division I college hockey level. The team had four players sign on to play at that level last year and has four already on the books with the season-opener coming Wednesday in Blaine, Minn.
“We're expecting to get close to the 10 mark this year,” Dibble said.
The final piece to the puzzle—though certainly not the least important one—is sending a team on the ice that can compete for an NAHL North Division crown, and potentially even the Robertson Cup.
The youngest team in the league last year, the Jets missed out on a top-six divisional finish and a spot in the playoffs by the narrowest of margins—a tiebreaker—after tying Springfield with 56 points.
One year later, Dibble and Co. have put together a roster with a bevy of experience.
“We've got 10 or 11 guys back, but we also have eight others that have played a year in our league or the USHL,” Dibble said. “So we have 18 veterans right now. Last year we started with four.
“We made some trades, tendered a kid that played in the USHL. A couple teams folded, so they became free agents and came our direction. Last year, you want to beat your head off the wall at times, as young as we were.”
There's a different feeling around the rink in 2013.
Playing for the Robertson Cup feels more like a goal than a dream.
“Everyone's kind of on the same page right now with where we think we can take things,” Tisdale said. “We have a lot of guys stepping up and protecting each other. That brings together a team and really shows us how far down the line we can take things.”
It's just the second year under this group of Jets leadership, but with their initial plan still on track, the Jets might make a rumble during the 2013-14 season.
“Making it as far as we can in the playoffs, that's number one this year,” Dibble said, “because we know everything else we did is going to continue.”