ATKINSON'S PROGRESS CONTINUES IN ODESSA
By Matt Mackinder
California Rubber Magazine
The North American Hockey League (NAHL) and North American Prospects Hockey League (PHL) have forged a fruitful developmental pipeline in recent years, and Ryan Atkinson is proof positive.
A first-year forward with the Odessa (Texas) Jackalopes, Atkinson suited up last season for the San Jose Jr. Sharks’ 18U AAA team – a member of the PHL – and has made the transition to the Tier II Junior A league with relative ease.
“The NAHL is a lot different than playing Midgets,” said Atkinson, 19. “It’s a lot faster and everybody is trying their hardest to make something of themselves.”
And Atkinson, a college hopeful, is no exception.
“I’ve always been a player who believes hockey comes down to how well you prepare,” he said. “With my work ethic, I feel I can move up to the next level.”
“Ryan’s the type of player that will find a home in college hockey,” said Tony Zasowski, the Jr. Sharks’ president who coached Atkinson during his 18 AAA season in 2010-11. “He’s a hard worker and pays the price defensively, along with having the skill to put up points.”
Atkinson, a Vacaville native who also developed with the Jets, admits he endured a slow start to the season, but has started to pick up his offensive pace in the second half.
“I think it all starts every day in practice, and it’s starting to translate over into games for me,” said Atkinson, who totaled six goals for 14 points heading into February. “I just want to keep working hard.”
Growing up in Northern California, Atkinson played both hockey and football. He had to choose between the two when the stakes got higher.
“My dad is from Minnesota, where hockey is everything, and my mom is a huge Philadelphia Eagles (football) fan,” explained Atkinson. “I loved playing both sports, but the older I got it became harder for me to play both and play both at a high level, so I chose hockey. I have no regrets.”
Atkinson was introduced to the sport at a young age when a rink opened near his house. His father, Michael, took him to an open skate and the rest is history.
“It was one of those things where right away I knew I wanted to keep doing it and, once I joined my first league shortly after that, I’ve never looked back,” he said.
Michael coached Ryan until his 16U AAA year, his first with the Jr. Sharks.
“My dad was my worst nightmare on the ice,” laughed Atkinson. “He never played favorites and even kicked me off the ice a couple of times. He definitely tried to keep it real.”
Now closing in on finishing his first NAHL season, Atkinson said he may have a chance to play college hockey next year, but if things don’t pan out a return to Odessa is not out of the question.
“I graduated second in my class at (Fairfield’s) Vanden High School, so school has always been a very important part of my life,” said Atkinson, who plans on majoring in Biomedical Engineering in college.
“I’ve talked to a couple of Division III schools and was actually accepted to Arizona State University, Boston University and the University of Connecticut last year (for academics), but I turned them all down to come play in the NAHL.”
At the end of the season, Atkinson said he’s going to assess all of his options. One thing’s for sure: He’d has no problem returning to Texas if it means bringing his game to another level in one the most highly-scouted leagues in North America.
“I’d definitely come back here next season,” he said.