The Carolina Junior Hurricanes Program

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Each athlete plays at a level that maximizes their development. Photo by Carolina Junior Hurricanes.


Shane Willis remembers what the kids were wearing around the arena 13 years ago.

The retired Carolina Hurricanes forward had just taken over the Junior Hurricanes program in 2011, and many of the young players proudly wore the sweaters of Pittsburgh Penguins star Sidney Crosby and his rival, the Washington Capitals’ Alexander Ovechkin.

“Now it’s all Hurricanes,” Willis says. “To see the excitement of our kids for this organization has been awesome to watch.”

The NHL team has created a lot of buzz among youth players by making the playoffs each season since 2019, but the Junior Hurricanes are doing their part to make sure youth hockey thrives in Triangle. The organization has more than 700 players and 40 professional coaches. 

“It’s been a 20-year process,” says executive director Steve Henley, who started with the program in 2008. “That’s the fun thing about it.”

In 2007, the Raleigh Youth Hockey Association formed a partnership with Canes Youth and Amateur Hockey and began to compete under the banner of the Carolina Junior Hurricanes. In 2019, the Carolina Eagles, another youth hockey association, joined to form the Carolina Junior Hurricanes Hockey Association. 

Today, the organization has a full roster of teams at every competitive level, including Tier 1 AAA (an elite tryout-based program), Tier 2 (travel hockey) and Super 8 (developmental hockey for ages 8 and under).

The organization offers elite-level and recreational hockey programs. Photos by Carolina Junior Hurricanes.

“We have developed a birth-year team at every age of Tier 2 and Tier 1 AAA,” Henley says. “That was consistent with other well-established northern hockey programs. We’ve become somewhat on par with them, and we’re able to have competitive teams at all of those levels.”

The program has a home base at Invisalign Arena @ WCC in Morrisville, where the teams have access to two sheets of ice, a training facility and even a goalie room equipped with virtual reality training. Henley also points to a highly dedicated coaching staff, which includes former Hurricanes players Willis, Justin Williams and Steven Rice.

“What has set us apart is we have guys who specialize in different areas, and they’re very good at what they do,” he says. “We’ve been steadfast that there is a lot of consistency.”

Of course, not all players are focused on travel and elite-level hockey, and that’s where the Polar Hurricanes House League comes into play. The recreational program offers spring and fall leagues for players ages 6 to 18. Spring enrollment included more than 1,400 young athletes.

The Junior Hurricanes are comprised of more than 700 players and 40 professional coaches. Photo by Carolina Junior Hurricanes.

And what about those kids who are curious about the game, but have had no previous exposure? The Hurricanes First Goal program for ages 5–10 provides a full set of equipment to new players for less than $300, along with six learn-to-play sessions led by Willis and his staff. More than 700 kids took part last summer.

“The learn-to-play program has shown huge strides over the last seven years,” Willis says. “Bringing almost 800 kids into the sport and retaining as many as we can has been exciting to watch from a coaching standpoint.”

The organization is careful to ensure that each player is placed at a level that maximizes growth and development. Coaches provide season-long evaluation with a focus on each player’s long-term goals. A curriculum is carefully designed to maximize the foundational skills of hockey: skating and edge work, puck control, passing and shooting. The results now speak for themselves. More than 100 program alumni played collegiate or junior hockey in the 2023–24 season. Building the program gets easier with each passing year. 

“A lot of it is word-of-mouth, a lot is transplanted people from up north coming in,” he says. 

“We get emails on a weekly basis from parents who have kids that play hockey. Their first priority isn’t schools or finding a house, it’s ‘Do you have a program for my kid to play hockey?’ It’s crazy.” 

It's a Girls' Game Too

The organization boasts 11 girls’ and womens’ hockey teams, ranging from 8U to 19U. Photo by Junior Hurricanes Program.

Sarah Antonelli’s hockey history is a lot like that of other young women.

As a six-year-old growing up near Detroit, she caught the hockey bug watching her older brother play the game. But her early years were spent on co-ed teams where she was the only girl. It wasn’t until age 13 that she started playing with girls at summer camps. 

Today, Sarah Antonelli oversees 11 teams as the girls and women’s hockey specialist for the Carolina Junior Hurricanes. The teams range from 8U to 19U. “These girls will go play college hockey,” Antonelli says. “And some of them might even have the opportunity for the new professional league.”

Antonelli coaches the program’s successful 16U and 19U teams. The 16U AAA team qualified for the 2024 USA Hockey Girls Tier 1 16U National Championship. But she is quick to point out that the foundation for the birth-year teams begins much earlier. 

The First Goal program is an NHL initiative that gives kids ages 5–10 their first full set of hockey gear. Last year, 100 girls took part in the weekly learn-to-play sessions in July and August. The all-girls session feeds into the Lil’ Lady Canes program, a league-play program for ages 6–11. 

From there, it’s on to the Junior Hurricanes tryout-based travel-hockey association.

“The feeder systems that we have and the growth we’re seeing is going to bring a lot of success,” Antonelli says. “These players are going to go through the Junior Canes program until they’re 18 years old. We have a really good layout and pathway for girls hockey. There’s a place to play for everyone, whether that’s recreational or travel.”

Keeping the girls in hockey is the ultimate goal. To that end, the game is introduced slowly among the youngest players.

The 16U AAA team qualified for the 2024 USA Hockey Girls Tier I 16U National Championship. Photo by Carolina Junior Hurricanes.

“Eight and under, it’s all about fun, and that’s how you keep girls in the sport,” Antonelli says. “At 10U and 12U is when you start to understand what full-ice looks like, so you’re learning offsides and a little penalty kill and power play. The most important thing is skating. All the players hate to skate, but power skating is so important. It will continue to be the main focus of 10U and 12U.”

Improving hockey’s most fundamental skill is a major part of the mission and a reason why the Junior Hurricanes are closing the gap game with other more established programs.

“When my 15- and 16-year-old girls go and play a top-20 team, the biggest thing I notice is they’re just not as strong of skaters,” says Antonelli, who played college hockey at Stevenson University in Maryland. “That’s because my players didn’t start until they were 9 and 10. Now, because it’s more popular down here, they’re getting into the sport earlier.”

The aim of the girls program is to have the sport play an important role in the lives of the players. The coaching and instructional staff is all women, a benefit that goes beyond the ice. “It’s just important to have a female role model that you can confide in and relate to.

It helps us become better hockey players because they understand us mentally, physically and emotionally, more than a male could,” Antonelli says. “And it’s important to show the girls that there is a place for you. Beyond playing, you can coach and help grow the game when you’re older.”

The Junior Hurricanes have graduated close to 40 female players into college hockey, and more are sure to come. 

“I think that’s why these kids are developing so much more quickly than they ever had before,” she says. “It’s because they have something to strive for.”

Check out other Triangle Family stories by visiting our sister publication, 5 West.

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