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Silas Walker, Deseret News
Ogden Mustangs goalie Jake Hough (41) pauses before skating onto the ice for their game at the Weber County Sports Complex in Ogden on Thursday, April 11, 2019.

OGDEN — Seven years ago, Yvonne Speckman balked at the idea of hosting teenage boys from around the world. Her husband, Jeff, is the athletic trainer for a junior hockey team called the Ogden Mustangs, and she wasn’t keen on his suggestion that they become one of the program’s billet families.

A mother of two, Yvonne already had plenty to do and plenty of people at home.

“The first year,” Yvonne recalled, “I said, ‘Absolutely not. I’m not having a strange kid living in the house.'”

Fast forward to April 2019, and tears come to her eyes thinking about how Harry Gulliver and Ian Currie, the two young hockey players who have called the Speckman residence home since last August, are about to leave her basement.

“They’re so fun,” Yvonne said. “It’s hard when they leave. It’s hard…”

Ten other families in the Ogden area are experiencing similar mixed emotions.

As fun as the season has been — and as thrilling as the playoffs were until the Mustangs fell to the El Paso Rhinos, 2-0, Saturday in the 2019 Thorne Cup Finals at The Ice Sheet — it’s a bittersweet time for the Speckmans.

Their schedule and basement are about to be freed up after a long season, but Gulliver and Currie have become like family in recent years.

The young men have become like older brothers to Julie, a sophomore in high school whose bigger brother, Kyle, plays hockey for Utah State.

" It’s why I came here. To push myself. "
Harry Gulliver

Yvonne jokes that they even fight with her teenage daughter like siblings. They’ve celebrated Thanksgivings in their home. Gulliver even stayed for Christmas. The boys sit at the dinner table with the family, crack jokes — sometimes inappropriate ones like kids their age do — and turn their nose up at what Yvonne cooks.

“These two don’t eat anything. They are the pickiest children on the face of the earth,” Yvonne said, smiling and sounding very much like a mom. “They would be happy if they had nothing but chicken and rice for every meal.”

She did ask Gulliver’s mom for her recipe for roasted potatoes, which Harry loves. And Currie’s mom, who’s from Scotland, sends him homemade Scottish candy from the Volunteer State.

This is Gulliver’s third year in the Mustangs program. He found out about this hockey opportunity in the U.S. from a scout who saw him play, and moved from Essex, England, after graduating from high school at age 16. He wanted to play in the States, so it was a perfect fit.

“It’s been really good,” Gulliver said in his English accent. “I think I’ve matured. I’ve become more of a man.”

(That growth development didn’t stop a Mustangs staff member from joking “19 going on 12” as he overheard the interview, eliciting laughter from both guys.)

Though some junior hockey leagues send players directly to the NHL or into that league’s feeder system, the WSHL is a Tier II league. It has developed into the best program in the West — with teams in California, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah (the Outliers are the other one), Oregon, Washington and Texas — and even includes a Provincial Division with four teams from Canada.

As the Mustangs website describes, “the name of the game in junior hockey is development and placement.” The Ogden team is proud to have placed Slovakian forward Matus Spodniak into an NCAA Division I program last year — American International College — and annually sends players to Division III schools across the country. Some players have even landed spots on professional teams in Europe and in the Southern Professional Hockey League.

Spodniak, Ogden’s team captain and the WSHL’s leading scorer last season, is one of the better stories, having earned a spot on a program that came up one win shy of a Frozen Four appearance.

Mustangs coach Jake Laime, one of the organization’s few full-time employees, uses his talented alumnus’s success story as proof that you don’t have to play junior hockey back East to get to the highest level.

“Matus, he came to us as a 17-year-old. He didn’t speak English. He was immature physically, immature mentally,” Laime recalled. “He was very loyal to our program for three years. We invested into him, we gave him all the resources to grow and develop. We just saw his success every year. He just got better and better.”

Now Spodniak has a banner placed in the rafters at The Ice Sheet alongside the dozens of other alumni who’ve used this Ogden program as a laboratory and launching pad for their hockey careers.

Former Mustang assistant Jeff Carr developed his coaching skills there, too, and is now the head coach of the SPHL’s Knoxville Ice Bears after spending a couple of years behind the Utah Grizzlies’ bench following his stint in Ogden.

Players ages 16-22 pay between $5,000-$10,000 a year to participate in this junior program. That covers travel, ice cost, equipment, room and board (with billets and on the road), coaching, a 50-plus-game season with playoffs, and a nine-month experience in Utah.

Silas Walker, Deseret News
Ogden Mustangs player Bryson Bartell (27) talks with a teammate before their game at the Weber County Sports Complex in Ogden on Thursday, April 11, 2019.

It's a bargain as far as Laime is concerned.

"Man," he said. "If I could go to Sweden for nine months and live in Stockholm and only pay nine grand, I’d be pumped."

This Mustangs squad regularly has international players from Sweden, Great Britain, the Czech Republic, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Canada, among other countries, and Americans from coast-to-coast, Alaska and even the Beehive State.

Ammon Anderson is one of the handful of Utahns on this year’s championship contender. By day, he’s a senior at Clearfield High School, and by night the talented student-athlete is a forward for the Mustangs.

Anderson has been in touch with coaches from Div. I and Div. III programs. One of the younger Mustangs, the 18-year-old is hoping to continue playing hockey at the next level — all the better that he’s so close to his Syracuse home.

“I always wanted to do youth hockey, wanted to play junior hockey,” said Anderson, who played in Colorado two seasons ago. “Fortunately, there was a great program here in my home state. I thought it was a good path.”

Gulliver smiled when asked if he has NHL aspirations. The more realistic future includes a career playing professionally in Europe. Playing in a league that has more physical and faster athletes than the ones in England has helped him improve.

“It’s why I came here,” he said. “To push myself.”

Though Ogden came up one win shy of hoisting the championship trophy in front of its rowdy and large crowd, the whole team has pushed its way to an incredible year. The Mustangs stormed through the regular season with a 47-2-2 record, defeated Steamboat and the rival Outliers in the first two round of the playoffs and then went 2-1 in the round robin portion of the Thorne Cup Finals, with the only loss being a 2-1 overtime setback to El Paso on Thursday.

In the semifinals, the Mustangs crushed Edson, 7-0, to set up a rematch with El Paso.

A championship wasn't in the cards this year, but this Mustangs team still had one heck of a season. Their coach couldn't ask for a better group of guys, a better organization or a better fanbase.

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"We've got a great building. We've got a great ownership," Laime said. "We’ve got an awesome community that rallies behind us. We just continue to try to thrive off that."

The Finals loss will sting, of course, but this team achieved much more than anybody expected and came together in an impressive and quick way.

That's something they'll take with them to Tennessee, England and beyond.

"We’ve just had a good group of guys," Anderson said. "We treat each other like family. We bicker sometimes, but overall we’re a pretty close group. I think we’ve come together."