With every referee’s whistle signaling a stoppage in play, Sam Brice paced nervously in a tight circle near the top of the bleachers.
A scoreless first period only fueled his anxiety, turning the gray hair under his Alaska Icebreakers cap an even whiter shade of pale.
“Hey, grandparents get to be that way,” admitted Brice, whose two granddaughters, Megan and Emily Kubichek, were playing for the 12 & Under Icebreakers. “We’re just having a heck of a time. … But this has been bad on my cardiology.”
Joining Brice on his perch at The Summit in Dimondale, Mich., were other members of the team’s 35-person traveling party, many too nervous to sit still for the showdown against the Michigan Icebreakers.
Their emotions ebbed and flowed as the momentum shifted up and down the ice. Alaskan fans punched the air when Megan Kubichek opened the scoring in the second period. Brice brought the crew back to earth, reminding them Alaska had scored first in its preceding two games only to see those leads slip away. In those contests, the Icebreakers lost to Susquehanna (Pa.) Rapids, 3-2, in OT, but beat the New Jersey Colonials, 2-1, in a shootout.
“I’d love to see us have a two-goal lead,” Brice shouted out to no one in particular. Just minutes later Lisa Laiti would grant his wish on the way to a 3-0 Icebreakers’ victory.
The Icebreakers was just the type of team USA Hockey had in mind when it created the Girls’ Tier II national championships, said Karen Lundgren, head of USA Hockey girls’/women’s section. Thanks to the expanded tournament format, teams in “emerging areas” would be able to get their own kick at the can rather than always being shut out by larger and stronger programs.
Without enough players to sustain a strong enough Tier I team, the Icebreakers were unable to compete against larger squads like the Anaheim Lady Ducks program in the Pacific District.
Now, players, parents and even grandparents in smaller associations would have the opportunity to participate in the big dance. Without it, Icebreakers coach Luther Brice said, “We would probably be home right now.”
Getting the team to the lower 48 took a community effort. After qualifying for the tournament, the team had two weeks to raise $39,000 to cover travel expenses. To help pay the freight, Fairbanks businesses and individuals lent their support, while players and parents sold baskets filled with chocolate.
“It’s truly been amazing,” said Julie Nichols, whose daughter Sabrina tended goal for the Icebreakers. “Our community really came together. Everyone thought it was really cool and came together and helped us make it happen.”
The Icebreakers made the most of their time in Michigan, making it all the way to the semifinals where they lost to Susquehanna, 2-0 one step short of the championship game.
The Team Wyoming 19 & Under was in a similar situation. The team was comprised of 17 players from all corners of the state’s 97,818-square mile expanse where members played on both girls’ and boys’ squads during the season, and where few indoor rinks meant playing more games outdoors.
Ashleigh Trujillo was happy that she and her Team Wyoming teammates weren’t frozen out of a National Championship experience. The select team qualified from the Northern Plains District, which was formed in 2007 and includes Montana and North and South Dakota.
“It’s very exciting and it means a lot,” Trujillo said, “especially since I’m a senior in high school and this is my last year.”
Shawn Sullivan took four days off as a machine operator to travel from Gillette, Wyo., to watch daughters Macy, 16, and Lindsay, 14, play in their first National Championship tournament. And even though the team finished 0-3, the experience was well worth it.
“We’re not expected to win any games, but that was a good game we just played,” Sullivan said. “We don’t have the number of girls to be able to have a Tier I team. If we have enough girls to draw from in the future, maybe we will have a Tier I team.”
Larry O’Connor is a freelance writer out of Jackson, Mich.