National Championships






By Harry Thompson

The Little League World Series has Williamsport, Pa., and if USA Hockey has its way, Plymouth, Mich., will soon become a frozen field of dreams for a select group of hockey players.

The seeds that were planted last season in the Arizona desert when the Tier I 15 Only National Championship made its debut are looking to plant their roots in the ice at the USA Hockey Arena, the home of the National Team Development Program.

"This event, in this venue, is our Williamsport," McLaughlin, the senior director of hockey development, told players and parents during this year's opening ceremony. 

"It's important that this age group finds a national identity for this tournament and that's why I think it's important that we have it here at the USA Hockey Arena."

It's all part of a larger plan to keep more players in the game at a formative period in their development. At 15, there's a high level of variation in players, both cognitively and physically. Creating a single-year age group gives players more time to develop at a pace that allows them to be more successful in the long run.

"When you look at the development of players, every sport is different," said Bob Mancini, one of the architects of the NTDP who now works as a regional manager with the American Development Model.

"We know at this age a lot of players, if they don't make their 16U team, they leave the game because they thought they weren't good enough. The science of long-term athlete development has shown us that's definitely not the case. There are real good players who need a little longer to develop."           

The single-year age group and national championship debuted last year to rave reviews from coaches and parents at all levels. College scouts, NHL personnel and current 14 & Under coaches also voiced how impressive the display of talent was again as the Buffalo Jr. Sabres edged Little Caesar's, 2-1, at this year's tournament.

Shane Doan only has to look at his son, Josh, to see the benefits of playing in this division. The 21-year NHL Star who helped coach the Phoenix Jr. Coyotes team to the semifinals, thinks this gives youngsters another year to develop their skills as their young bodies continue to fill out.

"This is a good year because it allows boys who aren't ready to make the jump to 16U to have another year to develop," he said. "That one year changes everything. I know for my boy and for our entire team it's been great and we really enjoy it."

That doesn't mean this age division is holding tank for players who couldn't make the grade at the 16 & Under level, McLaughlin said. And based on the quality of play on the ice and the competitiveness of games throughout the tournament, fans in the stands were looking at the next wave of talented American players.

"We view this as the best and most appropriate place for the best 15-year-olds to play," McLaughlin said. "It's an opportunity to show your skills against players your birth year in front of scouts and coaches with Junior and college as well as the NTDP."

With so many of the top 15-year-olds and their parents already in the building, it only makes sense to show them how the NTDP can help them achieve their hockey dreams, whether that's earning a college scholarship or possibly one day playing in the NHL. 

Everywhere you look in the lobby and in the rinks there are posters proudly displaying former NTDP players who have moved on to bigger things, including Jacob Trouba, Patrick Kane and Jimmy Howard.

"This is the marquee age group in the USA Hockey National Championship tournament schedule so it makes sense to hold it here," said Mike Henry, general manager of the USA Hockey Arena.

And there is no shortage of ideas to add to the festivities, including chalk talks with NTDP coaches, tours of the program's facilities and sandwiching the tournament around a pair of USHL games so that players and their parents can see the next level on the development ladder up close.

In addition, talks to get at least some of the games televised are in the early stages.

Thanks to this year's tournament schedule, teams had a chance to watch the U.S. National Under-18 Team practice for the upcoming IIHF World Under-18 Championship in Magnitogorsk, Russia.

"We were fortunate that the schedule worked out so kids and coaches could see what an elite practice at the next level looks like," Henry said.

With two years in the books, this pilot project has many hockey people excited about its potential. And based on the early returns from this year's tournament, hosting it at USA Hockey Arena is quickly proving to be a home run.

"This tournament proves exactly what everybody thought," McLaughlin said. "There are some very good players who are not playing 16U hockey who are not only very special now but who have tremendous potential." 

By Ryan Williamson

Over the course of his six seasons at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Eric LaForge has experienced his fair share of ups and downs. But this season has brought the best of times and the worst of times for the 49-year-old coach.

His team's unlikely run to this year's Chipotle-USA Hockey High School National Championships has not only been a highlight of LaForge's coaching career, it has provided a ray of light that has shone through unspeakable darkness brought on by one of the worst mass shootings in U.S. history. 

As the country mourned the loss of 17 Stoneman Douglas students and staff at the Parkland, Fla., high school on Feb. 14, the Eagles used hockey as an escape from the overwhelming sadness. Four days after the shooting, the players returned to the ice thanks to the generosity of the Florida Panthers.

"The small part I could do as a coach was get these boys back to a semblance of normal," LaForge said. "We basically tried to stick to hockey and change the air a bit."

Less than two weeks later, the Eagles were back in action competing in the Florida High School State Championship at Germain Arena with a trip to Nationals on the line. 

Coming into the semifinals as a No. 4 seed, the Eagles defeated the top two seeds in the tournament to take home the state championship on Feb. 25. In the final, Stoneman Douglas clinched the victory with an empty-net goal that came with 17 seconds left.

Following the win, the team went back to school and hung their 17 championship medals at the school's memorial to their fallen classmates and staff.

"We're always remembering what we're playing for and how much this means to the community," said senior forward Joey Zenobi. "It's more than just a game for us right now."

The state championship captured the attention of the entire hockey community, which does what it always does in times of tragedy---it came together to offer its support. In the run up to Plymouth, Minn., the host site of the USA Hockey High School Nationals, the Eagles were greeted by Ottawa Senators goaltender Craig Anderson, a resident of Parkland, as well as Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere, who attended the high school for two seasons before heading off for Junior hockey. 

And then there was the afternoon practice on the Panthers' home ice at BB&T Arena, which was decorated in Stoneman Douglas' honor, followed by an appearance of the Stanley Cup.

"What the Panthers and everyone has done is beyond what we could've expected," said senior Matthew Hauptman. "It's been incredible. I've wanted to know those guys since I was a little boy watching the games on TV."

The outpouring of support didn't end there. After arriving in Minnesota onboard the Panthers' team jet, the team learned first hand what "Minnesota Nice" is all about. Hotel rooms and meals were taken care of, the local varsity hockey team offered up its home locker room to the team, and local fans and media came out to show their support.

Their trip was capped off with a suite at a Minnesota Wild game, where Stoneman players issued the traditional pregame chant, "Let's Play Hockey."

"To be here with people from around the country watching us and knowing what we went through just makes you feel a special way," Hauptman said. "This has been very special and something I'll always remember."

A pair of preliminary round losses closed the door on the team's chances of advancing, but their final day in Minnesota proved to be a memorable experience. That day, members of the Eagles spoke out at the March For Our Lives Protest in St. Paul, in front of thousands of protestors.  

Hours later, the team played its final game of the tournament, defeating  Lake Central, Ind., 3-2, in overtime. Senior forward Matthew Horowitz, who  spoke at the march, scored a pair of goals in the win.

"It was exciting to pick up our school's first ever Nationals win," Horowitz said. "The march was very meaningful and I was glad to speak at it."

While the country continues to come to grips with another senseless school shooting, the players, parents and coaches of the Stoneman Douglas varsity hockey team know there is far more good in the world than evil. They have experienced both ends of the spectrum and know firsthand that victories and losses can't be measured by the scoreboard.

"[Hockey] is one of the best sports for bringing people back together," LaForge said. "It's easy to get tied up and see the negativity and the sadness, but it's important not to overlook the tremendous good that's out there."

Ryan Williamson is a freelance writer based in Eden Prairie, Minn.

By Greg Bates

T cked away in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan are three communities that live and die with hockey.

The towns of Houghton, Hancock and Calumet-separated by 15 miles-have been facing off against one another since the 1890s.

The rivalries are as fierce as they are steeped in history.

"Each school has a ton of pride and takes hockey very seriously," says Micah Stipech, who coached Team Copper Country to its second straight title at this year's Chipotle-USA Hockey Tier II 18 & Under National Championship tournament in Green Bay, Wis.

When the boys gathered last fall to start its split season team, the group included eight players from Hancock, five from Calumet, and four from Houghton, along with three from other high schools.

Players who are rivals during the high school season suddenly  transform into best friends as teammates. When winter rolls around, the players head back to their high school teams. And like a switch, the rivalries are flipped back on.

"Outside of hockey, outside of playing against each other's schools, everybody's buddies for the most part. But as soon as you hit the ice, all friendships are off," says Dawson McKay, who is from Houghton. "You've got to battle each other, but when we're back on the same team, everybody gets along."

Flipping that switch from friends to foes and back again can be difficult.

"It's something when you get on the ice it makes your blood boil and you want to just go at it with them," says Brent Loukus, a native of Calumet. "But once you get off [the ice], everything's forgotten."

To add fuel to the fire of the rivalries this past season, the three high school teams at one point were ranked No. 1, 2 and 3 in Division 3 in Michigan. Hancock was top-ranked, followed by Calumet and Houghton.

"When we're battling and yapping at each other on the ice, it can get out of hand sometimes," says Ted Randell, who is from Hancock. "But then off the ice, we're all buddies at the end of the day."

Somehow the players are able to table their prep rivalries with a USA Hockey National Championship on the line.

It can be a challenge for Stipech and his coaching staff to bring the players together one week after their high school seasons end to play for a common goal of winning a national title.

To help with the reunification process, Stipech gathers his guys for a little hockey history lesson in Copper Country. It's enough to make players realize they are not just representing their individual high schools, they're representing the entire region.

In addition, two recent events have tightened the team's bond. Two of the players' parents were diagnosed with cancer and another player's brother had life-threatening spinal surgery as a result of scoliosis.

"It's nice having a team there to support you through everything," McKay says. "I went through something similar last year and it was great to have all the guys there to help you with whatever you need."

It's not just players who have been supportive, it's everyone in  the local hockey community who rallies together for a greater cause.

"We're trying to win something, but it's more than just hockey where we live," Randell says. "When something happens, we all come together and make sure they're OK and feeling loved. At the end of the day, it's a big family."

Greg Bates is a freelance writer based in Green Bay, Wis. 

Colorado Phenom Unphased Facing OFf Against Older Competition

By Neal E. Boudette

The USA Hockey National Championship girls' tournament in Marlborough, Mass., brought together 96 teams and more than 1,200 players from all across the country. Out of that vast collection of girl power, one of those who stood out was a 14-year-old from Arvada, Colo.

Avery Anderson stands about 5-feet-4 inches tall and, according to her father Lance, barely weighs 100 pounds soaking wet. But she played up two levels this year, skating on the wing for Team Colorado in the 19U division at the Tier I level. It was quite a challenge. 

Avery went up against players three and four years older. Where the tournament program listed her birth year-2003-it looked like a misprint among all the other players born in 1999 and 2000.

"She more than holds her own," said her coach, Chad MacLeod. "She has the ability to compete at the 19U level. Physically, the 19U game is tough, but she doesn't back down."

Avery herself was unphased battling stronger, taller opponents.

"We have some really good talent on our team, and I just try to keep up with them," she smiled after Team Colorado was eliminated.

One of the talents she played with is someone she knows well-her older sister Peyton, who has verbally committed to play at Northeastern University. In a game against Assabet Valley, the sisters found themselves on a two on one, with Avery dishing to her sister.

"Peyton went top shelf, bar down," said Avery, who would set up her sister twice more before their tournament plays were finished.

Team Colorado didn't make it to the quarterfinals, but the Anderson family still headed home with their heads held high. 

"As a parent, to see your two daughters playing together, finishing a two on one," Lance Anderson said, shaking his head, unable to finish the thought. After a pause, he explained: "Man, that's exciting."

That was a common theme for all the players and families who came to the New England Sports Center to be part of the USA Hockey Tier I and Tier II Girls National Championships. And so much talent in one facility definitely caught the attention of college coaches. 

Among those spotted at the event were Brian Durocher of Boston University and two 1980 Olympic gold medalists of "Miracle on Ice" fame-Mark Johnson and John Harrington, head coaches at the University of Wisconsin and Minnesota State, respectively.

One common theme among all the teams was togetherness and team spirit. Many teams had the talent to win; those who claimed the ultimate prize also had team unity and a high level of respect among players and coaches.

"It was a team effort, by all 20 of them," said Erin Rouke-Smith, head coach of the Chicago Mission that won the Tier I 16 & Under title. "All girls were willing to work for each other. It was an attitude that if you work for the kid next to you, they'll do it for you in return. That was a real strength of our team."

Gordie Stafford, whose Shattuck St. Mary's squad won its third straight 19 & Under title, echoed that sentiment. 

"Our girls really like working together. They're not always together off the ice, but on the ice they're tight," he said. "They're really a team and had a collective determination. For this group, it wasn't about who you were playing against. It was who you were playing with."

Neal Boudette is a freelance writer based out of Ann Arbor, Mich., and a hockey dad whose daughter, Clara, competed for the Kensington Valley Ravens 16U team at the 2018 USA Hockey Girls National Championship. 




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