Utilizing their home ice to the best advantage possible, the Alaska Jr. Aces prevailed over the Los Angeles Jr. Kings to win the Tier I 18-and-Under boys’ Pacific district championship.
Despite getting outshot 30-16 in the final, the Jr. Aces received an outstanding 29-save goaltending performance from Owen Carlson, and Lane Bauer scored his tournament-leading seventh goal (in just four games) to lift the home side to a thrilling 3-1 victory on March 10 in Anchorage, Alaska.
“This is basically the same team as last year,” noted Jr. Aces coach Merit Waldrop. “We were able to make it to the regional final, and we lost that to the Jr. Kings 3-1. Long story short, we made it to the final again at the U-18 level against the Jr. Kings and we beat them 3-1.
“As long as I’ve been coaching, it was one of the best team-played games I’ve ever been a part of. And the LA Jr. Kings team, they were a very talented team. It was a back-and-forth game, very high-paced, lots of skill, and we expected nothing less in the Finals. It was very fun to be a part of.”
The triumph allows the Jr. Aces to advance to the USA Hockey National Championships beginning on April 3 in Pittsburgh.
After a round-robin victory over the San Jose Jr. Sharks 7-4, the Jr. Aces defeated the Jr. Kings 2-1 in overtime (on a power play game-winner from Bauer) but also lost to Las Vegas Storm 4-3 after they’d already clinched first place and a spot in the final.
Waldrop believes that playing the tournament on the Jr. Aces’ home ice in Anchorage was a significant advantage for his squad.
“To have it at home is obviously a big advantage, because they get to sleep in their own beds, they get to play on rinks that they play on every day,” Waldrop said. “It was really cool to be able to win that in front of the home crowd, all the kids had their parents here.
“A lot of these parents don’t have the luxury of watching them play all the time, especially against out-of-state competition. It was nice to have it in Anchorage this year. The atmosphere at the rink was really cool, everybody who is involved in Alaska hockey was at that game, and it was very cool to get the end result they were looking for.”
Another key benefit to hosting the district tournament was that the Jr. Aces didn’t have to travel out of state again, because that is usually the only way they can face worthy competition.
“Obviously having it here saves each of these parents some money from having to take a fourth or fifth trip,” Waldrop noted. “Most of these kids have had to travel out of state for regionals every single year, or nationals, or [to other tournaments]. Our location can be a disadvantage, having to pay all this money to travel and whatnot.
“Luckily, within the organization we have, we have a lot of good people that are able to make hockey a little bit more affordable, with sponsorships and donations. So it makes it a little more affordable for parents to do it up here.”
Tournament a Success
The Pacific boys’ tournament was a proud moment for Alaska hockey, not only because the Jr. Aces won the 18U tournament (while their Tier I boys lost the 16U final to the Los Angeles Jr. Kings), but also because everything ran very smoothly. It also exposed the younger generation of Alaska kids to elite-level hockey.
“We put on a really good show here, we had a nice tournament set-up,” Waldrop said. “There’s a lot of good people up here, and they made it a good experience for the kids. And not only the players, but also the young kids, the ones that haven’t yet made it to this level and experienced it. They were able to see that caliber of hockey — and 18U AAA hockey is very good.”
Waldrop, who grew up playing hockey in Alaska and moved on to Division I college hockey at the University of Alaska-Anchorage before skating for the ECHL’s Alaska Aces, believes youth hockey in Alaska measures up with anywhere else in the country. That’s why he feels his boys have as good a chance as anyone to emerge from Pittsburgh with a national title.
“I’m a big fan of Alaska hockey, obviously, and I think we have just as much talent as anywhere else,” said Waldrop, 29, who actually suited up for the ECHL’s Aces for eight games earlier this season. “It’s just a matter of getting seen. I believe that anyone can win on any given night. If we play our game and play the way that we can, we can win it.
“Obviously, we’re going to play the best of the best, and I’m going into it level-headed, but I do believe that if our team plays to our abilities and plays together, I think we can beat anyone on any given night. But if we don’t play our hockey, then we can be beat by any other team. It’s just about who shows up and what we do, but I’m pretty impressed with my team, from top to bottom, offense to defense and goaltending, we are very strong all-around.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.
Youth Tier I
14U: Anaheim Junior Ducks
16U: Los Angeles Junior Kings
18U: Alaska Junior Aces
Girls Tier I
16U: Anaheim Lady Ducks
19U: Alaska All Stars
Girls Tier II
14U: Alaska All Stars
16U: Anaheim Lady Ducks
19U: Washington Wild