When the Valley Thunder Hockey Association was pieced together, Chris Carney and his fellow coaches were certainly hoping for positive steps forward each season.
It didn’t take that long to achieve highly desired results.
Valley Thunder’s Tier II 16U girls team had a strong season and qualified for the Chipotle-USA Hockey National Championships by winning their division in the USA Hockey Pacific District Tournament.
“The girls just are all really good teammates,” Carney said. “They all get along and have a good time and they work hard.”
The co-op is comprised of players from Anchorage-area associations Mat-Su Eagles, Jr. Avalanche and Palmer Pioneers.
“It just made our teams more competitive in state and out of state, and it’s working,” Carney said.
Valley Thunder (20-4-3) played well in the district tournament, going 3-0 in pool play by downing the Washington Wild, Anaheim Lady Ducks and the Anchorage North Stars.
With an undefeated record, Valley Thunder went right to the championship game for a rematch with the North Stars. Clinging to a 2-1 lead late in the game, Valley Thunder was whistled for a penalty and the North Stars had a 6-on-4 power play for nearly two minutes. But Valley Thunder killed it off to earn the one-goal victory.
“It was exciting, more exciting than I wanted it to be,” Carney said.
The on-ice celebration after the win was something Carney and his players won’t soon forget.
“It was pretty nice,” Carney said. “They deserved it and they were excited. I think everybody’s pretty excited. It should be pretty fun.”
Despite the loss, the North Stars earned an at-large bid to nationals.
For their part, Valley Thunder is looking to make some noise at nationals.
“We should represent Alaska and the Pacific District well,” Carney said.
Alaska All-Stars 19U look for another medal
After taking third place in last year’s nationals at Tier II 19U, the Alaska All-Stars are returning.
All-Stars coach Cristy Hickel has seven girls from last year’s team on this season’s squad.
“They have a little bit of a hunger to come back and something to prove,” Hickel said. “I really emphasize the journey. Regardless of what the outcome is here, when we can come together as a culture because of all the distractions and hurdles in our way because we aren’t together all the time — it’s really exciting to get that sisterhood.”
According to Hickel, it’s the eighth trip to nationals for the 19U program, which has shown consistency when playing on the big stage.
“When we go, we’re usually a top-two or -three team,” Hickel said.
With a schedule filled with tough competition throughout the season, the All-Stars were prepared for district play. In a best-of-three series to decide which team would head to nationals, the All-Stars downed the San Jose Jr. Sharks 10-0 and 6-3 on March 1 and 2.
The All-Stars are playing well right now and Hickel has high expectations for her girls at nationals.
“I’m still a coach of process, so we expect to be there Monday, I hope,” Hickel said. “We’re not going just to participate, per se. If I can be humble enough to say, our girls have sights on a first-place finish.”
14U All-Stars qualify for first time
Playing in front of plenty of family and friends in the Pacific District Tier II 14U Tournament, the girls on the Alaska All-Stars Tier II 14U team felt right at home.
That home-ice advantage proved critical as the All-Stars went 5-0 and punched their ticket to nationals.
“They’re super jacked,” said All-Stars coach Todd Bethard about his players thoughts on nationals. “It was a big win for them. We won a game to make sure we got first in our division. We needed to get first in our division to move on and the overtime game was a shootout, so there were some emotions there.”
In pool play on March 1, the All-Stars had 4-1 victories over both the San Diego Gulls and Anaheim Lady Ducks. Against the Seattle Jr. Lady Admirals, the All-Stars trailed late, pulled their goalie and scored to tie it at 1-1.
“We had to get a tie for sure, so we got an extra bonus point,” Bethard said. “If we had lost, we may not have gotten in. We tied and that put us there. We were guaranteed first in our division at that point.”
The All-Stars ended up scoring a 2-1 win in a shootout.
In the semifinals on March 2, the All-Stars defeated the Fairbanks Hockey Club 2-0 to set up a showdown with the Anchorage North Stars. The North Stars had a 3-0-1 record against the All-Stars during the regular season.
“It’s a team with a lot of good talent and they’re bigger and older than us,” said Bethard.
The All-Stars scored a 2-1 victory to get the automatic bid to nationals. The North Stars later received an at-large invitation.
“For our kids, it was kind of redemption,” Bethard said. “It was like we did belong, and we were able to hang with the big dogs.”
None of Bethard’s girls have nationals experience. So what Bethard is hoping to achieve on the big stage is minimal.
“My expectations are I’m going to go in with zero expectations,” Bethard said. “The girls feel like their season was made when they won regionals in front of their families. I’m not saying I don’t think we’re going to do well, we’ll do great, but I’m going to push them to kind of embrace it because the national tournament’s a big deal and use that as a motivator. I think the way the girls have been playing, they can compete with anyone.”
2019 USA Hockey Pacific District Girls’ Tournament Champions
14U: San Jose Jr. Sharks
16U: Anaheim Lady Ducks
19U: San Jose Jr. Sharks
14U: Alaska All-Stars
16U: Valley Thunder
19U: Alaska All-Stars
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.