SAN JOSE, Calif. — This year’s 18U Maine Moose hockey team is eager to build on its program’s success, with their eyes firmly fixed on this year’s Chipotle-USA Hockey Youth Tier II National Championships.
“Most of the players haven’t won a championship, so they’re hungry,” head coach Jeff Ross said, after the Moose beat the Affton Americans in their first game of the tournament, 3-1.
The Moose are a youth hockey powerhouse, with multiple championships across different age groups in the past few years. They’re aiming for their third consecutive 18U national title after winning in 2017 and 2018.
They only have three returning players from last year’s squad, though. Most of the roster moved up from 16U.
Ross, who’s coached hockey for 18 years, has created a team where both player development and winning are emphasized, attracting players from across Maine.
“The families like what we do all around,” he said, “not just the winning.”
Players credit the Moose’s success to their team chemistry. Many of the players on the 18U team have risen through the Maine Moose program.
“We carry that chemistry over the years, so we’re all really tight,” said returning player Andrew Bertolini, 18.
Many players have been on teams together since they were at the 12U level, Ross said. The team won its first game at nationals by doing something it’s good at — seizing chances to score.
“We took advantage of our few opportunities,” Ross said, pointing to a first period power-play goal.
Players agreed with their coach that capitalizing on opportunities was a team strength this season. That first-period goal was the Moose’s first in a while. They had a month-long layoff after winning their state championship but showed no signs of complacency.
“It’s hard to be rusty with the chemistry we have,” said Rece Poulin, 17.
Winning a championship would be a huge accomplishment, but first they must make it out of a tough group. They play the Ashburn Xtreme in a rematch of last year’s championship game.
The Moose are boosted by having two quality goalies. Ross said every game it’s a tough decision who to put between the pipes. In the tournament opener he went with Brenden Gasaway, who’s “been a stud for us this year” according to Ross, and he’s taking the goalie decision game by game.
A challenge the Moose faced this year is losing players to their high school hockey teams. They tried to go with a full season this year, but more than half of the players played high school hockey.
“I think it affected our ranking,” Ross said.
Bertolini said they play great teams in Maine, but the depth of teams in this tournament will make winning tough. There are no easy games, he said.
Making the 3,000-plus mile journey from Maine to California for the chance to compete against teams from across the U.S. is special to the players and their families. The Moose have a strong cohort of families cheering them on this weekend.
“It’s a haul, and it’s special,” Ross said.
“It’s really cool going out of state,” Bertolini said.
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.