Last season was supposed to be a joyous time for the Clearwater Ice Storm Tier II 18U youth hockey players.
The Florida program had just advanced to its first-ever USA Hockey National Championships. One week before the team was supposed to board a plane to Michigan for the tournament, USA Hockey was forced to cancel all National Championships due to the emerging COVID-19 pandemic.
The players were heartbroken.
“The boys were stoked about [playing],” Ice Storm coach Chase Bafia said. “We had a good hockey team. But this year, our group came back, unexpectedly. We were going to kind of move on from that group, and we all came back and decided to give it one more run.”
That’s exactly what the group did. The Ice Storm qualified for Nationals — in just its third season as a program — again by winning its state tournament. Now, the guys are hungrier and in the hunt in the 2021 USA Hockey-Chipotle Youth Tier II 18U National Championships being held in Green Bay, Wisconsin.
“Making it to the national championship has always been a dream for everyone,” defenseman Tyler Stowe said. “It’s something everyone growing up wants to do, but we’ve planned this out all year. Beginning of the season, we said, this is what we want. ‘We want to win a national championship, and we’re not stopping until we get there.’”
Not being able to play in last year’s Nationals is extra motivation for the players.
“It pushes us really hard and we’ll do anything it takes,” said Rhett Hopkins, who is a defenseman. “We want to bring [the title] back to Florida, because we think it would be great for Florida hockey. We just want to prove that just because we’re from Florida, we can play hockey.”
Goalie Spencer Rose is making his third trip to Nationals — his two previous appearances with other Florida teams — the most out of any player on the Ice Storm roster.
“It’s a lot of hard work, but we put in the work off the ice and on the ice,” Rose said. “It’s great to be here. … It’s great to have this level of competition and still work hard and hopefully we can come out with a dub.”
The Ice Storm got off to a great start at Nationals, winning its opening game 4-2 over the Affton (Missouri) Americans on Thursday morning. Those same two teams split a pair of regular-season matchups. It’s just the first step for the Ice Storm to achieve its goals.
The Ice Storm have had a great season thus far. They’re sitting at 36-6-2 after the opening-round win. In its last 17 contests, the Ice Storm are a blazing 14-1-2. A big reason for the hot stretch is the team’s depth.
“I really don’t like to say the second and third line,” Bafia said. “If you want to call them second right now, their big thing — and they have fun with it at practice — is when they score, they flip out and start yelling, ‘We’re the first line. We’re the first line.’”
Bafia said Kevin Rosello, Maxim Thellab and Thomas Zamba — three guys who aren’t known for their scoring prowess — have really stepped up their play in the last few months.
Offensively, the Ice Storm have had consistent play all season, outscoring its opponents 215-68.
“We’re fast and we hunt pucks and we have a fast forecheck,” Hopkins said. “We’ll drive to the net and we’ll knock off the goalposts, if we need to. Whatever it takes.”
In addition to the winning formula they’ve developed on the ice, the players have a really tight bond off the ice as well.
“We got really good team chemistry that brings us together,” Rose said. “We know what guys are going to do, and I think that really helps us make plays and be strong on both offense and defense.”
Rose enjoys sitting back in the net and watching his offense go to work. The team has scored eight or more goals in 10 games this season.
“How we make plays happen, driving the net, getting these rebounds — it’s just insane to see how this team can make these passes and get these shots off in places where they’re not usually shot at,” Rose said.
In Bafia’s mind, his team’s success is all about the combination of having fun while working hard.
“When we work hard, we do special things and we’re a great hockey team,” Bafia said. “When we don’t work hard, we’re beatable. That’s something we’re harping with these guys: ‘We’ve got to work hard no matter who the opponent and make sure we’re not beatable.’”
Bafia has been the Ice Storm’s coach all three seasons the program has been around. He has instilled a culture early on that has brought his players together.
“Our guys really bought into my style of hockey of simple, hard — playing with attitude, playing with some jam,” Bafia said. “We’ve got a lot of skill, so when we play simple [hockey] and we can make touches, we look great. When teams ramp up things physically, we love that. The boys really love to get in the corners.”
At Nationals, the Ice Storm’s opponents will be doing everything they can to get the Ice Storm players off their game. But the players know they are ready for whatever comes at them. Some good teams lay ahead for the Ice Storm as it gets deeper into the national tournament.
The only 2A team ranked higher nationally than the Ice Storm is the Ashburn Xtreme, at 56-6-2 this season. The Extreme are an astonishing 40-1-1 in their last 42 games after it won its opening-round tournament game on Thursday.
“We have Ashburn circled,” Bafia said. “I’m sure we’re circled on theirs. The [Northern] Cyclones as well. Those are two teams we haven’t really seen. We’re excited for the challenge. We’re excited to face them. But they are good hockey teams. … We’re looking forward to the semis and we’ll get through there and whoever we face in the final, we’ll be excited for.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.