It’s a last-dance scenario for the CCYHA Blue Jackets’ 14U youth team.
In the past, players who become freshman and thus eligible for their high school hockey team typically move on from the organization. That creates quite a void of upperclassmen and leaders at the 14U level.
That’s not the case this season. Of the 19 players on this year’s Blue Jackets squad, 12 are freshmen who decided to stay with the team and give it one final shot at advancing to the Chipotle-USA Hockey Youth Tier II 14U National Championships and see how far they can go.
For the first time in the Blue Jackets association’s history, a team advanced to Nationals, skating in the 3A division of this year’s tournament in Kalamazoo, Mich.
Blue Jackets coach Craig Hagkull hopes having the freshmen stay on this year’s team will create a trickle-down effect for future players and classes.
“I think more and more kids will look at playing a second year of 14U instead of playing in high school as freshmen then maybe they did in the past,” Hagkull said. “We’ve had decent second-year 14U teams in the past, but oftentimes some of the better players just decided to try and go to their high school programs. Of the 12 kids on our team that could have played high school this year, whether it was a formally recognized program from the high school or a club team, there’s probably eight or nine of them that could have played varsity hockey.
“To be able to decide, hey, we want to have one more year with our buddies and make a real run at this, was a testament to the program and the kids.”
Those 12 players who opted to return hold a tight bond that is felt team wide. Most of the guys have been playing on the same team since they were 10U.
“I don’t know if it was a group talk, but a lot of us just had a feeling that we wanted to go as far as we could with the guys because it will be our last time playing together,” said center Quinn Sawyer, who is one of the freshmen. “We all kind of knew that we wanted to make it here so we could keep playing together for the rest of the season.”
The Blue Jackets went into Nationals with a 44-20-11 record on the season, going 5-0 in their Ohio state tournament to punch their ticket to the big dance. They boast an explosive offense — tallying 233 goals on the season — but it’s the team’s defense, especially in goal, that shines.
“We’re pretty balanced,” Hagkull said. “We don’t have a go-to line per se, and we generally roll the lines. We don’t have two or three kids that we rely on for offense, so we’re pretty balanced and the same thing on defense. We’ve got three strong pairs that we’re not worried about throwing out in any situation. The silver bullet for us is that we’ve got two really good goalies that we’re going to be in just about every game when we have them in net.”
Hagkull usually goes with a rotation between the pipes, but with Mason Herndon having his appendix taken out a week prior to the state tournament, Ryan Myers was in full-time. In the five games, he allowed just five goals.
“All the D get along really well, so you can always trust them to make plays on the back end and everybody works super hard at practice,” said Sawyer, who was recently on the ice at a Blue Jackets NHL game as a Hockey is For Everybody honoree. “You can trust your teammates a lot on this team and know that they can cover for you even if you make a mistake. I feel like that really helps us when everybody trusts each other and can play well.”
Hagkull is confident in his team at Nationals because it peaked at the right time this season.
“If you look at our record, we are a team that if there’s a team that we’re supposed to beat by three goals, we might tie them or beat them by one or if there’s a team we should lose by three goals, we might beat them by one,” Hagkull said. “We tend to play — unfortunately, as a lot of 14- and 15-year-olds do — to the level of the competition. But that has changed in the last month and a half, we started peaking and playing really well.”
That could bode well for Nationals where Hagkull thinks his team could be overlooked.
“I think we feel a little like the underdog, but we also feel like we can compete with any of the teams in this tournament and beat any team that we end up playing against,” Sawyer said.
Hagkull isn’t putting big expectations on his players, who could do the unexpected.
“It’s 14- and 15-year-old kids, so you never know, right?” he said. “Team Tampa is a really, really good hockey team, but we beat a team 3-0 that beat them. I think we know it’s an uphill battle. But I think that we have the attitude that if we play our best we’re going to be in the mix.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.