CHICAGO – Christian Bragnalo has been around youth hockey long enough to know that winning a Chipotle-USA Hockey National Championship is never easy. Defending the crown is even tougher.
After his team’s gut-check victory over the Rochester (N.Y.) Saints in the semifinals, the head coach of defending Tier I 14U champs from Shattuck-St. Mary’s offered a preview of his team’s title tilt against the Chicago Mission.
“What you’re looking at is the top two teams in the country and that’s exactly what this tournament’s all about – one versus two,” Bragnalo said after Shattuck rallied from a three-goal deficit on their way to a dramatic shootout victory.
“It’s going to be a good hockey game up and down the rink, and whoever makes one more play is probably going to win.”
Bragnalo’s prediction came to fruition, but much to his dismay, it was the Mission that made one more play on their way to a 3-2 victory in an epic clash of youth hockey titans.
After digging themselves into a hole in their previous game, the defending 14U champs from Minnesota were determined to come out of the blocks quickly and take the play to the Mission.
They did just that as Aaron Obobaifo scored in the first minute of the game when he steamrolled down the right-hand side and flipped a shot over the shoulder of Mission goaltender Bjorn Bonas.
Shattuck padded that lead later in the period when Owen Chartier feathered a pass to William Belle, who outraced the Mission defense and beat Bonas low to stick side.
One of the keys to the Mission’s success all season has been their relentless forecheck that forced opponents to work for every inch of ice. A day after holding a talented Green Bay Gamblers team to five shots in their 4-0 semifinal win, the Mission turned up the pressure on Shattuck puck carriers, forcing turnovers that they converted into quality scoring chances.
The game plan finally bore fruit early in the middle frame when Shattuck goaltender Harrison Boettiger couldn’t handle Luke Brierley’s high shot from the point and before he could cover up the rebound Jacob Eilers was there to tap it home to cut the lead in half.
Later in the frame, Nicholas Knutson chipped a harmless backhander toward the net that somehow managed to slide past Boettiger as Cameron McKinney provided a screen in front.
“We got off to a slow start and we battled back,” Mission head coach Christian Hmura said. “The third period has been our period this entire national tournament.”
It didn’t take long for Mission to prove that again today as McKinney barreled down the right wing, cut through the slot and launched a high backhander that Boettiger managed to snag, but the officials ruled the momentum of the shot carried his glove hand over the goal line.
“I talked before the game about just staying consistent no matter what was going on, whether we were up by a goal down or by a goal. I just wanted them to play the way I know they can play, and I actually think that came to fruition today,” Hmura said.
Still, Shattuck showed why the program has won three 14U titles in the past seven years as they continued to scratch and claw for the equalizer. They appeared to have it in the final minutes as Masun Fleece tapped a loose puck through a goalmouth scramble. The officials originally signaled a goal and then quickly called it off.
As the final seconds ticked down, the home crowd spurred their team on complete the sweep of the tournament field and bring another USA Hockey crown to the Windy City.
For Hmura, it was the fitting end to a long run that dates back to when the nucleus of this team was formed as Squirt-aged players. After taking on other assignments in recent years, he was happy to be back with this group of players that demonstrated that they love playing for their coach, and for each other.
“We have men in the locker room. I really believe so,” Hmura said. “They think like men, they act like men, both physically and mentally. They understand that a game is an entire game, not just a period or a couple shifts. I just think we were on a different level from the rest of the teams here this week.”