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Henderson Commandoes fight through adversity to become first Tennessee team at high school nationals

By Jason Franchuk, 03/13/12, 10:00AM MDT


SALT LAKE CITY -- Ron Blanton is the team manager for Hendersonville Commandos from Tennessee. He’s done this for three years, and as the dad of one of the goalies, he has seen a lot of hockey.

Yet, this sequence he cannot fathom. The seemingly endless penalties from both teams on Thursday — in a blowout that Henderson would lose — had led parents from both sides to commiserate in the bleachers.

Each side was praising the other team, saying too many kids were being sent to the penalty box. Blanton waited by the locker room for the game to finish, the horn seeming to blow constantly as the Commandos continued to give up short-handed goals.

It’s been a tough start to the 2012 USA Hockey High School National Championships, though enjoying the experience — and being appreciative — comes as easy as study hall and being polite for these guys.

Hendersonville would have plenty of reasons to use the sport as a pugnacious escape from what’s been a harsh string of misfortune that no team — club, high school, college or even pro — should have to endure.

The team of 16 players from the Nashville suburb, however, uses what they’ve gone through as motivation and inspiration.

“They have handled a tremendous amount of adversity. It’s hard to say which pile to start with first,” coach Tim Rathert said. “It’s an unbelievably resilient group of kids.”

That goes for Trace Kimler, 16, who in 2008 was diagnosed with a rare type of cancer that required the removal of his left shoulder — and all of the muscles in the vicinity.

Two others have mothers facing continued treatment for aggressive forms of breast cancer.

Another lost a father last April in a boating accident.

Hendersonville players, through a variety of channels, raised more than $8,500 for plane flights alone after receiving an invitation from USA Hockey to play at the high school national championship tournament in Salt Lake City, Utah, from March 21-25. They’re the first representatives from their state.

“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” said Kimler, who had been to Utah before to snowboard and praised the mountains and above-average warm weather for this time of year. “It’s beautiful here, and a great place to play hockey.”

It has been a cloudy, cold start on the ice at the Salt Lake Sports Complex, as the Commandos lost their first two games (Wednesday and Thursday) by a combined score of 12-3 on the University of Utah campus.

Between Wednesday and Sunday, the Salt Lake Sports Complex will host a wild schedule of 43 hockey games until a champion is crowned.

Hendersonville is one of 18 teams. Their white, yellow and black jerseys with the huge “H” on the front and names on the back don’t exactly stand out. But the arm areas do. Just below the right shoulder, there is a pink ribbon stitched onto every sweater, a tribute to the team’s conflicts with cancer, particularly the moms.

The left shoulders sport “CK,” the initials of Chris Keen — who was missing for a few days before it was realized he died in a boating accident.

“It’s really more like a family, what we have here,” Kimler said.

They’ve had help from new friends, too. The Nashville Predators have recognized the team and donated money from ticket sales to help the group reach Utah.

Since arriving, the team has found joy despite the scoreboard. The Commandos stayed at a popular downtown hotel, and Blanton bragged that staff at an adjacent restaurant credited this team with being the most polite youth team it’s ever encountered.

Spring break was last week, so Hendersonville finds itself doing a one-hour study hall each morning (just like at school) to keep up.

The team came off the ice disappointed Thursday after the physical 8-1 defeat to a South Carolina squad, but eager to play again.

And enhance their games to go with their pain thresholds and senses of humor.

“What are we learning?” Kimler said, repeating the question thrown at him. “We’re learning that we can get a lot better. But there are some great teams here.”

Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.