The first chapter of the Niagara Jr. Purple Eagles’ life story was written more than eight years ago.
The final chapter was completed Sunday.
In between, there were stories of exhilarating wins and devastating losses. There were tournament championships and bitter disappointments. But through it all, there were always a handful of kids who liked to play hockey, liked to win and, most importantly, liked each other.
And now those kids will certainly like being called National Champions.
Niagara finished off its fairytale run through the USA Hockey Tier II 16 & Under National Tournament on Sunday by winning the 4A Conference with a 5-3 victory over Madison Elite.
The Niagara players and fans knew how much this team has been through, but the average spectator in West Chester, Pa., had no idea. Not about the winless performance at Pee Wee Nationals four years ago. Not about the bittersweet bronze at Bantam Nationals two years ago. Not about the journey these players and coaches have been on for most of the last decade.
“It’s the best feeling,” summarized Purple Eagles coach John Bruno, who has been there since the beginning. “For us, this started seven or eight years ago. We went to Pee Wee Nationals (in 2006), didn’t qualify. We went to Bantams (in 2008), came home with the bronze. This has been a long journey. With this in mind, we knew this was our last real opportunity with this core group. It’s almost like it was scripted to this day.”
It was a script that few would have believed back in 2002, when the Purple Eagles were just a bunch of little kids with a knack for hockey and a dream of one day winning a National Championship.
Fast-forward eight years and the dream has come true.
“It’s just unreal,” said Charlie Stein, the Niagara captain and one of 10 players who has been on the team since Mites. “It’s an honor playing with these guys. We’ve been working for this our whole lives, especially the last four years. To come out on top, it’s just amazing.”
“We came real close two years ago, getting bronze,” added defenseman Bryan Komasara, “but nothing compares to this.”
Niagara’s dream certainly didn’t come easily. The Purple Eagles trailed at some point in five of their six games. They were losing 3-0 with less than 13 minutes left in the quarterfinals and they were down 1-0 and 2-1 in the first period on Sunday.
No problem. They’d been there before.
“We start slow every game,” Stein said. “But third periods, that’s what we work for. It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish.”
And, boy, do the Purple Eagles know how to finish.
With the game tied at 3-3 with 5:35 left, Tyler Tubinis took a pass on the doorstep and in one motion, roofed a backhander past Madison goalie Tyler Stensaas. With 21 seconds left, Brandon Washburn’s empty-netter set off the celebration.
But in between, it was a couple of plays by Stein that essentially won the game. In the final two minutes, the Niagara forward made not one but two saves in front of the net to preserve the lead.
Purple Eagles goalie Cullen Hensley played well, particularly in the third period, but he would not have won the game without a little help from behind.
“He’s by far our best player, hands down,” defenseman Bryan Komasara said of Stein, who made a huge impact in the tournament despite not scoring a single goal all week. “He’s been here from the start. He’s our captain, our leader.”
The truth is, there are a lot of leaders on this Niagara team. That’s the only way you can explain a team getting shut out 3-0 by Madison and then coming back to beat them for the championship three days later.
“We weren’t ready to play that day,” Bruno acknowledged. “We were just adjusting to the tournament, adjusting to the speed level. Our first game was an easier game and we just weren’t ready to play (against Madison on Thursday). And we might have had an advantage in that they weren’t ready to play today.”
There may have been some truth to that, given that multiple players for the Elite admitted that the team was joking around before the game, talking about how they were going to win the championship.
Madison may have talked the talk, but Niagara walked the walk.
“Every single kid on this team worked hard to the finish,” Komasara said. “We’re all going our separate ways this year, but this was an unbelievable group of kids, every single one of them. … We outplayed them the first game. We just had to finish them off — and we did.”
Hensley made 17 saves for the Purple Eagles, while Christopher Chapin netted a pair of goals and Austin Crossley also scored. Their names, along with many others, will be littered throughout the book of the Niagara Jr. Purple Eagles.
It’s a story that, if nothing else, will be remembered for its happy ending.
“That team’s a family,” Bruno said from the hallway at Ice Line, where dozens of purple-clad fans were waiting for the team to emerge long after the game ended. “And that’s rare, the way youth hockey is now, with everyone jumping from team to team. This team has stuck together.”
“That’s why they’re not out of the locker room yet,” he concluded. “They know this is the end of an era.”
Story courtesy of Red Line Editorial, Inc.
Tag(s): 16 & Under