When the USA Hockey National Championships for Tier I girls begins April 3 in San Jose, Calif., the Alaska All-Stars 19-and-Under squad will have already overcome considerable obstacles just to get there.
Following a two-game sweep of the Anaheim Lady Ducks in a best-of-three series to win the Pacific District championship earlier this month in Anaheim, the All-Stars advanced to nationals without even having had their entire team together for one game this season.
“It’s always a challenge,” noted Alaska coach Dave McCarrey. “We still have two girls that couldn’t be with us for the district tournament, so our first time to be together as a team with everyone there won’t be until we skate together on a practice ice before we start nationals play.”
Strict eligibility rules for hockey players in Alaska made it hard for the Anchorage-based All-Stars to get everybody together. That meant playing far fewer games this year than their competitors.
“Just the fact that the team exists is a challenge,” McCarrey said. “Here in Alaska, we have an interesting high school rule that prevents our teams from playing together [except] during selected times over the course of the year. We’re able to be together from Aug. 1 to the beginning of October, and we really get to be with the girls only on Sundays, and then we can be together for four days at Thanksgiving, a week at Christmas-time, and we really did not play together as a team again until we practiced in California the day before our first game.”
Despite that relative rust, Mackenzie Millen’s second goal of the game 3:55 into overtime gave the All-Stars a hard-fought 3-2 victory over the hometown Lady Ducks in the first game of the series on March 8.
Then in the second contest on March 9, two goals from Brandi Muller and Millen’s three assists spurred Alaska to a 4-1 triumph and the district title, completing an impressive performance.
“I think we have a great coaching staff that is very mindful of every girl’s ambitions and goals,” McCarrey noted, “and are able to sit down together and get a plan together that provides opportunities for them to bond — whether it be a dinner, whether it be a quick run to the beach, whether it be just getting up in the morning and doing a pre-game stretch. That translates into fun, productive times that the kids really look forward to.”
They are also eagerly awaiting their upcoming trip to San Jose, where McCarrey knows they will be going up against some of the top programs in the nation.
“We have to compete against what I refer to as “super teams” that are able to recruit all over the United States and have their teams together to play a 50-game schedule and play in major tournaments,” McCarrey said. “We’re grateful to be in one tournament, maybe two, and have never had time to practice, so I’m very proud of these girls and their ability to overcome just that obstacle alone, just bonding together quickly and jumping back in the team’s systems the way they did. They’re just great kids.”
A lack of playing time together isn’t the only hurdle the All-Stars have had to conquer. As one of the only girls’ programs in Alaska, they have had to get creative in order to face viable competition during the season.
“We play against boys’ teams,” McCarrey said. “When we first started with our girls program four or five years ago with the All-Stars organization, one of the biggest challenges we had was convincing boys’ teams that it was okay to play girls. They didn’t understand that when they played us that we would demonstrate all the speed, finesse and skill necessary. We just didn’t have the physical checking, but we convinced them that learning how to play against a quality girls’ team would assist them in their ability to play boys’ teams.”
As they prepare for the nationals, the All-Stars know they will be facing top teams and are eager to show just how competitive they can be on the big stage.
“Our mindset is to represent our families, our organization and our state well,” McCarrey said. “We’re very proud to be able to represent Alaska and the Pacific District. We think the Pacific District has come a long way as a general rule, as far as developing female athletes. We’ve done a good job at that.”
The truth is, the Alaska All-Stars have already accomplished their primary objective — providing top-notch competition for their girls to improve against and enabling them to go on to college.
“When you look at the number of players we’ve been able to move on to the college ranks, whether it be Division I or Division III or club teams, we’ve done a really good job the last four or five years of making that opportunity available,” McCarrey said. “At the end of the day, our greatest success is the success of our athletes on and off the ice.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.