SIMSBURY, Conn. — It was cold, raw New England spring day at the USA Hockey Tier II 18-and-Under national championships Sunday morning at the International Skating Center.
But two southern teams made themselves right at home in Simsbury, as the Charlotte (N.C) Jr. Checkers and Ashburn (Va.) Xtreme won their respective title games in A and AA.
“It’s huge because we’re not known as a hockey hotbed,” Ashburn coach Steve Schneider said. “We’ve had a lot of success at the 16- and 18-year-old level. I don’t know of a team in Virginia that’s won nationals other than us right now, so it’s a great feeling.”
As for the Checkers, they’ve seen hockey grow in their area thanks to a new rink funded by NASCAR driver Joey Logano’s parents that hosted the Peewee national championship several years ago.
“We hosted nationals and grew hockey there, and its just kept going,” said Charlotte forward Thomas Groves, who had the game-winning goal in Sunday’s win against Nashville. “[People] saw our teams and that our players could play.
“We’ve just built from the success we’ve had. It’s been great.”
That success culminated with the state’s first championship Sunday.
“It’s a huge, huge accomplishment for these young gentleman,” Charlotte coach Bob Halkidis said. “We’re really proud to bring home the first national championship for North Carolina, especially for Charlotte. Any time the younger kids see teams and the other kids win and progressing and having success at a high level like this, it really entices them and makes them want to come to the rink and get better.”
Ashburn’s win came with a group of players that had been together since Squirts and had come close to a championship at the 16U level last year.
“We came here with that experience that you carry from playing in a tournament before, and it’s just a great feeling for these young kids to experience,” Schneider said. “That experience made the difference, I think.”
Florida looking to come back
It’s not easy trying to put together a youth hockey team. Just as Florida Jr. Panthers coach John Griffin.
He said his team only returned five players from last season’s team, and he isn’t sure about his prospects for next year after losing 5-1 to Ashburn in the Tier II 18U AA championship game on Sunday.
“I would like to think that we’ll have a nice little core, but you never know,” Griffin said. “Some of my kids that are eligible are actually going off to college. So we might be starting from ground zero again with new kids. Hopefully we’ll grow and get a little better. It was a great learning experience.”
A familiar opponent
After running through a gauntlet of unfamiliar opponents over the past week, the Affton (Mo.) Americans were plenty familiar with the other team in Sunday’s 18U AAA championship game.
The Americans had beaten the Chicago Bruins in all four games between the two Midwest teams entering the tournament.
“We’ve always been rivals with them; to [face] them now is just a dream come true,” Affton forward Toppie Hogan said. “We’ve already beaten them four times and you’re like, ‘This could be the one were they beat us,’ but we were able to pull out the win.”
The championship came in the Americans’ first year in the AAA division after previously competing in AA.
“If we were playing 2A, I don’t think it would have been the same,” goalie Billy Hindle said. “I’m glad we moved up and played some of the best teams all year long.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.