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Northern Plains Teams Bring Players Together From Near and Far

By Tom Robinson - Special to USAHockey.com, 03/31/14, 5:30PM MDT

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The players who make up the six teams that the Northern Plains District will send to the various Toyota-USA Hockey Tier II Youth National Championships all split their time between being opponents and working together as teammates.

The Montana Thunderblades are based out of Billings, but their players come from all over the widespread state.

“In Billings, we only have about 15 kids who play in our Bantam program,” Thunderblades team manager Rob Gagnon said. “They range from first-year skaters up to kids who have been playing since they were four years old.

“Each individual city or association has a rec program, and we kind of travel around the state and play games. There’s nothing really competitive about it. To be able to field a team and compete on the Double-A level, we have to take the strongest kids from each association.

“Even when we have our open tryouts, we only have about 22 kids show up.”

With two players traveling from as far as Whitefish, 8 ½ hours away, just for the occasional practice, the Thunderblades have still managed to produce a formidable team.

Almost all of the players on the Thunderblades, who will go to Tier II 14-and-Under national tournament next month in Hackensack, N.J., were on the team that reached the Tier II 12U national semifinals before losing to the eventual champion Nashville Junior Predators in northern Virginia two years ago. The 12U national tournament is no longer held.

The Thunderblades are 15-5-1 this season. They won the Colorado Springs Presidents Day Bantam 14U tournament and reached the semifinals at two other events.

Although the 18U Montana team goes by the name of Bozeman Ice Dogs, it has a similar make-up. Because it features high school players from around the state, it has less time for tournaments and plays more of an exhibition schedule.

The two teams each from South Dakota and Wyoming — each state has one 14U team and one at a higher age group — take the same approach as the Montana Thunderblades.

They operate under the names Team South Dakota and Team Wyoming, getting together when it is practical throughout the season.

Team South Dakota and Team Wyoming met each other the weekend of March 22-23 for an informal three-game series in which South Dakota won twice and the teams tied once. They used each other for a national tournament tune-up and a little extra exposure to the types of teams they could see in New Jersey.

Team Wyoming has progressed through the 14U season after players from six different towns gathered in Casper for tryouts in August. They met for practices three times on alternating weekends then entered tournaments on each of the five winter holiday weekends.

With half the team made up of players that will still be eligible for 14U next season, Team Wyoming closed the gap on the powerhouse Montana Thunderblades when they met throughout the season. Team Wyoming won the five-team Park City/High Mountain AA Shootout in Utah and took second in another tournament.

Many of the Wyoming players were also in northern Virginia for the 12U nationals two years ago, where their losses came to the two finalists, the Oklahoma City Oil Kings and Nashville Junior Predators.

“I’m pretty happy with the way we’ve played,” Team Wyoming U14 coach John Chase said. “A lot of people are just amazed when they play against us at how well we do being that we don’t play together all the time.

“We get together five weekends a year. We’re pretty proud of our kids, especially coming out of Wyoming, which isn’t known for being a hockey hotbed, for being able to compete at this level at the venues we go to.”

Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.


District Champions

Tier II Youth

14U Montana: Montana Thunderblades

14U South Dakota: Team South Dakota

14U Wyoming: Team Wyoming

16U South Dakota: Team South Dakota

18U Montana: Bozeman Ice Dogs

18U Wyoming: Team Wyoming

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