ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- Team Alaska entered the Toyota-USA Hockey Youth Tier I 14U National Championships with a chip on its shoulder.
The coaches and players knew their automatic berth to the national tournament in Anchorage wouldn’t come with the same respect the other national powerhouse teams receive, but that didn’t deter their attitude going in.
“We definitely want to prove that we belong here, so we’re coming out and we want to play as best we can and hard as we can every shift, every period,” coach Dave Ruiz said. “The kids are definitely pumped up and at the same time they want to earn that respect.”
Team Alaska earned the automatic berth to the tournament, which began Thursday and ends Monday at the two-rink Subway Sports Centre, as the local host team.
The team came to fruition over summer tryouts in the same arena that now serves as the nation’s biggest 14U hockey stage. Team Alaska has spent hours at the rink every week. Meanwhile, many of the other teams travelled from as far as the East Coast, more than 4,000 miles away.
It’s a switch of fates for Ruiz and crew, who are normally the ones journeying across the U.S. and Canada to face top teams.
“It’s a rare treat for us,” Ruiz said. “Being in Alaska, a lot of times we have to travel out to play the top teams. I know for me myself, the coaches, the other kids — they’re just super excited to have the top teams actually come here and play on their own rink that they skate on every day.”
Team Alaska compiled a 24-22-4 record entering nationals, and played in tournaments in Chicago; Faribault, Minnesota; Vancouver, Canada and Victoria, Canada, throughout the fall and winter.
One key to Team Alaska’s success has been the play of team captain Jeffrey Bertrand. The 5-foot-10 forward compiled 7-12-19 totals through the season despite playing in fewer games than most of his teammates.
“He’s just an all-around, hard-working always upbeat team guy,” Ruiz said. “If I gave you three chances to pick him out without a last name, you’d pick him out. He’s one of those hardest working players on the ice.”
For Ruiz and the other head coach, Reid McDonald, nationals is not only the culmination of a long season, but also of several years of hard work. Team Alaska formed over the summer, but Ruiz has been working with the players much longer than that.
“This particular group, the [2001 and 2002] birth years, I started working with them five years ago,” Ruiz said. “I’ve been coaching some of them for the last five years. Every year we get more players.”
Many of Team Alaska’s players are from Anchorage, but others had to make big sacrifices to join the team.
In Alaska, getting from one town to another often means travelling by boat or plane rather than just hopping on the highway for a quick drive.
“One of our players [Brooks Christian] is from Kenny Lake, and he actually is home schooled, so he actually moved into Eagle River and his mom and dad rented a house,” McDonald said. “[Brandon] Davis from Fairbanks would fly down. The other gentleman from Fairbanks ... he actually moved down and stayed with his aunt.”
The sacrifices and long season resulted in a close-knit team by March. Ruiz said he was able to take advantage of Alaska’s numerous mountains to take the team on hikes for cross training and team bonding.
Now, Team Alaska concludes its season on its home ice in front of its home fans.
“They love each other, they’ve known each other for a long time,” Ruiz said of his players. “They had a great season together and they’re really excited to be part of it.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.