SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Although Team Wisconsin wasn’t able to win its district to earn an automatic bid to the Toyota-USA Hockey Youth Tier I 16U National Championships, the squad still advanced to this weekend’s tournament in California’s Bay Area as an at-large entrant based on its 24-8-2 record.
Team Wisconsin is embracing its new life, and it’s dreaming big.
The Midwestern team comes to San Jose, California, with pedigree, notably a 16U national title two years ago in 2014. Although none of the players from that team remain on the program’s current 16U team, this year’s team has nationals experience of its own, plus lots of experience playing together.
“Some of these kids have been here for three years in a row. The majority of them have played at the national championship level,” said first-year head coach Craig Johnson, referring to the 14U level. “There is great leadership on this team.”
Johnson noted that his players’ participation with one another began three years ago at the 14U level and has helped them gain chemistry over many years, critical to the team’s ability to play at their current high level.
Along with experience, other factors have gone into this squad’s successful season so far. One of their greatest strengths comes in the form of the players’ ability to learn on the fly.
“As a coaching staff, we are always challenging them to play with new systems, to recognize things with the clock and to manage the game,” Johnson said. “The group has definitely done a good job with that.”
Even after applauding his players, the Team Wisconsin coach is hesitant to make any assumptions about his squad’s apparent position to succeed in this tournament. Johnson has been around enough to know that competition at nationals is fierce, and that anything can happen.
“In terms of making a long run, I think we will need a need a little puck luck along the road,” he said. “We use the phrase ‘climbing the mountain.’ There’s going to be storms along the way, it comes down to how you deal with them.”
One of the biggest “storms” facing Team Wisconsin comes from the nature of the team: the players truly come from all over Wisconsin. This results in the team being forced to have regional practices where only some of the players are able to practice together at once.
The players consider it lucky if they are able to get together for practice one time in a week during the spring. Scheduling is even more difficult during the fall, when some of the players are practicing for their high school teams as well.
“The ability to practice isn’t there,” Johnson said. “We have to do a lot of learning on the chalkboard, and then the kids have to be able to incorporate that on the ice.”
The team is forced to make the most of the time that they have together, making their spring tournaments invaluable to their ability to perform their best at nationals.
Despite playing an independent schedule and not belonging to a conference, Team Wisconsin has always given itself tough games.
“We try to challenge our kids,” Johnson said. “We have always tried to play the best teams.”
It’s that kind of experience that is paramount to this squad’s potential success at nationals. Although the players might not spend the most time together in practice, they make the most of the time they do get.
Uniting the team for practices and games can be a challenge, but now, Team Wisconsin has assembled in San Jose for the national championships.
“It’s a business trip first, but we also want families to enjoy the experience,” Johnson said with a smile.
The Team Wisconsin squad has travelled a long way to the sun of California, which they will certainly enjoy. But make no mistake, these Midwesterners are here to make a deep run at nationals.
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.