AMHERST, N.Y. — It's been a long and winding road for the Westchester Express youth hockey organization.
Steve Santini owned the New York Apple Core junior and minor hockey organization playing out of Long Beach on Long Island. In 1998, he built a hockey rink in Brewster, New York, off of Long Island, north of New York City.
He moved Apple Core there and started the Brewster Bulldogs, a Tier II organization. The Brewster Blackhawks are the single-A group. Eventually, the Brewster Lady Bulldogs were formed for Tier II girls teams.
Amidst all that came the Express. Originally the Snapple Express, they were brought into the Brewster Ice Arena Hockey umbrella as the Westchester Express, a Tier I organization.
As the Westchester Express, they previously sent two youth teams to the USA Hockey Tier I National Championships. Now, make that four. The 14U Express are heading to Scottsdale, Arizona, for Nationals while the 16Us are on their way to Pittsburgh.
"It's quite the honor," said 16U coach Tom Nolan.
It was not an easy road for either team, and they both relied on similar strengths.
The 16U team suffered injuries during the season. Just to qualify for the USA Hockey New York District Tournament, they had to beat their last league opponent by three goals to win the tiebreaker. They beat them by five. Then at the district tournament, they went undefeated in pool play before needing overtime to beat the P.A.L. Junior Islanders in the semifinals, 5-4, on a goal by Jason Ruszkowski.
"We were up 3-1, then tied, then up by one, then tied again," Nolan said. "A minute and change in overtime, we ended up winning the game. Other than the P.A.L. game, we pretty much handled every other game including the final."
That final was a 7-1 trouncing of the Buffalo Junior Sabres.
The 14U team also faced adversity during the season. However, they came together when it mattered most.
"We struggled a little bit," said John Tonelli, 14U coach. "We weren't working on all cylinders. Getting up to Buffalo and being away together, I think it really helped us refocus on what our goal was."
Even in Buffalo, it was not smooth sailing as they lost their second pool game to the Junior Sabres, 4-2. However, the Express worked its way back to the semifinal game, also needing overtime to beat the Syracuse Nationals, also by a 5-4 score, when captain Anthony Cipollone put it in.
They faced the Junior Sabres again in the final and topped them 6-1.
More similarities abound for these two teams as they both rely on every single player on their roster.
About his 16U team, Nolan said, "I think the advantage the Express brings into these tournaments is we don't rely on two lines and we don't rely on one set of D. We do a good job of getting all four lines involved. Our goaltenders are equally talented. All year long, we've alternated goalies equally and gotten great results. Goaltending, good defense, which is very skillful, and four solid lines will be our strength."
Tonelli said the same about his 14U team.
"That was the key. All the kids played. All pitched in. And our goaltending all year long has been really good, really solid," he said. "As a coach, you never want to decide on one or the other. I just had to rotate the whole season. We have a solid rotation. That's what you need to get to the next level."
The journey for two Westchester Express teams has mirrored the organization as a whole. Their goal for Nationals is to continue that journey.
"Now you’re talking the cream of the crop," Tonelli said. "It's been a great experience. You really find how resilient the kids are and how badly they want to play and how badly they want to compete. And understanding what they can do when they all focus together and help each other."
Nolan said, "We always speak about how it's up to the players to get better every time they get on the ice. It's up to you to work hard, to get out of your comfort zone and become a better player. That was a culmination of what happened down the stretch. I think it paid off at the right time."
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc
|Youth Tier I (14U)||Scottsdale, Arizona||Arizona Amateur Hockey||April 6-10, 2017|
|Youth Tier I (15-year-olds only)||Scottsdale, Arizona||Arizona Amateur Hockey||April 6-10, 2017|
|Youth Tier I (16U, 18U)||Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania||Pittsburgh Penguins Elite||April 6-10, 2017|
|Girls Tier I||Rochester/Macomb, Michigan||HoneyBaked Hockey Club||April 6-10, 2017|
|Women's A, B, C||Rochester/Macomb, Michigan||HoneyBaked Hockey Club||April 6-9, 2017|
|High School||Cleveland, Ohio||Cleveland Suburban Hockey||March 22-26, 2017|
|Girls Tier II||Troy, Michigan||Troy Youth Hockey Association||April 6-10, 2017|
|Youth Tier II (14U)||Coral Springs, Florida||Florida Panthers Ice Den||April 6-10, 2017|
|Youth Tier II (16U)||Frisco, Texas||Texas Amateur Hockey||April 6-10, 2017|
|Youth Tier II (18U)||Lansing, Michigan||Lansing Hockey Club||April 6-10, 2017|
|Sled||San Jose, California||Sharks Ice||April 6-9, 2017|
|Adult Rec Men's||Wesley Chapel, Florida||Florida Hospital Center Ice||April 20-23, 2017|
|Adult Rec Women's||Ellenton, Florida||Ellenton Ice and Sports Complex||April 27-30, 2017|