John Kay was synonymous with Belle Tire hockey.
For over 20 years, Kay was the program director of the Detroit-based club. In November, he unexpectedly passed away from a massive heart attack at age 65. It was a shock to the hockey community.
“He used to come into the locker room all the time and say hi to the kids,” Belle Tire Tier I 18U coach Bob Mantha said. “Anyone who was always around the Taylor Sportsplex, you got to know him and he got to know the kids. He was a guy who always cared. He’s just one of those faces you always see in the rink.”
Kay was also instrumental in helping run the USA Hockey Michigan District Tournament every year.
“For several years, he was one of the guys that sat at states for three weeks solid, night and day, making sure the state championships were conducted properly,” Mantha said. “He was a mainstay there. He was a big part of it.”
After Kay died, the Michigan Amateur Hockey Association (MAHA) named the championship trophy for the Tier I 18U winners the John Kay Memorial Trophy.
With Kay on the players’ minds — and his initials on their helmets — Belle Tire went out and captured the state title at the Taylor Sportsplex on March 17.
“It was kind of ironic that all of a sudden the first year MAHA does a trophy to honor John our 18 team, we ended up winning it,” Mantha said. “I’m sure he’s quite proud.”
It was a great accomplishment for the Belle Tire squad who advanced to compete in the Chipotle-USA Hockey Youth Tier I 18U Nationals in Philadelphia, April 5-10.
“The biggest thing is for us, this was my first year coaching the 18s, so I had one player return who played for me when he was 15 years old,” Mantha said. “Other than that, the team was really built from scratch. For them to come in and do so well, after all is said and done with states, the kids have won 51 games this year.”
In the state tournament, Belle Tire swept all three of its best-two-out-of-three series on three straight weekends. Belle Tire downed Little Caesars 5-1 and 4-3 in overtime in the opening round. Against Victory Honda — which had beaten Belle Tire three of four games during the regular season — Belle Tire was victorious 5-3 and 4-3. In the championship round, Belle Tire defeated Compuware 4-3 in overtime and 5-4 to claim the title.
“When you see where we were with injuries and illness, the adversity that the kids were challenged with, one of the biggest things that I was concerned with from the very first series to the last is just what we would have left if we had to go three games to three games to three games,” Mantha said.
Belle Tire (51-19-4) didn’t need three games; it took care of business in two each round.
It’s been an uphill climb all season for Belle Tire, which has faced injury after injury. At one point in the season, Mantha had 12 players on the ice for practice.
“I thought all along we had the right group of kids, the right chemistry, the right talent,” Mantha said. “But a part of our situation going all year long was just battling through different injuries at different times that we hit some so-called bumps. The kids fought through it. Sometimes it may not have been the prettiest, but they kept finding ways to win and ways to create good hockey habits.”
Remarkably, Belle Tire has had 30 contests decided by one goal this season. The team has won exactly half of those, including taking all four one-goal games in the state tournament.
“I think whether it’s one or three [goals], obviously any coach in terms of being nerve-racking would like to win by two or three goals each time,” Mantha said. “I think your team gets better by playing in those tight games all the time. I think you prepare yourself for the bigger games.”
Defense has been a big key to Belle Tire’s success this year. It has outscored its opponents 274-135, allowing just 1.82 goals per game.
“I’ve gotten good goaltending from both guys this season when needed,” Mantha said. “I’ve got a good defensive corps in the back end and then I’ve got a little mixture of some skill, some speed and some size and strength up front with some forwards.”
Belle Tire has played one of the top schedules this season and taken on the nation’s best in big tournaments. It won the Motor City Cup at the start of the year and captured the Victory Honda tournament in January.
“I’m a big believer that if you can get your kids on that big stage as much as you can, then they learn and they know how to compete in playing those situations,” Mantha said.
The stage won’t get any bigger than nationals. Mantha’s guys will be ready once they hit the ice for the tournament opener.
“We’re clicking well right now, and that’s what we want to take to Philadelphia,” Mantha said. “You get in the playoffs and anything can happen. The teams that do the little things well are I think the teams that are going to be rewarded. Score some goals, stay out of the box, show some discipline.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc