Jr. Sun Devils Get a Blast of Winter
The average temperature in early April in the Green Bay area is 50 degrees.
The opening day of the Chipotle-USA Hockey Youth Tier II 18U Nationals barely reached the mid-30s. Add in the wind chill, and it dipped into the 20s.
For the Jr. Sun Devils players who came up from Tempe, Arizona, the cold was a little culture shock.
“It’s getting well into the 90s down in Arizona right now,” Jr. Sun Devils coach Sean Whyte said.
The Jr. Sun Devils have a pregame ritual where after they warm up, they kick around a soccer ball. The guys did their normal warm-up routine outside prior to their afternoon game in the opening round of the national tournament. They wanted to go inside to kick around the ball, but that wasn’t allowed at the arena so they stayed outside.
“While we were out there they’re going, ‘Hey, guys, how about tomorrow we warm up inside. But then we go outside to play the game with the soccer ball?’ I think they’re freezing right now,” joked Whyte.
Playing in the nationals is a first-time experience for the majority of the Jr. Sun Devils, so they aren’t disappointed they were sent to a cold-weather climate for the biggest tournament of their young lives.
“They could have told us it was in Nome, Alaska, and we’d be OK with it,” Whyte said. “Just the overall experience, it’s wonderful to be able to represent Arizona at nationals, and so the boys are all ready for it.”
Unfortunately, the Jr. Sun Devils dropped their first-round game 1-0 to the Casco Bay Mariners in a Division 2A game on Thursday.
It’s great for the Jr. Sun Devils to represent the warm-weather teams at nationals. Whyte works for the National Hockey League as a youth hockey regional director, with a primary responsibility of growing hockey at the grassroots level.
It’s an exciting time for hockey in Arizona with Arizona State University going Division I three years ago and Scottsdale native Auston Matthews being the No. 1 overall pick in the 2016 NHL Draft.
“That was another boast for the learn-to-play, learn-to-skate program, and the numbers continuously grow,” Whyte said.
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Pair of overtime thrillers
Two games on Thursday’s opening round went to overtime for those all-important two points.
The most captivating game was between the NJ Freeze Black and the South Florida Golden Wolves in 3A.
“It was an exciting game for a spectator, but not for a coach for sure,” Freeze coach Bruce Shatel said.
The Golden Wolves led 4-3 when the Freeze pulled its goalie and tied the score with 19 seconds remaining in the third period.
There was a shot from the point and weakside defenseman Brett Coleman collected the rebound around the top of the circle.
“He had his back to the net, spun around and the goalie was out of position and was able to bury a rebound from about 15 or 20 feet out,” Shatel said.
The Freeze (29-1) was riding such a high, Shatel called timeout after the goal to help settle down his guys.
In overtime, Freeze’s Christopher Walako blocked a shot at the point to create a breakaway opportunity.
“The puck was rolling from the blue line in, and I’m thinking, ‘Chris, just shoot. Just shoot,’” Shatel said. “He shot the puck short side, and it went in.”
In another wild finish, the Anaheim Jr. Ducks led the Syracuse Blazers 2-0 after two periods.
“We looked sluggish,” Blazers assistant coach Scott McDonald said. “We looked like we traveled cross country and sat around all day, and lo and behold that’s how we played.”
The Blazers tied the game at 2 with 5:15 left in the third period as Bryan O’Mara scored.
“We felt like because we had the third period, we had the momentum going and we need to continue to ride that,” McDonald said. “The kids were believing at that point in time, so there was no letting down.”
McDonald tightened his team’s bench in overtime.
“Just trying to find a way to do the little things right, not get caught in bad spots, stay on the right side of our checks, advance pucks when we don’t have anything else,” McDonald said.
The Blazers picked up a puck on their zone and found O’Mara at the blueline.
“He just waited and waited and waited, threw it through traffic and it went in,” McDonald said.
A storied past together
When people in hockey circles think about the Green Bay Bobcats, they can’t help but think about Copper Country.
Back in the 1950s, a couple Copper Country — which is located in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula — hockey players moved to Green Bay and started the first professional hockey team in Titletown, the Bobcats.
Copper Country legends Tony Bukovich coached the Bobcats in their first year, and his son, Tony, Jr., and Ken Ruohonen all come down to play.
The tie-in between Copper Country and the Bobcats has turned into a rivalry over the years between the two hockey programs despite the teams being four hours apart.
“The boys have come up playing against each other all the way up,” Bobcats coach Bill LaBelle said. “With that history, a lot of these kids have played against each other since they were mites. We know each other very well. There’s a lot of respect there both ways and it’s a battle every time you go out and play.”
“The kids are friends off the ice and on the ice, they battle and we always want respect from the Green Bay kids and they probably feel that way, too,” Copper Country coach Micah Stipech said.
That rivalry wrote another chapter in the opening round of nationals. The two teams faced off seven times in the regular season with Copper Country winning every game. That was no different at nationals as Copper Country scored a hard-fought 3-1 victory.
“It’s scary, because they know us better than any other team, and it showed tonight,” Stipech said. “They did some things, they exploited some of our weaknesses, and it was a very good game.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc