AMHERST, N.Y. — Qualifying for the Chipotle-USA Hockey Youth Tier II 14U Nationals was relatively easy for Team North Dakota; getting to Buffalo, New York for the tournament was another story.
The team comes together through state and district camps, and North Dakota has both a Tier I and Tier II state team.
“You have to go to the camps to be eligible,” explained coach Eli Duncan. “We picked our Tier I team, and then whoever else wanted to play, we made our Tier II team. We’ve had success. It’s our second year now coming to these things. We went to Florida last year. It’s fun. The kids love it. It’s good experience.”
North Dakota plays the majority of its season in the fall before players split up to play for their local associations all over the state.
“The kids all play against each other all winter long, so it’s kind of cool that at the end we meet up and we’re a team,” Duncan said. “It’s unique.”
After spending the winter as rivals, one might think that coming back to play as teammates might be tough.
“It’s just kind of fun,” explained forward Tyler Misialek. “We pick at each other, but we all have fun with each other. Nobody’s hating on anybody.”
After 20 games in the fall, at least half of which came against Team South Dakota, Team North Dakota reunited for three games before setting off for Buffalo.
And they got more of a journey than they expected due to high winds canceling flights into Buffalo. Some came as close as circling above the area before being informed they wouldn’t be able to land.
“Then we had to turn around and go to Toledo,” Duncan said. “So we sat there and the plane was going back to Chicago, and they wouldn’t let us get our checked bags. Then enough people got off the plane there, so they let us get our checked bags, so we ended up getting off there, rented a van, drove the four-and-a-half hours, and we made it. One kid circled over Buffalo for an hour in his plane and they couldn’t land. He had to go back to Detroit, and then he ended up going back to Minneapolis to catch a later flight back to Buffalo, so he backtracked almost the entire way.”
Defenseman Quentin Lewis’ story was a little bit different.
“We went to Minneapolis from Bismarck, and then we headed on over to Detroit, and then we made our way to Buffalo here,” he said.
Thoughts of what awaited the team in Buffalo kept Lewis and Misialek focused and positive throughout their respective journeys.
“I was mostly focused on this tournament because it’s a pretty big deal and I just wanted to do good here,” said Lewis.
“I just wanted to get here,” Misialek said. “I thought about the first game and played on my phone.”
A few players didn’t arrive in Buffalo, which Misialek described as “colder than North Dakota, surprisingly,” until 2 a.m. Thursday morning, but the team came together for a 2-1 win over the Alaska All-Stars in its first game Thursday afternoon. Even that wasn’t easy, as Alaska pulled its goalie with a minute remaining in regulation and scored with 43.6 seconds on the clock. Alaska called a time-out after scoring but was unable to score again.
“We just had to battle, and it’s tough when you can’t clear the puck, but we figured it out and killed the clock,” said Duncan. “I think we just rally off this win and keep going, give it our all.”
“Couple mistakes, but we finished with a good win,” said Lewis. “It’s just a learning experience. I hope we can get more wins and make it to the championship.”
“It was pretty physical,” Misialek said. “We ended up with the win, 2-1, but I felt like we should have had a few more goals. We had a few more chances we should have had, but otherwise we played well.”
With the adversity of not only their journey, but the way the team is assembled from all over the state of North Dakota, wins like Thursdays feel a little bit sweeter for Duncan and his team.
“We don’t play together all year round, which makes these wins feel good when you play with some of these teams that play year round together,” Duncan said.
Team North Dakota is scheduled to play the Essex Sting Saturday at 1:15 p.m. before they hope to advance to the later rounds on Sunday.
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.