There are 10,000 stories in the naked city, and three times that many at this year’s USA Hockey’s National Championships.
National Championship week has always been a family affair, not just for the nuclear family but for the extended hockey family as well. It is an annual rite of passage where the hockey world comes together in the spirit of competition, sportsmanship, fun and friendship.
As USA Hockey Magazine made the rounds from the Amherst (N.Y.) Pepsi Center to the Ice House in Hackensack, N.J., to Inline in West Chester, Pa., we checked in with players, parents, coaches, volunteers and officials to get their take on what makes a USA Hockey National Championship more than just another hockey tournament.
It is through their eyes that we present a look at the 2008 USA Hockey National Championships.
First Time Thrill Goes On Forever
By Harry Thompson
Jackie Gellner returned to Glendale Middle School in her hometown in West Virginia with a silver medal in hand and one whopping story to tell.
Competing in her first USA Hockey National Championship, the 11-year-old jitterbug on ice had just played in one of the longest games in the 28-year history of the Girls’ tournament, as her Team Pittsburgh 12 & Under squad lost a heartbreaker to perennial powerhouse Assabet Valley, 2-1, in eight overtimes.
“We played really good for this being our first time in Nationals. To get to the championship game was really great,” said Gellner, the youngest player on the Pittsburgh team.
Competing in the 48-team tournament paled in size to some of the events the girls played in since the season started in September. But when it comes to the pageantry that surrounds a National Championship tournament, like the one held in West Chester, Pa., it is the pinnacle of a long year.
“It’s really exciting to be here and take part in opening ceremonies because it makes it feel like a special tournament,” said Gellner. “It’s really exciting that we get a chance to represent USA and Pittsburgh.”
In addition to competing against the top teams in the country, many of which Team Pittsburgh faced throughout the year, the girls were treated to a fun-filled opening ceremony complete with a live band and fireworks.
“It was really fun just to see all the teams. Everyone was all dressed up, dancing around and having fun, and celebrating just getting here,” she said. “There’s a lot of hard work that goes into getting here. It’s kind of like a reward for getting here, and celebrating the season.”
As any player coming to Nationals for the first time finds out, the hard work is just beginning.
After beating the Ohio Flames to escape from the tough Mid-Am District, the girls from the Steel City picked up steam at Nationals. They cruised through the week beating the Anaheim Lady Ducks (7-1), Little Caesars (2-0), Princeton Tiger Lilies (3-1), Team Florida (4-2) and the Chicago Mission (4-2) to set up a date in the finals against an Assabet Valley squad that had won eight of the 10 titles at that age division.
Little did the girls know that the last game of the season would also be the longest. After Pittsburgh’s Stephanie Lemieux (daughter of Mario) tied the game with 51 seconds left in regulation, things were just getting warmed up. It ended eight extra sessions later when Assabet’s Kara Violette (See Page 14) broke the tie.
“It was the longest game I’ve ever played in,” said Gellner, who received a scare during the fourth overtime when she fell hard into the boards.
“It was really exhausting. Some of the girls hadn’t eaten anything all day because the game started at 8 in the morning and didn’t finish until after noon.”
Tired, sore and hungry, Gellner left West Chester with a sense of sadness that had more to do with the end of the season than the silver medal that hung around her neck.
“It was really disappointing, not only that we lost but that our season was over,” she said.
“This has been the best hockey season I’ve ever had. I’m never going to forget everything that has happened.
“Some of the players felt like all that hard work was for nothing, but I don’t feel that way. We tried out best and ended up as the No. 2 team in the country.”
Going Out On Top A Bittersweet Feeling
By Randy Schultz
For Jordan Murray, scoring two goals in a National Championship game was the perfect ending to this chapter in his hockey career. It was also a great springboard into what he hopes will be a fruitful college career.
Murray, one of three hockey-playing children of St. Louis Blues’ head coach Andy Murray, led prep school powerhouse Shattuck-St. Mary’s to a 5-1 victory over Team Illinois to win the USA Hockey Tier I 18 & Under National Championships.
“It’s great to win a championship of any kind,” said Murray, who was also a member of the Shattuck championship team in 2007. In fact, the Faribault, Minn., native has skated in five USA Hockey Nationals starting in 2004, winning two titles and making it to the finals in 2005.
“I’ve been to several championship tournaments at different levels, but this one was special for me this year because I’m a senior on the Shattuck team. I’ve played with a lot of these guys throughout my high school career.
“In fact, I’ve played with most of them since [I was a] Bantam. And when you realize that you are playing together for the last time in these championship games, it makes this tournament even bigger.”
The vast majority of players skating in an 18 & Under tournament are faced with the prospect that this is their final kick at the can. For Murray, there is life after Nationals as he is heading to the University of Wisconsin next season.
“I know that it is another step in having to prove myself again. But that is what hockey is all about at every level,” said Murray, who captained the U.S. Under-18 Select Team at the 2007 Memorial Ivan Hlinka tournament in Slovakia.
As the son of an NHL coach, Murray has been under the watchful eye of college coaches and professional scouts for much of his young life. So seeing talent seekers seated in the bleachers at the Amherst (N.Y.) Pepsi Center was nothing new to the 18-year-old forward.
“You think about it a little as you look through the stands and see the guys sitting there with their clip boards or note pads. But we have learned that when we come here to a tournament like this you put the team first,” noted Murray. “You do whatever it takes to get the win first.”
And from now on the thought of coming to Western New York will always have a special place in the minds of Murray and the rest of his Shattuck-St. Mary’s teammates.
“I think it will be an experience that will last us a lifetime,” said Murray, who wrapped up his USA Hockey National Championship tenure with 13 goals and 13 assists in 25 games dating back to 2004.
“It’s a great way to end our careers together. At the same time it’s kind of tough knowing that this is it for us at Shattuck.
“But what a way to end.”
Nationals Signal The End Of A Long Road
By Randy Schultz
Sandy Coleman fidgeted as she stood in the lobby of the Amherst Pepsi Center. In less than 15 minutes, her son, Blake, and his Dallas Stars AAA team would be facing off against Detroit Belle Tire in a quarterfinal matchup of the 2008 USA Hockey Tier I 18 & Under National Championship.
Coleman passed the time not only talking with other parents from Dallas, but with several from the Detroit team as well. While it appeared to be a good-will gesture on her behalf, there was actually a little more history to it.
“Blake played for Detroit Belle Tire last season, so we got to know a lot of the parents there,” said Coleman, who along with husband, Rusty, and several other relatives, made the long journey from Plano, Texas to Western New York.
“Little did we realize that we would be playing against them this year when Blake moved back to Texas.”
Such is the life of a hockey parent. For Coleman, hockey is not a sport, it’s a way of life. It has been ever since she was a girl growing up in New York’s Rockland County, and playing hockey herself.
And while her son still has a year of eligibility left at the 18 & Under level, Coleman realizes that when a player gets to this stage in his youth hockey career, every game could be his last.
If it is Blake’s last game, the Coleman family will be left with a lifetime of memories, especially last year when Blake made the difficult decision to move from Dallas to Detroit to live with a billet family.
“Blake was away from his family, and that was hard. He is very close to his siblings and parents. In the end it turned out to be a great experience for all of us,” mom admited.
“We got to see the majority of his games; either my husband or I were there.”
Which has been the way since Blake saw his first Dallas Stars game at the age of 4.
“He fell in love with the sport and never looked back,” she recalled. “He started in a house league as a mini-Mite, and then tried out for a travel team.”
All the tryouts, all the teams and all the travel may seem like a blur to many people, but Coleman has fond memories of the friends her son and her family have made along the way.
And as the seconds tick down on Belle Tire’s, 4-2, victory, Coleman couldn’t help but think about what the future will hold for her son, and her family.
“We don’t know where he’s going next year,” said Coleman. “We’ll sit down and talk about things and see where we’re going from there.
“It’s all part of being a hockey family.”
Nationals An Honor For Those Who Have Earned Their Stripes
By Harry Thompson
Most fans go to a hockey game and follow the puck dance and dart around the ice. Ryan Honig looks at the game from an entirely different perspective.
When you’ve dedicated half of your life to wearing the stripes, it’s bound to have an impact on how you view the world.
“I haven’t gone to an NHL game in 13 years and not watched the refs,” says the 26-year-old native of Hamburg, N.J. “And if you talk to all officials, that’s how they all are. We’re just able to relate to them more.”
Players, parents and coaches participating in a USA Hockey National Championship may not be able to relate to the challenges of keeping law and order on the ice, but they have to respect the job done by those in stripes.
Like the teams they judge, only the best are called to work a national tournament. And with so much riding on the line, only the strong survive.
“They’re looking for the whole package,” says Honig, who worked his seventh USA Hockey National Championship this year at the Ice House in Hackensack, N.J.
“You need to be an excellent skater, have excellent judgment and you have to know the rules. The more high level experience you have will definitely help because you’re not going to be feeling the pressure.”
While Nationals are a big deal for everyone involved, a referee can’t afford to get caught up in the excitement.
“As far as an official is concerned you’re going to go out and give your best every game,” said Honig, who has worked games from Peewee to minor pro hockey. “You have to block out what’s happening around but you still notice it.”
Even after miles around the rink, Honig fondly recalls his first National Championship experience. Coming in as an unknown commodity, Honig worked hard to catch the eye of the evaluators who carefully watch every game, and then took their critiques to heart.
“I ended up being a linesman for the Peewee championship, which blew my expectations away,” he said. “I went out there seeking criticism from the evaluators and kept trying to hustle all the time. I thought that was a good foot in the door.
Still, there is something special about working a National Championship tournament, where local New Jersey teams are facing off against teams from as far away as Los Angeles and Anchorage.
“Just the atmosphere here is something. You get to see the hockey world come together which is pretty cool,” he said.
“No matter how many of these you work, you still take pride that you’re here. It’s still a privilege to work these games but you know you can handle the situation.”
Teaching Life Lessons On The Road
By Harry Thompson
The Arapahoe Ice Warriors don’t go to hockey tournaments as much as they go on field trips. That doesn’t mean that the Tier II 14 & Under squad doesn’t hit the road with the determination to win every tournament it enters, it’s just that they know there’s more to life than just sticks and pucks.
Like most teams, the Ice Warriors take on the personality of their coach, Gerry Hogue, who has been around the game long enough to appreciate life both on and off the ice. The Saskatchewan native, who is in his fifth season with the suburban Denver youth hockey association, makes sure every trip is a learning experience that will give kids an appreciation of the towns they visit during the course of the season.
“We try to promote the educational side of it first so when we travel we always try to do things away from the rink,” said Hogue.
While skating at the Rocky Mountain District Championships in Oklahoma City, the players went to the site of the Oklahoma City bombings. During a tournament in Calgary led to a foray to the Olympic village. And no trip to Minnesota’s Iron Range would be complete without a trip to the Christian Brothers hockey stick factory.
Even at a high-profile event such as the 2008 USA Hockey National Championships in Hackensack, N.J., Hogue booked extra curricular trips away from the rink that included visits to Ground Zero in New York City and the Hobey Baker Rink at Princeton University.
“We looked at our schedule when it came out and decided that we had a fair bit of time after our games,” said Hogue.
“Nationals for us has been not a party but a real experience both on and off the ice. We got our money’s worth, that’s for sure.
“We didn’t kill ourselves with extra curricular activities, but there was a good balance and a good mental break for the kids so they can realize that there are more important things than just hockey out there.”
The Ice Warriors learn those lessons early on. To help defray the costs of travel and ice time, each player is responsible to help at a golf tournament the team runs early in the season.
“We’re trying to teach the kids that it’s not just about mom and dad writing a check,” said Hogue, whose son, Daniel, plays on the team. “They actually have to go out and earn stuff.”
Those lessons carry over to the road, where the team travels together on a bus and players room together at hotels.
“They set their own wakeup calls. They tip the bellman when they store their $200 stick over night,” he said. “So hockey is only one-tenth of what we’re trying to do.”
That doesn’t mean that the squad isn’t all business when it comes to the ice. The Warriors beat the Dual State Huskies (6-2) and Southern Connecticut Stars (6-5) to earn a spot in the quarterfinals where it lost to the LA Hockey Club (7-3). Not bad for the team’s first experience at a National Championship tournament.
“We’re walking away from here feeling like winners, just in the fact that we were here and competed and competed well,” said Hogue.
“We won our share of games. It would’ve been nice to go a little bit further but that learning experience was invaluable. You learn a lot more from your losses than from your wins.”
Another lesson learned on the road.
Past And Present Special Times For Amherst Ice Man
By Randy Schultz
As the Buffalo Regals and Amherst Knights prepared to face off at the 2008 USA Hockey National Championships, Bob Sykes watched intently from behind the glass at ice level.
As the general crew chief for the Town of Amherst Recreation Department, it’s his job to make sure the ice at the Amherst Pepsi Center was perfect for this Tier I 18 & Under contest.
He is one of a small army of dedicated people who play such an important, yet behind-the-scenes role at a National Tournament. The hours are long, the work is hard and the accolades are seldom heard over the roar of the ice resurfacer. His reward comes from watching the puck glide over a perfect sheet of ice.
But for Sykes, who is now in his 34th year of working for the town of Amherst, watching the nation’s best hockey players in action is about more than just the playing surface. It’s about reliving old memories of a special time in his life.
“In 1967-68, our Amherst team won the right to go to California for the National Tournament,” Sykes recalled. “The Sahlens Hot Dog Company sponsored us because we didn’t have the travel money.
“We played in the Los Angeles area and even got a chance to go to Disneyland. In the end, I believe we ended up finishing fourth.”
Sykes recalled the feeling he had when the team found out it was heading to the West Coast.
“Getting on that plane and heading off to California was something very special,” he said. “I got to meet a lot of kids from different parts of the country.
“Most of the teams we had played were usually from around the Western New York area and Southern Ontario, Canada. So you could see why we were so happy to go to this National Tournament and play against some different competition.”
Fast-forward 40 years and much has changed when it comes to Nationals and youth hockey in general.
“We had old style equipment when we played. Today they have the cages and protective equipment that make the boys look so much bigger,” said Sykes.
“The players are actually much bigger today. And they seem to hit a lot harder than we hit. We played a much different style of hockey as well.”
From his perch near the Zamboni doors, Sykes noticed changes in the stands as well.
“The parents didn’t seem to yell at the coaches as much back in my day as they do today. I see that too much these days,” he lamented.
Still, growing up in Amherst and now living around the corner from this sprawling four-sheet facility, Sykes is proud to play a hand in what is now the Center’s third consecutive National Championship event.
“It is great to see tournaments like this come into Amherst. We’re hoping to get another one next year,” he said.
“It’s a lot of hard work, but I think we do a good job here. We have set a benchmark for other [rinks] around the country to follow.
“At the end of the day, that’s what counts, and that’s how we will get another one to come here.”
Labor Of Love Makes Nationals A Success
By Harry Thompson
There’s an old bit of military humor that says that NAVY is actually an acronym for Never Again Volunteer Yourself.
Kim Tracy might find that funny if she had time to stop and think about it. Instead, this super mom has to make sure there are enough clock operators, ticket takers and penalty box attendants to staff the four-ring circus that is the USA Hockey Girls’ National Championship tournament at the Ice Line in West Chester, Pa.
Like so many of the volunteers who make youth hockey run 24/7, 365 days a year, Tracy would love to sit in the stands and cheer on her daughter, Devin, and then head home to get on with her life. But someone needs to be at the rink from sun up to well past sundown, taking care of the millions of details associated with hosting a tournament of this magnitude.
“You gotta do what you gotta do,” Tracy said during a rare break. “I want everyone to be happy and have a good time and want to come back.”
But as she does with everything, from taking care of her family to running a small printing and embroidery business, Tracy did it the only way she knows – full speed ahead.
“I get here at 6:45 in the morning and I’m leaving here, on average around 9:30 at night,” she said. “Then I’m home working until midnight or so and then it starts all again.”
What started as a relatively minor role of taking care of credentialing escalated when she was asked to oversee the small army of volunteers that make Nationals go.
It’s hard to put a number on how many volunteers it takes to host an event of this magnitude, but there are often more billets than bodies, especially early in the week when many people have to work. Tracy is fortunate to have so many dedicated parents who are more than willing to help out where they can.
“As long as I can make sure [parents] are available to watch their kids play their games they have been absolutely wonderful filling in the rest of the shifts,” she said.
Fortunately, none of this came as a surprise to Tracy, who accompanied the Lady Quakers to the past three Nationals, and was able to draw back in her memory to recall what worked and what didn’t at other host sites.
“I knew exactly what needed to be done and what is important at a Nationals,” she said. “I remember what each of the different locations did well and what I wanted to make sure our area did really well because I want people to come back.”
That civic pride is part of what drives her. As the team manager of the Quakers hockey club, Tracy wants to impress clubs in hopes that they’ll want to come back to play in future tournaments.
As the week winds down toward Championship Sunday, Tracy had mixed feelings. On one hand it would be a huge load off her shoulders. On the other hand, she would miss the months of preparation that were such a big part of her life.
All that will be left will be aching muscles, a weathered red windbreaker and a treasure trove of memories.
“We want people to leave here feeling that they had a great time and thinking this was the best Nationals they’ve ever attended,” Tracy said.
“I also want to make sure all the girls had a good time, and win or lose they have a memory that they can keep. When they’re still talking about this five or six years down the road, that’s a success.”
Photos - Steve Demeo, CARMO PHOTOGRAPHY, JANET SCHULTZ