Oklahoma City had just beaten a tough team from Omaha to win the USA Hockey National Championship. Now it was time to celebrate.
As the official tournament photographer snapped pictures of the joyous players on the ice, parents balanced on their seats and leaned over the top of the glass at the main rink inside the ESL Centre in Rochester, N.Y., to capture their own moment in pictures.
Oklahoma City was the Butler Bulldogs of the USA Hockey 18 & Under Tier II National Championships. Like the NCAA basketball Cinderella that made it all the way to the final game, Oklahoma City defeated larger, more experienced, and better funded teams on its unlikely run to the title.
Whether it’s hoops or pucks, Oklahoma City alternate captain Tyler Minx summed up the rallying cry of the little teams everywhere.
“All we needed was a chance,” said Minx, who was among the tournament scoring leaders.
“I hope this finally puts Oklahoma hockey on the map, and shows that we can play hockey just as well as the other guys.”
After years of seeing smaller associations being elbowed out of the big dance by the big boys in the District, USA Hockey decided to open up the dance floor to teams from all over the country so they too could get in on the fun.
Starting this year, USA Hockey has expanded its Tier II tournaments to four divisions, quadrupling the number of champions and, more importantly, the number of teams that get a taste of National Championship experience.
Teams were divided into divisions based on registration numbers, with teams from larger Districts competing at the 4A level.
That meant that a team like the Dallas Ice Jets, who won the 2A national title, could have blocked Oklahoma City’s path. Instead, Oklahoma was able to take home the 1A crown.
“This was our first time here,” Oklahoma City coach Mike McEwen said. “In the past, we had to get past teams in Texas and Colorado in order to get to Nationals out of our division.”
Expansion also opened slots for teams like the Delaware Ducks, who made it all the way to the semifinals.
“This is a good opportunity,” said Delaware forward Keegan Hinson. “It shows that Delaware really does have hockey. Most people here haven’t heard of us, but we’re just as good as everyone else.“
Expansion opened the tournament to a group of wide-eyed newcomers, who tried to make up for a lack of funding with enthusiasm.
Want to know the hockey influences of Orchard Lake’s goalie? Just check the pre-printed media guides they brought with them to Nationals. Interested in the SAT scores of a Chesterfield Falcons forward? Refer to the package of tear sheets they distributed to curious Junior and college coaches milling about. Want to talk to someone related to a Tri-Valley, California player? Try the people wearing his replica jersey in the stands.
The Oklahoma City players were the ones asking for directions to the locker rooms at the front gate. Tournament newcomers from Louisville were caught marveling over the fact that there were goal lamps that actually lit up after they scored.
“Did you see that?” Alex Harmata asked a teammate after one game. “Be sure to watch tomorrow.”
While other teams have small armies of assistant coaches and managers to handle the equipment, the father of Oklahoma goalie Austin Schmidt showed up each day with a milk crate, stuffed with a dozen mismatched water bottles for the netminders to use. In violation of the post-game announcement, he went out onto the ice after the championship game, as he did after every game, to retrieve the milk crate from behind the bench.
“Shouldn’t that get me into the team picture?” he asked on photo day.
A similar question could have been asked by the mother of one of the Mississippi Surge players, who sat in the stands during the team’s first game, sewing National Tournament patches onto the jerseys the players would be wearing the following day.
Mississippi didn’t meet the same level of success as fellow first-timer Oklahoma City, however. They ended up getting outscored 38-1 in pool play.
“You’ve got to remember, some of the guys on my team just played in the 15th or 16th game at Nationals over the last three or four years,” said David Wilkie, coach of tournament regular Omaha, after beating Mississippi 15-0. “We’re not here getting caught up in the experience and the gala.”
There didn’t seem to be any gala atmosphere the next day, when Mississippi lost by a similarly lopsided score of 14-0.
“What can you say?” asked Wes Fulmer, father of Surge forward Reid. “You just hug them, tell them you’re proud of them, and tell them to hold their head up. It’s an experience not a lot of kids get, especially where we come from.”
Reid got the message.
“I could hear him up there yelling, late in the game,” he said. “Early in the second period [when Mississippi fell behind 9-0], he was yelling, ‘Keep your head up, Reid. You’ve only got 30 minutes of ice time left at Nationals.’ Later he yelled, ‘Enjoy these last six minutes.’ ”
“You’ve got to remember a lot of these guys won’t skate again for six or seven months,” said the proud pop. “All of the ice is gone down there. They won’t get a chance to skate again until maybe October.”
Ice is also hard to find in New Mexico, home of the Renegades from Rio Rancho.
“California has 30,000 kids playing hockey,” said team manager Alan Zampini. “We have 30 kids try out, and they all end up making the team.”
The Renegades were the first team to go to Nationals from the state. Before they left for the tournament, each team member received a personalized letter from Governor Bill Richardson thanking them for doing the state proud.
New Mexico was the personification of “glad to be here,” flying off the ice after a 3-1 loss in their opening game against the Tri Valley Blue Devils from northern California.
“They thought they had it won as soon as they saw us out there. They were like, ‘New Mexico?’ It might as well have been Mexico City,” said Renegade Jackson Spingler.
“But we didn’t get blown out. That’s all you can ask for.”
That, and a chance.
Shawn Krest is a freelance writer from Buffalo, N.Y.