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Jr. Sharks glowing after hosting Tier I national tourney


18U Jr. Sharks

For the first time in USA Hockey history, the USA Hockey 16U and 18U Tier I Youth Nationals were held west of the Rockies, from Mar. 31-Apr. 4 at Sharks Ice in San Jose.

According to one of the driving forces behind it all, the event couldn’t have gone any better.

“I’m very, very pleased,” said Jon Gustafson, vice president of Sharks Sports and Entertainment and Sharks Ice. “We got amazing feedback not only from USA Hockey, but most importantly, the customers that came out to San Jose. The bar is always high when you’re dealing with the types of teams that travel not only all across North America, but the world. It was great to hear they loved San Jose as much as they did.

“They loved the building, the ice was good, and I think it shows we can hold these types of events on the West Coast.”

With 16 teams participating in each division, Sharks Ice was a hub of activity over the five-day event, with 32 teams, personnel, fans and scouts flocking to see the next wave of American hockey talent. The 16U AAA national championship was won by perennial powerhouse Shattuck-St. Mary’s of Faribault, Minn., who scratched out a 2-1 win over Victory Honda from Plymouth, Mich. In the 18U AAA final, the Pittsburgh Penguins Elite blanked Culver (Ind.) Military Academy 3-0.

“The level of detail these kids play at is crazy,” said Gustafson. “They are big, strong and fast. The tournament as a whole goes to show what a great future USA Hockey has. There are so many great kids playing the game, and it’s very exciting to see.”

Gustafson estimated no fewer than 120 scouts, including 14 from the NHL, were in attendance over the course of the tournament.

“That kind of hits you over the head a bit, but as far as I was concerned, every major NCAA Division I program was represented here,” said Gustafson. “Recruiting these kids is competitive and it’s great to see the opportunity for these kids that are out there.”

Neither the 16U nor 18U Jr. Sharks made the playoffs. After a 7-0 loss to eventual runner-up Victory Honda, the 16U club bounced back with a 4-2 win over the North Jersey Avalanche before falling 5-0 to Team Wisconsin with a trip to playoffs on the line. The 18U Jr. Sharks played Shattuck-St. Mary’s tough in a 4-1 opening night loss before losing 6-0 to the eventual champions from Pittsburgh and falling 6-4 to the Chicago Fury on Saturday.

“For a lot of the teams that were here, their edict is to win championships,” said Gustafson. “Not that we don’t want to win championships, but we want to develop our kids first and foremost to have that love of the game and hopefully prepare them for their next steps. I’m proud of our kids, I’m proud of our club, and I’m proud of our volunteers who did such a good job showing people what we can do out west.”

Going forward, Gustafson says the success of this event will only help the image of an exploding hockey market in California, and helps to prove that events that in the past have been held in traditional hockey markets can work just as well in non-traditional markets.

“This event was very important, both for our organization and for the state as a whole,” said Gustafson. “The NHL has been wildly successful on the West Coast, hence the reason to bring five AHL teams this way. The number of USA Hockey registrants in California has the highest growth rate of any state in the country. With that said, it’s important we can show not only that our kids can compete, but that we get it. We understand the nuances of the game and we appreciate the game, whether it’s in Southern California or Northern California, this state is a hockey market now.”

Photo/Joe Naber

— John B. Spigott