Lady Blue Devils make history, earn first tournament championship in program’s history
For most teams that win a weekend tournament, the traditional photo on the ice with the championship trophy and banner is one that will stand the test of time.
The Tri-Valley Lady Blue Devils, a program based out of Livermore and Dublin, will cherish their first picture more than most as their Anaheim Lady Ducks Fall Classic title in the 10U B division November proved to be the first championship in the program’s five-season history.
“I was thrilled for the kids,” said Lady Blue Devils hockey director Alex Kaplenko. “The pure joy and excitement on their faces reaffirmed years of hard work. This is the third year of asking our families to go on the road trip for Thanksgiving. For many families that are new to hockey, this is a big ask given how family-centric Thanksgiving is in nature. One of the rewards of the trip is the opportunity to spend Thanksgiving in Disneyland, which we have done each year. In prior years, we would struggle to be competitive in the games, but kept at it. To see the girls finally get a taste of success was incredibly rewarding.”
“This is an incredible day for the Lady Blue Devils program,” added Dave Curtis, the Tri-Valley Minor Hockey Association (TVMHA) president. “The dedication to building this program from the directors, coaches, players and parents over the past years is the reason for the success of this program.”
The Lady Blue Devils 10U team is comprised of Kayla Baumann-Norris, Cali Byrd, Adriana Fernandez, Alexandra Fernandez, Andrea Fernandez, Natalia Frost, Jazlynn Jefferson, Amber Kaplenko, Cora Kerton, Anna Markova, Sofia Tichauer, Madison Wingerd and Haley Woelkers. The coaching staff includes Alex Kaplenko, Matthew Jefferson, Reto Baumann, Derek Kerton and Nick Byrd and the team manager is Suzanne Wingerd.
The Lady Blue Devils is the girls program under the TVMHA that operates out of Dublin Iceland in Dublin and TriValley Ice in Livermore. For the 2017-18 season, the Lady Blue Devils field 8U, 10U, 12U and 14U/16U teams.
“About one third of our 10U team has been with the Lady Blue Devils program since Day 1 in the fall of 2013,” Kaplenko said. “A few more joined us that spring and the following year. This team also includes a few girls that have joined us each year of the program’s existence. We started the program with about 20 girls ages 5-17. My daughter, Amber, was the youngest, having just turned five and started on buckets the first practice. Luckily, her defense partner was a 17-year-old. It was a hilarious pairing. Most kids had very minimal to no hockey experience. I told the families that it would take about three years for the girls to develop basic hockey skills and about five years before they will become decent hockey players.
“People didn’t believe me. Well, as the years rolled over, I was getting more and more believers in the program.”
In Anaheim over the Turkey Day holiday, the Lady Blue Devils had to overcome obstacles to win the championship.
“We started the tournament playing below my expectations,” said Kaplenko. “I’m sure staying up at Disneyland or traveling cross-country the night before may have something to do with it, but regardless, we didn’t play at our potential in the first game against the San Diego Jr. Gulls. I didn’t give out a game puck to anybody that game as a motivator of two game pucks to be given later for those players that can step up. Going into our next game against the San Jose Jr. Sharks, my focus was to continuously reinforce that the girls had much more time and space to make quality hockey plays with the puck then they think in their head. I needed them to get away from ‘hot potato’ hockey to ‘puck control’ hockey.
“I have handful of phrases that I repeat throughout the season. This year, I have introduced a ‘control the puck, control the game’ concept. I guess that’s the Russian hockey in me. And they responded with a dominant puck control game. Having gained the confidence and ice vision to make plays, I wanted to carry that style of play into our next game against the Lady Ducks who would be quicker and stronger.”
After a 3-0 win over the Lady Ducks, the Lady Blue Devils had a date in the finals against the Jr. Gulls.
“I couldn’t have written a better script if I tried – a wakeup loss early on, a game to build confidence and practice puck control hockey and a close game to feed the competitive fuel tank to set up a rematch for the championship,” said Kaplenko. “The championship game was a thriller against the Jr. Gulls, who went undefeated in three round-robin games. Every mistake was huge, but the effort and hustle to support each other was impressive.”
The game went into overtime a scoreless tie and then to an exciting shootout. Jefferson scored the lone goal of the shootout to send the Lady Blue Devils into a frenzy.
Kaplenko explained how the American Development Model (ADM) plays a significant role in teaching and training the Lady Blue Devils.
“Since most of the girls in our program are new to hockey, ADM plays a huge role,” Kaplenko said. “My coaching philosophy for practices is focused on getting the players the maximum number of reps and maximum puck touches while utilizing the time and ice in the most efficient manner possible. Multiple stations with short lines are key. We try to practice at a high tempo in a competitive and fun atmosphere. Races and small-area games are great for that. I also challenge my players, both physically and mentally. Players are asked to get outside their comfort zone. Each year, I have made modifications to address these principles. My blood boils when I see a practice with nine people standing and one person doing something. I look back at my old practice plans and am so glad to have had great mentors to help me evolve my coaching style.
“I am a big proponent of USA Hockey’s push for the ADM model.”
So what does the future hold for the Lady Blue Devils?
“Our vision is to be able to provide a welcoming, educational and competitive environment for new and experienced female hockey players,” said Kaplenko. “At the moment, the Jr. Sharks and Lady Blue Devils are the only California all-girls hockey teams north of Los Angeles. It’s been a great deal of effort and struggle over the last five years to get where we are, but it’s been rewarding as well to fill a critical void.
“When given a choice, most girls prefer to play with other girls. However, many parents who lack hockey background or experience unfortunately miss the big picture and often actually hinder their child’s long-term hockey and personal development by placing them on higher-level or boys teams where they end up playing third line and miss on opportunities to get sufficient puck touches in a game, learn to make hockey plays and build patience and confidence while making lifelong connections. Our girls are getting all that and I feel will be better hockey players longer term. Ask me again in five more years.”
— Matt Mackinder
(Jan. 29, 2018)