Mixed results for California boys at Tier I nationals
California was well represented at this year’s USA Hockey 16U Tier I Youth Nationals, sending five teams to compete across three different age levels.
The Los Angeles Jr. Kings captured the Pacific District title and earned the right to represent the region in Anchorage, Alaska, from March 31–April 4, while two California teams participated in each of the 16U AAA and 18U AAA tournaments held in San Jose – the host San Jose Jr. Sharks joined the Jr. Kings in the 16U division, while the Anaheim Jr. Ducks and the host Jr. Sharks took the ice in 18U.
In Anchorage, the 14U Jr. Kings played an extremely tight round-robin with three low-scoring games. The Jr. Kings kicked off the tournament with a 2-1 shootout win over the fourth-ranked New Jersey Colonials before dropping a 2-0 decision to the eventual tournament runner-up Boston Jr. Eagles. With a trip to the playoffs on the line, the Jr. Kings fell 2-1 to the Buffalo Jr. Sabres in a shootout to end their season.
“We didn’t have a lot of offense going in those three games, but on the defensive side of the puck, we were really strong,” said Jr. Kings coach Shawn Pitcher. “But that’s the game, and that’s part of the whole learning process. This was a big stage for our kids, and I think confidence-wise, it’s huge because we were right with everyone there.
“As a 14-year-old, if you can compete like we were able to at that level, I have to think our guys were able to walk away from that tournament feeling good that they are able to go up against the top kids in the country.”
In San Jose, the 16U Jr. Kings also went 1-2 in pool play, narrowly missing out on the playoff round. After a 3-2 loss to Detroit Honeybaked in the opener, the Jr. Kings were downed by the Colorado Thunderbirds 4-1 before closing out the tournament with a 5-1 win over Team North Dakota.
“I thought our kids played outstanding,” said Jr. Kings coach Jack Bowkus. “I thought we played our best hockey of the season, and it just came down to a few bad bounces and a little bit of bad luck that kept us out of the playoffs. Obviously, it’s a little disappointing not being able to advance into the playoff round at nationals, but it was an awesome opportunity for our kids that I think is really going to stay with them for a long time, and it helps them understand the level of hockey that’s out there.”
As hosts of the 16U and 18U tournaments, the Jr. Sharks were able to field teams in both divisions and while neither team was able to crack the playoff round, Jon Gustafson, vice president of Sharks Sports and Entertainment and Sharks Ice, says both teams were on the cusp of breaking through. The 16U Jr. Sharks split their first two games, dropping the opener 7-0 to eventual tournament runner-up Victory Honda before bouncing back to double up the North Jersey Avalanche 4-2. With a chance to make the playoffs with a win, the Jr. Sharks fell 5-0 to Team Wisconsin.
“I thought both our teams played extremely well,” said Gustafson.
At 18U, both the Jr. Sharks and the Anaheim Jr. Ducks went winless in the tournament. The Jr. Sharks fell to Shattuck-St. Mary’s, to the eventual champion Pittsburgh Penguins Elite and to the Chicago Fury. The Jr. Ducks dropped three straight to the CCYH Selects, Buffalo and Tampa Scorpions.
“We were not out of place at all, and I’m really happy our kids were able to experience an event of this caliber,” said Gustafson. “At the national championship level, everything is kind of kicked up a notch, so for them to be able to be a part of that is something really special.”
— John B. Spigott