Ice Miners 14U team sticks together for trip to national championship
At the beginning of the Park City Ice Miners 14U season, some of the players faced a major decision: whether to stay and play as a group that had been together for several years, or to move up to the West Coast Renegades AAA team in Salt Lake, and play at a higher level.
Colin Van Valkenburgh, Tyler Fisher, Wes Griffen, Hanna Wiczek and Sebastian Cigarran all were offered spots on the West Coast Renegades.
But they decided to stick it out with the Ice Miners and try once more for a national championship win in USA Hockey’s tier II, 1A tournament.
“They wanted to be the top dogs and they wanted to go to state and see what they could do at nationals, and they accomplished both goals,” said Tom Gatta, the Ice Miners’ 14U head coach.
The gamble looked ill-advised at first, as the team went 2-12 in the season’s opening weeks.
“Kids didn’t even know each others’ names until three weeks into the season, so it was really tough to get them on the same page,” Gatta said. “Then, halfway through the season, the switch flipped.”
They went to three tournaments before winning the Big Bear Tournament in Nashville, Tennessee, which gave the Ice Miners momentum going into the Las Vegas Regional, a qualifier for the national Silver Stick tournament. The Ice Miners went 3-1 and finished fourth of 14 — just outside of qualifying.
After a handful of smaller tournaments, the team took on West Jordan’s Utah Grizzlies for the Tier II 14U state championship.
“It was a best-of-three series,” Gatta recalled. “We won the first game with 30 seconds left in the game, then in the second game we lost in the eight-man shootout, then won the final state game 5-2.”
That propelled the Ice Miners into the 14U Tier II junior nationals, in Amherst, New York, on April 5 — the tournament they had been playing for all season.
The Ice Miners started the tournament with a tough loss to the Atlanta Fire Elite, 5-1, who went on to win the tournament.
“It was a tight game,” Van Valkenburgh said. “It was 2-1 going into the third then we just collapsed. So our mindset after that was, ‘We just have to win our next two games.’”
The next day, the Ice Miners surprised everyone when they dominated the Las Vegas Junior Golden Knights 5-0, against whom the Ice Miners had lost five times that season. Then the team followed that with another improbable win, defeating the Wyoming Wolverines 4-3 after going 1 for 2 games against the Wolverines earlier in the season.
“The last time played them was in Wyoming and we lost 9-2,” Gatta said. “It was definitely a change to have us win; we weren’t projected to win any of those games.”
Van Valkenburgh said winning the games at nationals were proof to the team that it could compete at a high level. However the next day, the team’s hot streak turned cold, and it lost badly to the Idaho Jr. Steelheads, out of Boise, 10-0.
“It was just kind of a run-over by them,” Van Valkenburgh said. “We just weren’t ready for them, we weren’t mentally prepared; didn’t come out like our first two games. After their first three goals we just collapsed, started committing penalties and couldn’t come back from it.”
The Jr. Steelheads scored four goals in the first period, which was compounded by the Ice Miners’ penalties.
“It was just one of those fluke games that we just didn’t show up for and couldn’t get anything going,” Gatta said.
But Gatta said it was farther than the team had ever made it before, and added that the team took solace in the fact that the Jr. Steelheads and the Atlanta Fire Elite went on to take second and first respectively in the tournament. And Gatta said by making a deep run into the tournament, the team achieved the goals it set out to reach when they decided to stay in Tier II.
“It’s a great feeling to be able to say we got third in a national championship tournament,” Van Valkenburgh said. “It’s just so fun to come out and play and compete with great teams, and show ourselves that Utah isn’t that bad; we have some good hockey here.”
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