Spotlight on VJW '96 Elites

Two years ago, the Valley Jr Warriors ’96 Elite team had the honor of traveling to Lake Placid to play on the same ice where the Miracle on Ice story came alive more than 28 years ago.

The players marveled at the memories of that historic gold-medal performance by the team from the United States during the 1980 Winter Olympic Games. Yet while they laced up their skates in the same locker room where Mike Eruzione, Jim Craig and Herb Brooks once stood, they could think of only one hero… their coach Bob Sweeney.

Sweeney, a former NHL standout who took the Boston Bruins to two Stanley Cup finals during his 15-year professional career, has been at the helm of this VJW team for several years now. After stepping out of the locker room that day in Lake Placid, his young players came together and wrote him a personal note on the white board which read “We have the best coach ever!” 

The team went on to capture the title in Lake Placid, but there is no question that the words scrolled by his group of 10 year olds meant more than any trophy or plaque. The team chemistry is what sets this special team apart from many others.

“Bob Sweeney has made incredible strides with this team over the years,” said Fred Devereaux, the VJW director of player development. “He stresses teamwork which is what we like to see from our entire coaching staff. The ability to work together is a true sign of development both individually and as a group.”

While players have come and gone, the team has maintained a strong sense of chemistry as their individual skills and performance in very challenging youth hockey leagues have improved each year. This year’s squad welcomed seven new players, including a new goalie, so chemistry and bonding is of prime importance.

“We had seven new kids this year and that is tough because we are changing up nearly half the team,” said Sweeney who receives assistant coaching help from another former Boston Bruins star, Bob Carpenter. “We worried about them all getting along, but they seem to like each other and the chemistry between them is good despite their young age.”

To help the team along, Sweeney – who when not on the ice with his VJW team serves as the director of development for the Boston Bruins Foundation – arranged for the players to practice at the TD Banknorth Garden last week. The experience was a thrill for the players, but it also allowed them to better develop friendships that will no doubt last well beyond the days when they hang up their skates. It is yet another way that Sweeney goes out of his way to create lasting memories for his players.

The team camaraderie that this team has enjoyed will be much needed this season as they embark on a challenging league and tournament schedule. Back in August, the team competed at the 2008 Warrior National Showcase, which was held at the Haverhill and Lawrence Valley Forums. The event drew some of the strongest squads from the Northeast and beyond.

The team was rolling along until it met stiff competition in the form of the Providence Capitals, an EHF powerhouse, in the semifinals. The team then went on to lose its first league game by a 3-2 margin against the NS Wings. It was a tough pill to swallow for a Warriors team with high expectations.

“We started off the year by playing quality teams like the NJ Avalanche and the Providence Capitals and that helped us right out of the gates,” said Sweeney. “At the same time, we weren’t ready for our first league game and it just shows that any team can beat anyone on a given day. The kids got mad and realized that they have to prepare for every game and give it their all.”

Since that time, the Warriors have posted a 6-0 record in Mass Select League play. Displaying impressive offensive firepower, the team – over the past two weekends – has scored 30 goals and let in only one!

“They seem very focused now,” explains Sweeney. “The kids are starting to move the puck around the ice more and that is nice for the coaches to see. That is what we strive for … to see them play unselfishly.”

The Warriors will look to use that momentum in an aggressive fall tournament schedule. During the Columbus Day holiday, the team will travel to Rochester, New York to take part in an elite invitational that includes nearly all of the top ’96 teams from the United States and Canada. The Warriors will compete in the same division as the St. Louis Blues, the top-ranked team in the nation!

Three weeks later, the team will fly to Chicago to compete in the always exciting 2008 Nike Bauer Invitational Invite, which features the best 56 teams in that age division.

“Our teams challenge themselves through league and tournament play,” explains Devereaux. “I am excited to see how the ’96 Elites do this fall because they are a very talented team.”

No matter what the challenge may be that lies ahead, be assured that this young team and its influential head coach – will stick together through it all.

And in what is a national-bound year for the squad, perhaps the ’96 Elites will create their own “Miracle on Ice” this season.

The VJW ’96 Elites team features the following players: Paul Antkowiak, Kyle Brindamour, Robert Carpenter, Anthony Cieri, Beau Collins, James Currier, Justin Daly, Joseph Dudek, Anthony Foderaro, Brendan Leach, Evan Leclerc, Alex Lester, Johnny Nossiff, Nolan Redler, Michael Seibold, Tabor Smith, Colin Soucy, Patrick Sweeney, John Tucker and Sean Verrier.
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