The hockey season may be over for many, but one VJW team is just getting started and they have a lot to play for this time around.
More than four months after the VJW ’97 Elite team captured its third Massachusetts State Championship title, the players have come back together and have their sights set on a national title.
The talented squad has been practicing together for the past few weeks in preparation for the 2014 USA Hockey U16 Tier I National Championship, which is scheduled for April 2-6, 2014 in Green Bay, Wisconsin.
Click here to view the team’s schedule.
Playing With Emotion
This marks the third time that this Warrior squad has advanced to the USA Hockey National Championships, but this year they are playing for more than a title.
The players and coaches will be playing in honor of two great men – Paul Gilmartin and Billy McDonough – who passed away this past season and who made an indelible mark on the lives of these young boys.
Gilmartin was not only the president of the Valley Jr Warriors, but he was also the visionary behind the program which has grown to 17 youth and two junior-level teams. As one of the older youth teams, the ’97 Elites were especially close to Paul and felt the impact of his support throughout the years.
McDonough, whose grandson Ryan is a VJW ’97 team member, was also one of those individuals who went above and beyond to give back to this team and was considered a “grandfather” to many players.
“The kids are playing with a lot of emotion this time around,” said Steve MacAdams, head coach of the VJW ’97 Elites. “They not only want to win for themselves, but they want to win for Paul and Billy to show them how much they meant to them.”
They are also looking to show the hockey world that they can compete despite losing three of their top players heading into this season.
Noah Hanifin, Casey Fitzgerald and Colin White left the Warrior program this year in order to play for the U.S. National Under-17 Team. All three players have emerged as top prospects for the 2015 NHL Draft and many felt that the team they left behind would not be able to enjoy continued success.
“It makes it more exciting for them,” said MacAdams. “The focus was always on those three players for so many years, so all of the kids on this team are pulling together, putting team first and working for the same thing.”
The word “team” has indeed been synonymous with this group for years.
Nearly 70 percent of the players have been together since they were mites and have a comfort level with each other that many teams would envy.
“I have been with some of these kids since they were eight years old,” said MacAdams, who also serves as the VJW director of program development. “We got back on the ice last week. They are so comfortable playing with each other and our systems have not changed, so we were able to focus on just getting their legs and hands back and ready to go.”
Success has followed this team through the years as they advanced to the USA Hockey National Semifinals as U12s, the quarterfinals as U14s and will now look to improve on that finish as U16s.
“The kids have been there so they know what to expect,” said MacAdams. “We have played in so many tournaments that they should know how to handle the atmosphere.”
Making it even more of a challenge will be the fact that Warriors will face off against the host team – Team Wisconsin – in its second game of the tournament. Team Wisconsin is currently ranked sixth in the nation.
“It’s going to be tough,” said MacAdams, whose team opens up the national tournament against the Wilkes-Barre Knights on April 2. “But we are going to keep our focus on one game at a time and see what happens.”
2014 USA Hockey U16 Tier I National Championship
Wednesday, April 2 @ 4:00 p.m.
#21 VJW U16 vs. Wilkes-Barre Knights
Thursday, April 3 @ 12:00 p.m.
#21 VJW U16 vs. #6 Team Wisconsin
Friday, April 4 @ 6:00 p.m.
#21 VJW U16 vs. #3 Colorado Thunderbirds