When a team reaches the Pacific District Tournament in March, all the practice, skill development and season-long sacrifices of time and resources come down to one thing – winning.
The Anaheim Jr. Ducks’ 15U AAA squad bore that out on March 5-8 in Tacoma, Wash., winning all four of their games to capture a District title and clinch a berth in the USA Hockey Youth Nationals in April at Plymouth, Mich. The Nationals berth is the club’s 11thTier I berth since 2015.
To get to Nationals, the Jr. Ducks had to defeat a trio of teams to the north, including the San Jose Jr. Sharks – their victim in last month’s CAHA State title game – twice in a row. The latter of those two games was a 5-2 victory for the district championship.
“The night before the game we tried to express the importance of one game to the players,” coach David Walker said. “There are all these stepping stones, CAHA, Districts, that get you to Nationals.”
The message was intended to touch on several sensibilities for the 2004 team, which became the club’s first 15U team to reach Tier I Nationals.
“Nationals are for, as much as anything, exposure for these players,” Walker added. “There are only 16 teams left. The players are opening themselves up for exposure and what comes with that down the line.
“It’s important for the individuals, for the team and for the Jr. Ducks that they find that killer instinct for that one game. We reminded them of the long road from when practice started in August until now – all the trips, the showcases, the financial support and commitment from their parents.”
Five players scored goals in the final. Tallies by Ben Ivey, Tianshu Liu and Riku Takishima staked the Jr. Ducks to a 3-1 first-period lead. Ivey scored again early in the second and Tomer Ramot struck midway through the third. Alex Koenig made 25 saves.
“The championship game was easy to watch, knowing they would not be denied,” Walker said.
Ten of the players went to Nationals last season as Bantams, and Walker said their experience was vital to this year’s team.
“We talked about our experiences at Districts and Nationals last year,” the coach said. “We relied on the returning players to help the newer players with what to expect and how to pay attention to details.
“We want everyone accountable, and our returning players helped their teammates.”
The path to the championship game wasn’t lined with roses, however.
The Jr. Ducks outshot Team Alaska 48-22 in the opening game but emerged with a tight 4-2 win on the strength of third-period goals by Luke Baker and Liu. Baker and Ramot scored late in the first period to help the Jr. Ducks overcome an early 1-0 deficit.
“The ice was slanted in that game,” Walker said. “But their best player was their goalie. He stood on his head.”
Game 2 against the Everett Jr. Silvertips was a different type of challenge, but the Jr. Ducks emerged with a 2-1 win. Kyle Isenberg and Baker had goals and Koenig made 18 saves.
“We didn’t play well, and the way we played kept the game close,” Walker said. “There was no telling what was going to happen at the end.
“The positive thing was that although we didn’t play our best in the first two games, the kids figured out a way to win. I could tell we didn’t have the connection the team usually has, but they didn’t waver in their work ethic.”
The third round-robin game against the Jr. Sharks was the first CAHA title game rematch, and the Jr. Ducks demonstrated they’d learned their lessons from the first two games with a 6-3 win.
Makar Klochkov, Ivey, Merril Steenari, Ramot, Quinton McElligott and Jason Stefanek scored goals, and Aidan Comeau made 11 saves.
That set up a rematch for a Nationals berth at the building where the U.S. National Team Development Program is based. As Walker said, there will be plenty of interested parties watching what the Jr. Ducks can do next.
Two other teams in the club – the Lady Ducks 19U AAA and Women’s C team – also have qualified for Nationals.
Tier II teams at the 18U, 16U and 14U levels will strive to join the 18U AA1 team, which is hosting the 18U Tier II Nationals at Great Park Ice and Five Points Arena in April, on the big stage.