Not since 2004 has a Kenai Peninsula Hockey Association made the trip to the national tournament. The last to do so were the Under-16 Ice Hawks nine years ago. This year, the Midget AA team broke the dry spell.
It’s been a long nine years, but the drought is over. The U-16 Ice Hawks are back on the national scene, after the squad took second place at the state tournament two weeks ago, which places them among 40 teams in the 2013 Tier II National Championships beginning Wednesday in Troy, Mich.
“It’s a chance of a lifetime,” said head coach Vaughn Dosko. “These kids fought their way to the championship game, which was an epic battle.”
The Ice Hawks won three games to reach the championship game at the state tournament two weeks ago in Kenai, only to fall short in a 1-0 contest against the Anchorage North Stars.
“Basically our championship game came down to 13.5 seconds,” Dosko said. “We’ll remember that forever.”
The team will be starting fresh on Wednesday at 9 a.m. (EDT) when they open tournament play against the Howard Huskies from Maryland. The round-robin format means the Ice Hawks will also be facing teams from Huntsville (Ala.) and Utah.
One of the biggest challenges for the Ice Hawks, said assistant coach Michael Tilly, will be adjusting to playing a hockey game early in the morning. When the puck hits the ice on Wednesday, it will be 5 a.m. in Alaska.
“It’ll be tough, but these kids can do it,” Tilly said. “We just need to make sure we’re rested, we’re energized, we’re staying loose the night before, and if we do that, we’ll be good.”
The team is comprised of a combination of high school players from Kenai Central, Soldotna and Homer, which play each other during the winter high school season.
Dosko said the team had the opportunity to play in several tournaments during the high school winter break, which gave the Ice Hawks time to familiarize themselves as players on the same team, instead of battling each other on the high school level. Beginning with tryouts in August, the possibility of qualifying for nationals motivated the team.
“I never start the season without thinking that,” Dosko said. “We have two guarantees. Have fun and be better hockey players.”
A trip to the national championships isn’t cheap for a hockey team, and so Tilly said the team is hosting a steak dinner today at the Soldotna Sports Center from 6 to 8 p.m., where there will be a live and silent auction. Tickets to the steak feed can be bought for $20 each at the Lucky Puck in Kenai, KSRM’s website or the Soldotna Chamber of Commerce.
Tilly said the team budget is more than of $25,000, and said he hopes Fridays event can go a long way in helping the squad reach its goal.
For those interested, the games will be streamed live online at fasthockey.com.
The 16 players making the trip include Jake Eubank, Trevor Wagoner, Nathan Zorbas, Tommy Bowe, Michael Tilly, Dalton Dosko, Cody Arbelovsky, Craig Lott, Clayton Longfellow, Conner Johnson, Preston Weeks, Kenny Flanders, Riley Weber, Justice Miller, Nate O’Lena and Bradley Kishbaugh.