The Aspen Junior Hockey players said they were treated like royalty at the 2017 USA Hockey National Championships, and that's part of the reason they are excited to go back. But this year, they also hope to get a little more done on the ice.
"We didn't make it to the elimination tournament, but the girls got a good taste of what we need to do to play at that level," Aspen coach Keith Howie said of last year's national tournament. "This year we are going back again and will have a better understanding of what is going on and obviously hope to do better and we'll see how far we go."
The Aspen Leafs girls' 16U AA hockey team will compete April 5-9 in Marlborough, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston, in the 2018 national championships after recently winning the Rocky Mountain District title. More than half the players also played for the 14U AA that team made nationals last season. That team was believed to have been the first Aspen youth hockey team to make a national tournament since AJH was founded in 1972.
With many of those girls having aged up to the 16U team, they'll get to carry that national experience into next week's tournament. Last year in Troy, Michigan, Aspen's 14U team struggled against the elite competition in large part because of their lack of experience. They hope the script will be flipped next week.
"It's a great opportunity and it's really cool to play against better teams, because we don't get that much competition here," said 16U player Charlotte Howie. "So it's really fun to go to nationals. This is the second time an Aspen team has gone after last year."
Keith Howie coached last year's 14U team to nationals and is coaching the 16U team this year. His daughter, Charlotte, played on last year's 14U team before moving to the 16U team this year alongside her father.
While based out of Aspen, the 16U team includes many players from around the Western Slope. With athletes living so far from each other, the team rarely practices and often must learn on the fly during games.
"It's actually surprising how well we work together," said Aspen 16U player Gabby DeMorat, who lives in Steamboat Springs. "It's actually really fun. It is different from Steamboat, but it helped me so much with hockey and improving my skills."
Aspen's 16U team punched its ticket to the national tournament two weekends ago when it swept the Dallas Stars Elite team in a best-of-three championship series in Dallas.
Casey Chesner had both goals for Aspen in its triple overtime win in Game 1. The second game went to double overtime, Aspen prevailing 3-2.
Next week's national tournament, which will be played at the New England Sports Center, includes the 16 best Tier II teams in the country. The teams are broken into four, four-team groups where they will play a round robin. The top eight teams after the round robin advance to the elimination tournament.
Aspen's group includes the Livonia Knights, East Coast Wizards and Highland Park Falcons.
"It's a more favorable draw this year and hopefully we make it into the elimination tournament and anything can happen from there," Keith Howie said. "We really strive to play as a team and the chemistry is there and that's why we are doing so well."
AN IMPRESSIVE HAUL
Overall, Aspen Junior Hockey brought in its fair share of hardware from the 2017-18 season.
The same weekend in which the girls 16U team won its district championship, AJH had two other teams win state championships at the Pepsi Center in Denver. The boys 10U Squirt A team defeated Littleton 2-1 to win the first Squirt A state championship in AJH history. Jack Freitas scored the game-winner for Aspen.
AJH executive director Shaun Hathaway said they taught the team a new defensive zone system only days before the tournament, hoping it would stay in their young minds long enough to be useful when it mattered the most.
"That's the first time we've taught them a defensive zone system all season, and part of it is their age. All season we've been focused on teaching skills," Hathaway said. "The timing was perfect and it was fun to see it all come together at the end. You look at the tape and postitionally they were really amazing to watch. It was pretty impressive."
Also winning a state championship was the boys 14U Bantam A team, which also defeated Littleton in the final. Aspen won the game 4-3 in large part because of goalie Zach Small.
"We played smart and got a couple of power play goals and Zach Small stood up when needed, because they had a couple of kids that could put the puck in the back of the net," Hathaway said. "That was awesome to watch. Our kids came together as a team and got it done."
Included in AJH's championship haul for the season is the 19U girls team winning the Mountain States Girls Hockey League championship in late February. It was the first MSGHL championship for the 19U team since the 2013-14 season.