Aspen girls youth hockey team in Michigan for national tournament
It took the Aspen Leafs girls’ Tier II 14U AA hockey team to finally do something no other Aspen Junior Hockey team is believed to have done since its founding in 1972 — make a national tournament.
“They were super excited when we were in Arizona and we won regionals,” said Keith Howie, the team’s coach. “I think this is the first time in my 25 years that Aspen Junior Hockey has gone to nationals. We are really excited to go and represent Aspen.”
In only its third season, the Leafs 14U team will represent the Rocky Mountain District this week at the 2017 USA Hockey National Championships in Troy, Michigan. The Leafs won their district tournament late last month in Gilbert, Arizona, and will make AJH history before even stepping on the ice in Michigan.
“The girls went out and performed like champions,” AJH Executive Director Shaun Hathaway said of the district victory. “We don’t play in leagues that have national-bound tournaments. So this is the first Tier II program that we’ve been able to establish in Aspen.”
Most AJH teams don’t go past a state, or at best regional, level, meaning even having the opportunity to qualify for a national tournament is a rarity. But three years ago Hathaway and a few other influential names in Colorado youth hockey created this four-team AA league, which includes Aspen, the Colorado Select, the Rocky Mountain Lady Roughriders and a team from Colorado Springs.
Each season, the top two teams in the league advance to the district tournament, where the winner becomes one of 12 teams to make the national tournament. This season, the Leafs made the district tournament for the first time and pulled a stunning upset in Arizona to make the national tournament.
The Leafs defeated a team from Dallas and a team from Phoenix before facing off against the Roughriders in the district title game. Aspen had only defeated the Roughriders once in four tries during the regular season, but pulled out a 5-2 victory in the title game to advance to this week’s national tournament.
“The girls just kept playing better and better and better,” Howie said. “Hopefully we’ll make it to the eight-team tournament and see where it goes from there.”
The Leafs will play a single game Thursday, Friday and Saturday. The goal is to be one of the top four teams in each of the two six-team pods to advance to the eight-team elimination tournament.
While the team is predominantly comprised of Aspen kids, it does include players from Steamboat Springs, Vail and Summit County.
“Even though we are under the banner of Aspen Junior Hockey, it’s really kind of a mountain community team,” Howie said. “It’s been a great experience for the girls because they get to meet girls from other towns who usually they are playing against. It’s been really nice. The girls from all the other communities have been amazing. Everyone likes hanging out and they’ve really become a strong team.”
The hope going forward is to have more AJH teams play at levels where making a national tournament is possible. This week in Denver, Hathaway met with other youth hockey leaders to discuss the future of girls’ hockey in Colorado. Among the takeaways is the addition of a fifth team, the Littleton Hawks, to the current 14U AA league. Members of the league will continue to come together to create one AAA team as well.
Also, according to Hathaway negotiations are “extremely favorable” that a AA league will be created at the 19U level, giving the older players a chance to compete on the big stage as well.
“If negotiations and visions for a six-team 19U league materializes in conjunction with the five-team 14U AA league, the Colorado Avalanche has committed to support both tournament teams, including Avalanche branding,” Hathaway said. “That way Aspen would continue to have opportunities and keep our girls in Aspen instead of again having to leave.”
More information on the national tournament, including scores, can be found at nationals.usahockey.com. The Aspen 14U Tier II team is co-coached by Coley Cassidy and managed by Silke Spang.
The team also is asking for donations to help offset the cost of the trip. Go to https://www.gofundme.com/aspen-u14aa-usa-hockey-nationals to make a contribution.