Hockey: Aspen Leafs U20 team opens second season in Monument
Does winning a championship in your first season of existence mean it was successful? It depends on who you ask.
Last winter, the Aspen Leafs Tier 3 junior hockey team won the inaugural Rocky Mountain Junior Hockey League championship, a 4-3 overtime win over the Pikes Peak Miners in a game played at the U.S. Air Force Academy.
More importantly, at least to coach Jay Miller, was the handful of players who were able to move on past the U20 level and continue to play hockey.
“Championships aren’t what we are here for. This level, it’s about developing players that can actually continue and have a hockey career,” Miller said. “We tend to think our success isn’t in the championships that we’ve had to this point, it’s just a byproduct of the way we do things. We hope that we win, but if we are the worst team in the league and we move on five or six to the next level and a bunch of kids get to play hockey for the rest of their lives because of us, we feel like we’ve done our job.”
The Leafs will begin their second season on the ice at 7 p.m. tonight, their title defense starting with a trip to Monument to play the Colorado Rampage.
“I just really like being part of the community. It was kind of a no-brainer for me to come back,” said Alaska native Tom Bowe, a forward who spent a few months playing for the Leafs last season. “This year is just going to be a growth year. Based off last year, it’s just going to be better.”
The Aspen Leafs will look nothing like last year’s squad. Miller decided to only bring a couple of guys back and went in a new direction to fill this year’s roster. Again, his angle was to build a team of players that could continue to play at the next level, and not necessarily one built to win another championship.
“We went with a little bit of a harder working team as opposed to a skill team. So we are just trying to put the pieces together,” Miller said. “The work ethic that we have this year is unbelievable. I’ve pushed these kids harder than I’ve pushed most kids, and no complaints. They go about their job. They are almost robotic in the way they go about their workouts. So I’m very happy with that.”
The players, however, still want to win when they step on the ice. They understand winning gets more attention, which brings in more scouts, which means more opportunities to get noticed. For many players, this will be their final year of junior hockey, and they hope to find a new home next year, either in a higher tier or collegiately.
“The more successful you are, the more it helps your case moving forward,” said first-year Leaf Mike Taormina, who played with a team in Alaska last season. “Just got to put up points every day and every game play my best for when the scouts come. Just keep grinding.”
Aspen’s season was originally scheduled to begin last weekend, but a last-second subtraction from the league got things off to a rocky start. The Rocky Mountain Junior Hockey League was to be a six-team league this year, but only a few days before the first game the plug was pulled on the Breckenridge team after it was unable to get organized in time for the season.
“We thought we had the right ownership group and they were saying all the right things, but the actions weren’t there,” said Shaun Hathaway, the executive director of Aspen Youth Hockey and current interim commissioner for the league. “We’ve got five really solid teams. It looks like there is going to be a ton of parity. We are going to know for sure after we play the Rampage where we stand.”
Hathaway stepped in as the interim commissioner after the league decided to mutually part ways with former commissioner Mike Gempeler following Breck’s exit.
With Breck out, the 2016-17 season will include five teams: Aspen, Colorado Rampage, Colorado Thunderbirds, Pikes Peak Miners and Steamboat Wranglers. Steamboat is the newest addition to the league.
Hathaway likes where the second-year league stands with its five current teams. The hope is to have the league up to eight teams by next season, one of those teams being the Grand Junction Glacier Yetis, who were forced to go dormant this season. With new ownership in place, Breckenridge is expected to be among the eight teams next season, with another Front Range team filling out the league.
Aspen will have its first home game at Lewis Ice Arena on Oct. 28, its fourth series of the season.
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