Locals reflect on time with Leafs hockey team ahead of playoffs
The Aspen Leafs will host the Steamboat Wranglers Friday at 7 p.m. inside the Aspen Ice Garden
Garret McNichol was ready to let his dream go.
The 2015 Aspen High School graduate loved hockey, but he saw no avenue to continue playing into his college years. He was going to take a gap year and figure out what he wanted to do next.
Then, the Rocky Mountain Junior Hockey League was formed, and an opportunity came his way to play for the Aspen Leafs Tier III U20 junior hockey team.
“It’s amazing this team and league came around when it did. Just great timing for me,” McNichol said. “It gave me so many opportunities in terms of hockey that would have never been available to me. Being in my hometown, too, is amazing. I was not planning to do hockey at all after high school.”
McNichol, 19, is in his second and final season with the Leafs. He plans to play club hockey at Montana State University next year.
He is one of two Aspen locals playing for the Leafs this season, the other being current AHS senior Charlie Van Allen. Van Allen, 18, was playing hockey with the Skiers when Leafs coach Jay Miller talked him into playing a little with the Leafs.
This opportunity led to Van Allen leaving the high school team his junior season and playing full time with the Leafs.
“It was a really tough decision for me to leave all the guys I’ve been playing with for the last 12 years. That’s still to this day one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made,” Van Allen said. “I went to a camp, kind of a showcase thing, and he met me there and gave me the opportunity to start the season.”
Both McNichol and Van Allen — who hopes to play college hockey next year as well and is waiting to hear back from schools — helped guide the Leafs to the RMJHL title in its inaugural year last season. Van Allen scored the game-winning overtime goal to beat the Pikes Peak Miners in the championship game.
The Leafs are back in the four-team playoffs this season, where they’ll host the first-year Steamboat Wranglers in a best-of-three series beginning 7 p.m. Friday at the Aspen Ice Garden.
Aspen and Steamboat finished tied for second in the five-team league, the Leafs earning the home-ice advantage in the playoffs because of a tiebreaker. Pikes Peak, the regular-season champion for the second consecutive year, is hosting the Colorado Rampage in the other semifinal.
“Coming into the playoffs, my play has been heating up a lot,” said Van Allen, who is tied for third on the team with 16 goals this season. “We’ve had this rivalry brewing with Steamboat, mainly just because of the mountain towns. And it’s really nice. It’s great to play a team where it’s so competitive.”
Aspen enters Friday’s playoff game winners of 11 straight games, which includes a two-game sweep of Pikes Peak earlier this month. The last time the Leafs lost was Jan. 28, a 6-5 defeat to Steamboat.
Steamboat and Aspen split their regular-season series with fives wins each.
Game two of the three-game series will start at 7 p.m. Saturday, again at the Aspen Ice Garden. Game three, if necessary, is scheduled for 1 p.m. Sunday at the Ice Garden, located at 233 W. Hyman Ave.
General admission tickets are $5.
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