Return to league play in Gunnison this Saturday
by Than Acuff
The WEHA Wolverines boys’ hockey team took a trip into the unchartered waters of Major AA hockey at a tournament in Colorado Springs last weekend and found themselves drowning in the deep end.
Wolverines head coach Joey Otsuka knew it would be an eye-opener for his players, stating prior to the tournament, “It’s going to be some of the best hockey any kid from Gunnison County will see,” and he also knew it would take a Herculean effort from his goalies and players to even compete.
In the end, the Wolverines suffered at the hands of two opponents while matching up fairly well against two others, yet still came out of the tournament winless.
The Wolverines opened the Colorado Springs Amateur Hockey Presidents’ Day Tournament on Friday against the Tacoma Rockets, a Midget AA team out of Washington State.
The Rockets built a 2-0 lead in the first period and added a third goal in the second period before the Wolverines struck as Walker Carroll scored off an assist from Ethan Shaw. Down 3-1 heading into the third period, the Wolverines never could climb out of the hole and the game went from bad to worse as Tacoma rattled off five more goals before Sam Stepanek netted a second goal for the Wolverines as they fell 8-2. Adding insult to injury, the Wolverines ended up losing Jordi Nichols to a season-ending injury during the game.
“We never really showed up,” said Otsuka. “We could never really get comfortable with the puck and our defense made a lot of big mistakes.”
The Wolverines shook off the beat down to return to the ice later on Friday to face the Santa Clara Blackhawks. This game would prove to be far more competitive for the Wolverines but they struggled to find any rhythm battling through three periods before eventually losing 1-0.
“That was a game that definitely got away from us,” said Otsuka. “We just couldn’t get anything going. We hit the post three times and it was like that nightmare when you show up to school and you’re not wearing any clothes. There was nothing that any practicing could do to fix what was going on out there. We could have had Wayne Gretzky and still not have scored a goal.”
The Wolverines had a night to rest and, hopefully recover, before they returned to the ice on Saturday to face the North Delta Sun devils out of Vancouver, British Columbia. While Otsuka felt the Sun Devils may have been a notch better than Santa Clara, the Wolverines could have competed better but never pulled it together, losing 3-1. Gus Hensley scored for the Wolverines off an assist from Stepanek.
“Morale wasn’t the greatest from a team aspect and we were wearing it,” explained Otsuka. “We played a pretty decent game but weren’t in a good mind set and just stumbled through that game.”
After dropping three straight games and morale dwindling, the Wolverines had to suit up once more to face Littleton, a six-time state champion who had been running roughshod through everyone in the tournament.
“They’re, no doubt, the third best team in the state of Colorado right now,” said Otsuka. “It was a gut check game, a character game.”
Despite suffering a 15-0 loss to Littleton, Otsuka did appreciate the fact that they took to the ice and remained composed through all three periods.
“We didn’t freak out on each other,” said Otsuka. “We were able, at times, to withstand them, but when they decided to pick it up a level, that’s when they scored. I’ve been waiting for this game for a year and a half because we haven’t seen a team of that caliber ever. It was a real eye-opening game for every single player on the team.”
While the Wolverines did suffer four tough losses in a row, Otsuka still believes the weekend was what the team needed as they prepare for the final week of the regular season and the post season. He even saw the benefits in their first practice following the tournament.
“Going into the playoffs, you need a little gut check,” said Otsuka. “We just had our first practice and it went great.”
The Wolverines return to league play this Saturday, February 20 when they host Foothills for two games in Gunnison at 12:15 and 6:15 p.m.
“Our focus right now is going to be speed, making smart decisions and making sure we’re doing our job to support each other and doing our job away from the puck,” said Otsuka.