The 2023 Chipotle-USA Hockey Youth Tier II 18U 3A National Championship was a roller coaster ride for the West Dundee Leafs, going from extreme to extreme, with tears of joy and tears of sadness.
The emotional high of simply skating in the annual tournament, held March 30 – April 3 in Maple Grove, Minnesota, was immediately silenced in the Leafs’ first game as they were crushed 7-1 by the Rochester (N.Y.) Grizzlies.
The Grizzlies stormed out to a 4-0 lead after the first period, pushed it to 5-0 after two, and despite a Leafs’ third-period goal by Frank Cardinale (assisted by Mitchell Berens and Jacob Laube), it was too little, too late.
The Leafs had a closed-door meeting after the loss and head coach Jeremy Szczurek reminded his team that it had been in similar scenarios throughout the season. “We struggled in the first games of tournaments all season,” he said. “We talked that we had to simply take it game by game, and our team leaders did a very good job of trying to calm down everyone, stressing the importance of playing our game.”
It worked, as the Leafs rebounded with wins in their next four games, including a 2-1 quarterfinal win over the Chicago Hawks and a 5-2 semifinal win over the Philadelphia Blazers.
And guess who they faced in the finals?
Those same Grizzlies.
“We changed some things (in the finals), battled throughout,” Szczurek said. “Some things didn’t go our way in the first period; we had a goal called back. But we stuck with it. We pushed the pace in the third and had a chance to win; we just didn’t get some of the bounces. I think that game showed the resolve of this team to regroup after losing to (the Grizzlies) 7-1 and coming back days later to nearly win the national championship.”
Laube led the Leafs in the tournament, scoring 6 goals and 5 assists in 6 games. His 11 points were two more than Berens (3 goals, 6 assists).
The Leafs finished 47-14-5.
The Grizzlies ended 40-0-4 and only surrendered 64 goals all season.
Leafs’ goalie Dylan Posch gave up 16 goals in 6 games for a 2.67 goals-against average.
“Last year’s team had a lot of expectations because of the way they finished. So, there were a lot of (high) expectations coming into this season,” Szczurek said. “We had some hiccups at the beginning of the season, but the team changed its mindset on how they wanted to go about the rest of the season, with more of a team approach. They quickly realized that having egos was not going to make us successful. So, they put away their egos, and that changed the trajectory of our season.
“Ultimately, it was an up and down season. We finished first in Central States, but finished second in the state tournament, losing 2-1 to the Hawks in the championship game as the Hawks scored the game-winner with about 3:00 remaining on a powerplay. It was a fantastic game and I felt both teams were very deserving of reaching the national level.”
The Hawks got the automatic invite; the Leafs had to apply for nationals.
“Coming one goal short of winning the national championship … that proved to the team that, yes, they belonged there,” said Szczurek, 27, in his fourth overall season coaching, his second at the 18U level.
The Chicago Mission also advanced to the finals of the 2023 Chipotle-USA Hockey Youth Tier I 14U National Championship, with the Buffalo Saints on the other bench.
After a scoreless first period, both teams scored in the second, with Lukas Zajic scoring unassisted for the Mission’s lone goal of the finals.
Rudolfs Berzkalns scored the game-winner past Mission goalie Jake Windbiel.
Szczurek said AHAI representatives at nationals certainly showed that, “you’d have to put the state of Illinois in the top echelon of hockey in the entire country.” He added: “There are a lot of good hockey players, at a lot of levels. There are some very talented players in Illinois, and that really showed in the nationals.”