Amateur NightPosted on December 15, 2012
I’ve been down this lockout route before. At this time eight years ago, I was readying myself to spend a week in Grand Forks, N.D. – beginning on New Year’s Eve – for the 2005 World Junior Championship. Although I spent most of my time that “season” following and covering the AHL Portland Pirates, I also spent some time with the Navy hockey team and covered both the Maryland and Virginia state high school hockey championships.
My best memories of that time include the 2005 WJC tournament, spending time with the Navy team that was awaiting the construction of its new rink and hopeful of attaining NCAA Division I status, and the high school games. It’s not surprising; covering those teams and those stories all involved hockey at its purest level, untainted by salaries, contracts and lockouts.
During a normal hockey season, I spend a lot of time with James Heuser, John Walton, Ben Guerrero and Sergey Kocharov. They’re the guys who comprise part of our traveling road show. We spend a lot of time together both at and away from the practice rinks and the huge hockey arenas of North America.
We haven’t spent nearly enough time together this season, but Friday night afforded us a unique opportunity to travel together and work together in a hockey rink.
Watching and reporting on a hockey game.
Sergey wasn’t there; he was actually playing in a hockey game instead. Good for him. The rest of us drove out to Ashburn together. Upon arrival, we dined and commiserated and broke bread and solved the problems of the world together, just as we do dozens of times every fall and winter.
Then we went to the rink. We found and spoke with some of the coaches. We watched the crowd assemble and we watched warm-ups, observing players we’ve never seen before. We stood for the anthem and awaited puck drop.
And then it was on. It wasn’t Caps-Penguins, but Friday night’s Stone Bridge vs. Loudoun County NVSHL game in Ashburn was a tonic for us on so many levels. Most of us discovered our love for the game of hockey as kids, and it was great to watch a bunch of kids playing a game that they love as well as we do.
The crowd was large and enthusiastic. It had that Friday night feel of a big event.
Going in, we knew the likelihood of seeing a close game was relatively slim. Stone Bridge entered the game with a 4-0 record and a staggering 39-1 goal differential. It had defeated three of its foes by the 10-0 mercy rule score, and the other via a 9-1 route. Loudoun had one win to its credit – a 10-0 mercy win – and it had another victory rescinded by the league and turned into a forfeit loss. Loudoun was also required by the league to forfeit five of its players for the season at that point (I don’t know the details; it was an NVSHL ruling), which left them with a decidedly shorter bench than Stone Bridge on Friday night.
From the outset, Stone Bridge was dominant and relentless. Seemingly in packs, the Bulldogs quickly closed on puck carriers in their own end and on the backcheck, their team speed enabling them to close large gaps in short spans of time. Time and space were at a premium for Loudoun County all night long. The underdog Raiders hung on gamely, and they exhibited heart from to opening face-off to the final horn. But they didn’t have the speed, the skill or the depth to hang with the Bulldogs for long.
Loudoun County did have a wild card in its goaltender, Ben Zienty.
Zienty grew up playing hockey in the Chicago suburbs until his dad got a job in the D.C. area last spring. That’s how Zienty, a junior, fell into the Loudoun County laps this season. The kid was under siege early and often. He faced 20 shots in the first period, and stopped them all. He saw 34 shots in the second and 24 more in the third for a total of 78 on the night.
Loudoun County had a couple of early power plays when the game was scoreless. That was its best chance to maybe put a little pressure on the Stone Bridge team, get a lead and let Zienty frustrate them. It wasn’t to be.
Stone Bridge broke Zienty’s spell on a power play of its own in the first minute of the second period. It scored four in the second and four in the third en route to an 8-0 victory that would have ended much sooner and in mercy rule fashion had it not been for Zienty’s exploits.
Captain Trevor Mack led Stone Bridge’s attack, notching a hat trick and displaying work ethic and leadership throughout the game. Chris Berry and Cade Groton also stood out; that trio has speed to burn. When that line and defensemen Patrick O’Conner and Eric Rindfleisch on the ice, it was a veritable all-star team. The puck rarely left the Loudoun County end of the ice and Stone Bridge goalie Colin McNelis had a calm night in the nets, facing 10 shots in 45 minutes to earn his second shutout of the season.
Defensemen Jack Klerekoper and Danielle Greco were among the standouts for Loudoun County, aiding their netminder and keeping their teammates’ spirits up in the face of rising adversity.
Before departing for Ashburn, I witnessed an afternoon game between Bishop Ireton and Bishop O’Connell at Kettler. That one was a barnburner; O’Connell took an early 2-0 lead but Ireton rallied and won it, 9-7. The players that impressed me the most in that one were Ireton defenseman Will Chastain and O’Connell forward Thomas Meaux.
I thoroughly enjoyed talking with Zienty, Klerekoper, Mack and Berry after the game, as well as with Stone Bridge coach John Lynch and Loudoun coach John Peterson. Seeing two entertaining hockey games and spending some quality time with John, Benny and James made for a great Friday night after what was a gut-wrenching day for all of us for reasons completely unrelated to hockey.
If you’re missing hockey, I urge you to contact and/or visit a local rink to find out about high school and/or youth hockey games you can go to. The players are unpaid and admission is free. I’ve witnessed a few dozen games at this level this fall and am constantly encouraged by the passion and heart exhibited by the kids, the coaches and the officials at this level.
It’s not the NHL, but it’s also not the NHL. It’s hockey in one of its purest forms.