By Samantha Sciarrotta
Good things are bound to happen when some of the most talented youth hockey players in the tri-state area come together on a single travel team. And for the Team Comcast AAA 2000’s, that’s exactly what happened.
Comcast won the second annual National Hockey League Youth Cup Tournament, held in Pittsburgh for even birth years and in Pennsauken for odd, the weekend of Dec. 12-14. The tournament, hosted by the Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers, invites AAA youth squads to compete against some of the best teams in the country. Each team is affiliated with an NHL squad, like the Columbus Blue Jacks, the New York Rangers and the Nashville Predators. Team Comcast represents the Flyers.
“It felt great to win,” Hopewell Valley Central High School freshman and goalie Matt Sankner said. “We were playing against good teams. When they brought out the trophy, it was really great for the whole team. Everyone was excited. The coaching staff was happy with how we played. It was great.”
The team went 3-1 in round robin play, defeating the Penguins, Islanders and Predators. They lost to the Capitals, but when the two sides met again in the championship game on Dec. 14, Comcast turned it around.
“We played well through the round robin until the last game,” said Pat Ferrill, head coach and Comcast-Spectator Vice President of Rink Management and Development. “It was kind of a trap game. We had done well all that day, but we ended up getting shut out. When we played the Caps again, that was our opportunity to show them that the game we played the night before wasn’t really who we were.”
Comcast certainly put the pressure on. Ferrill noted that the squad put over 50 shots on goal, and the Caps’ keeper stopped 48 of them.
Bordentown City resident and third-year team member Donovan McClellan said Team Comcast’s 2002 team won its age group just before the ’00s played their match, so the victory was extra sweet.
“The championship was memorable,” he said. “It was pretty cool to see [the ’02s] win, too. It was just a great atmosphere.”
Sankner, who is in his first season with the team, said his shutout in its second game against the Islanders and his first start of the tournament was particularly memorable due to the two breakaways he stopped.
Tyler Coffey, a Hamilton resident and Princeton Day School student, recalled an unconventional goal he scored in a win over the Predators.
“I scored from the opposite blue line,” he said. “I was just dumping the puck, but it took a weird bounce and went over the goalie’s glove. It was cool.”
Coffey also netted two goals in the championship game.
The tournament win gave the boys the opportunity to get up close and personal with the Stanley Cup, though nobody touched it in accordance with the long-standing superstition.
“The whole team got to take a picture next to the real thing,” Sankner, a Hopewell Valley Central High School freshman, said. “If you touch it, you’ll never win it. None of us touched it because hopefully, we’ll all win it.”
The team also traveled to tournaments in places like Buffalo, Chicago and Stamford, Connecticut. Chicago was the team’s farthest destination this year—it also happened to be home to the biggest tournament of the season. The Bauer World Hockey Invite hosted nearly 8,000 players on over 400 teams from Nov. 6 to Nov. 9. Team Comcast bowed out in the quarterfinals of the 64-team bracket.
“That’s one of the largest youth hockey tournaments in the world with many different ability levels,” Ferrill said. “We played some of the top teams in the country. We ended up losing to Compuware out of Detroit, the sixth-ranked team in the country.”
The talent at the Youth Cup, the World Hockey Invite and other tournaments is sometimes hard to believe, Sankner said. Some teams are packed with high school freshmen who Division I colleges have already recruited.
Those are some high stakes, McClellan said.
“You want to do well,” he said. “You don’t want to make a mistake, especially in a tournament. League-wise, it’s okay to make mistakes. In a tournament, you don’t want to be that guy who gives up a goal and gets the team knocked out of the tournament.”
Now that those two tournaments are over, though, it’s on to the next task. The team practices two to three days a week at its home rink in Pennsauken and has regular-season Atlantic Youth Hockey League games from September to March. The AHYL’s league, district and national playoffs are on the horizon, too.
All that while balancing high school practices and homework, too. Ferrill collects team members’ report cards to ensure athletes stay on top of their schoolwork. The team boasts an average GPA of 3.5.
“Hockey is one of the best time management training programs ever,” he said. “It’s a major commitment, especially time-wise. They’re pulled in a lot of different directions, so they’re forced to learn how to prioritize and manage time. They’re playing at a pretty good level of hockey, and they all aspire to play in college. Without those grades, they might not have those choices.”
Hockey-wise, playing its best when the playoffs start at the end of February is now Comcast’s top priority.
“Our No. 1 goal is to make it to nationals,” said Coffey, who has been sidelined for the last several weeks with an arm injury. “I will probably be back with the team when the playoffs start. I’m definitely eager.”
Ferrill is confident in the team heading into the last third of the season.
“They have very high expectations for themselves,” he said. “We reinforce all the time that each weekend that we compete is another learning experience. They’re at that critical age in hockey as their bodies are developing. If they focus well on hockey skills and you put them into these types of competitive environments, they’ll continue to develop at a high level.”