Going in to the 2010-2011 season, I knew that my daughter’s U14 Tier 1 team, the Mid Fairfield CT Stars, was going to be special. While the girls came from every corner of Connecticut (and a few from NY) and were affiliated with several different winter hockey programs, they had come together the previous two spring seasons to play on the CT Yankees, a AAA Girls Travel Spring team. As a spring team, they had incredible success at tournaments against some of the best teams in the U.S. and Canada. Most of us parents had mused how great it would be if they all played together during the winter season, but never thought it would actually happen due to geographical constraints. But lo and behold, the stars aligned and here they were all together. Everyone was excited and happy as the team seemed to have talent and chemistry with great coaches.
And they could play! They demonstrated this early on by winning the Polar Bear, arguably the biggest girl’s tournament in the world. They went on to win the Connecticut State Championship and the New England Regionals, which earned them a spot in the Tier 1 National Tournament.
The team had been ranked between third and fifth in the country the whole season, so the girls were hoping to medal. But they knew the strength of the talent they would be facing, so winning it all was a hopeful dream. Just as the girls were preparing to head to Michigan for the National Tournament, they were saddened to learn of the death of Mandi Schwartz. Mandi was a Yale hockey player who had been battling leukemia. While the girls did not know her personally, they had been to fundraisers for her and had been following her struggle. Mandi was an intelligent, kind, hard working and athletic young woman, who personified their goals and they wanted to find a way to honor her. They petitioned USA Hockey and were allowed to wear her number, 17, on their helmets. One of the girls commented, “even though Nationals is all about us, sometimes it’s good to think about other people.”
In Michigan, the team participated in the Tournament’s Spirit Competition. Dressed in full body spandex Rootsuits, the team danced to their theme song, wowed the crowd and won the top prize for Best Costumes. As they walked off the ice with their winning plaque, I told the girls that I would wear a blue suit if they made it to the Championship game. Knowing how stiff the competition would be, I felt pretty sure that it would never happen.
During the round robin, they had three wins and an overtime loss (in a shoot out), which secured them a spot in the semis. After their overtime loss, the team decided to go to a local food bank to volunteer their time to help the local Detroit community. Even though the girls were tired and disappointed after their loss, they were determined to focus on helping families, and especially other children. Within two hours, they had organized and packed two tons of dry and canned food into pantry boxes, providing over 2500 meals for hungry families. Many people had helped the team get to the National Tournament, both financially and emotionally. So by helping the local community, the team felt like they were giving something back. The girls realized that being selfless and helping others is what being a team is all about.
In the semi-final game, we were matched up against the Nation’s top ranked team, the Buffalo Bison. The Bison had only given up one goal in the opening round of the tournament and had two of the most talented girls I have ever seen. It was an exciting game and our girls won 5-4 in double overtime. This meant they were in the finals, facing Assabet Valley, the team that had beaten them two days earlier in the tournament.
That night, the whole team had dinner together at a restaurant with several bocce courts. The girls ate and played bocce, and you would have hardly known that the most important game of their season was the next morning. At one point the team was all gathered together. They said that they had all decided that if they lost the championship game, they would not cry. Winning a silver medal would be a huge accomplishment and they would hold their heads up and be proud.
I wish I could say they easily beat Assabet in the finals, but it was a nail-biter to the end. Assabet scored almost immediately, and was bigger, stronger, faster and played an almost unbeatable system. Our team, however, was creative, determined and the coaches played all three of our lines the entire game. They finished regulation tied 2-2. Overtime started with our team’s smallest girl at center. She lost the face-off, but immediately got the puck back from her defense. Deftly maneuvering through the opposing defense, she quickly shot and scored! I’ve watched those final 10 second over and over again, and I’m still not quite sure how she did it.
It’s hard to describe the feeling of having your child achieve their dream, but thinking about it still gives me goosebumps. And yes, I wore the blue suit to the game….and onto the ice for the championship photo!