When the first puck dropped for the USA Hockey high school nationals on Wednesday, Utah High School Hockey president Pete Bratsos could heave a sigh of relief.
The teams were in Salt Lake City, the arrangements were made. In the large scope of things, the organization’s effort to be a top-notch host was mostly complete.
“We’ve got pretty much all the work done,” Bratsos says. “We’ve had a whole lot of volunteers from Utah High School Hockey helping out and making sure this is a great experience for the kids, that they feel a part of a national tournament.”
So far, so good as the tournament rolls along. Holed up at Salt Lake City Sports Complex, teams visiting from New Jersey to California to Florida seem to be giving a thumbs-up to the experience.
“I’m a big fan of Utah - the kids love the mountains being so close,” said Santa Margarita coach Craig Johnson, who went skiing Thursday morning before his team’s game. “It’s a great place.”
The tournament has not just highlighted the state’s scenery or downtown district. The star of the show has actually been the ice rink itself.
Typically hockey teams won’t get much in the way of smooth ice, fan seating or long stretches of game time. Tournaments often have to bunch together with public skating or figure skating sessions.
Contrasted with the experience of an Olympic-level facility that has been booked out for a week, the Salt Lake experience comes off as among the country’s best. It’s not an exaggeration.
“We definitely have the Cadillac of facilities here,” Bratsos says. “We even have some of the Olympic halo left. People can walk down the street to see where the Olympic torch was lit. It’s all here.”
It’s a good venue for teams around the country to prove themselves as national-level contenders. Utah teams have said going into the tournament they have much to prove, but so do others in states not associated with hockey - such as Florida’s North Broward or Texas’ Plano West.
Regis Jesuit, a Catholic school in Colorado, has never been to nationals, but has won its first two games. Coach Dan Woodley sees an opportunity at nationals to play against teams that can challenge his own Raiders, a team that was 22-1 in state competition.
“Sometimes it’s hard to play at your best level and keep the motor running,” he says. “That added pressure of a national championship on the line can get to teams a little bit. It’s good experience for your kids.”
Then there are those who might not be pushing for a national title, just to prove they belong. Judge Memorial got that validation on Thursday with a 4-3 squeaker over the Washington Hornets.
“Everyone’s pretty stoked,” senior Wilson Lamb said. “It’s what we came to do.”
USA Hockey high school national tournament
At Salt Lake City Sports Complex
Idaho Falls Tigers (Idaho) 13, Cleveland Storm (N.M.) 1
Skutt/Elkhorn Skyhawks (Neb.) 6, Skyline Grizzlies (Idaho) 3
Waterloo Warriors (Iowa) 4, Pinnacle Pioneers (Ariz.) 3
Fort Dorchester Patriots (S.C.) 8, Hendersonville Commandos (Tenn.) 1
Plano West Wolves (Texas) 8, Arlington Admirals (N.Y.) 2
Judge Memorial Bulldogs 4, Washington Hornets (Wash.) 3
Regis Jesuit (Colo.) 4, Newark Generals (Ohio) 0
Brophy Broncos (Ariz.) 13, Bingham Miners 0
Santa Margarita Eagles (Calif.) 3, North Broward Eagles (Fla.) 2
At Salt Lake City Sports Complex
10:15 a.m. • Brophy Broncos (Ariz.) vs. Waterloo Warriors (Iowa)
10:45 a.m. • Idaho Falls Tigers (Idaho) vs. Skutt/Elkhorn Skyhawks (Neb.)
12:30 p.m. • Santa Margarita Eagles (Calif.) vs. Newark Generals (Ohio)
1 p.m. • Skyline Grizzlies (Idaho) vs. Fort Dorchester Patriots (S.C.)
2:45 p.m. • Washington Hornets (Wash.) vs. Bingham Miners
3:15 p.m. • Regis Jesuit (Colo.) vs. Plano West Wolves (Texas)
5 p.m. • Arlington Admirals (N.Y.) vs. North Broward Eagles (Fla.)
5:30 p.m. • Hendersonville Commandos (Tenn.) vs. Cleveland Storm (N.M.)
7:15 p.m. • Pinnacle Pioneers (Ariz.) vs. Judge Memorial Bulldogs