Even though all three North American 3 Hockey League (NA3HL) were eliminated from the Tier III Junior A national tournament last weekend in the preliminary round, each team returned home with a sense of accomplishment.
The regular season champion St. Louis Jr. Blues, Hurster Cup playoff champion Chicago Hitmen and Hurster Cup runners-up Queen City Steam all traveled to Rochester, Minn., with one goal in mind, but those goals will have to be put on hold until this time next year.
“If I had to pick one feeling, it would be bittersweet,” St. Louis coach J.P. Beilsten said. “I'm very proud of the team for accomplishing what they did to reach this point, but at the same time, it's hard to get knocked out of the national tournament after a good 2-0 start.”
The Steam reached the national tournament for the first time in its history and that fact alone was enough to make coach Don Biggs beam with pride.
“I’m not bitter at all,” said Biggs. “Our players have accomplished a great deal for themselves and the organization this season and a trip to nationals was the icing on the cake. Every player was exposed to very good competition at the national level. They were given a chance to compete in a very prestigious tourney and we are pleased with how we played, especially the last game in front of the home fans of the (Minnesota Junior Hockey League’s Rochester) Icehawks.”
Ask Chicago coach Brent Dolan his feelings on nationals and he feels the Hitmen under-performed.
“I am proud of the team's accomplishments during the year, but disappointed with how we performed at the national level,” said Dolan. “I feel we were a much better team than what we showed last weekend. Playing against and with the top teams in the country gave me a better perspective on how to build a team to compete at the national level. It also gave my players, especially my younger guys, valuable experience they can build off of for next season.”
Like Dolan surmised, planning for next year has already started for all three squads and by going to the national tournament, that should help with recruiting and drafting for the 2011-2012 season.
“I think the experience gave our players a good perspective on where their game is at and how much harder they will need to prepare next year to get back to this level,” Dolan said. “As far as recruiting, I have received numerous emails from prospective players looking to come out for the team next season. Any team that has success will typically draw players based on wanting to play for a successful program.”
Beilsten and the Jr. Blues, the 2010 national champions, feel they will be as competitive as team next year as they were this season and hope a return trip to the national tournament is in the cards.
“I believe there are countless positives we can take from competing at nationals,” Beilsten said. “The biggest positive I think we've gained as a team is being able to compete against the top teams from other leagues. It's big for the players to know how deep the pool is of kids that are capable of competing at the next level considering that is who they would have to go up against in order to move up the ladder.
“It also prepares me as a coach to see the different styles of play around the other leagues so I can best prepare our team for the next season. As for recruiting, it's always going to give us an edge to say we were one of the top teams in one of the best leagues Tier III has to offer.”
“Going to nationals gives us an opportunity to work on getting new talented players to complement our young core group,” added Biggs. “It certainly helps in recruiting when you are asked how you finished during the year and if you made the national tournament and the answer is yes.”
Next up on the agenda for the NA3HL are numerous team skates and tryouts and the league’s annual draft, which will be held in June.