In this week's 'Making of a Royal' blog, head coach Pat LaFontaine wraps up a successful season by discussing the Long Island Royals' Under-16 Tier I National championship. The Royals earned round-robin victories over Cleveland (4-2) and Dallas (3-0) before suffering a 2-1 loss to Los Angeles. In the national tournament playoffs, the second-seeded Royals defeated Rhode Island (5-2) in the quarterfinal round, top-seeded Chicago Mission (5-4 in OT) in the semifinals and then Dallas (5-1) in the final to win the national crown and finish with a record of 61-7-3.
LaFontaine on loss to Los Angeles in round robin:
We had focused on taking it one game at a time and the team actually played a really strong game against L.A. We just couldn't buy that second goal. I felt we actually had the edge in the first- and third periods, but they outplayed us in the second. They skated well and were able to get that second goal. We scored 10 seconds into the game, when Adam Tracey scored off a slap shot just inside the blue line … so we had them on their heels right off the bat. They hadn't given up a goal in their previous two games, so we just kept battling but couldn't buy that second goal. It was probably a blessing in disguise, because that loss gave us the second seed and took us off the big Olympic ice. We had just played two games on the Olympic-sized rink, and were now going back to the NHL-style rink. If we kept winning, we would play on the NHL-sized rink, too. As the top seed, you would have had to play the games on the Olympic rink. That's an adjustment for any team since it's 15 feet wider, so I think it turned out to
be a blessing.
On Rhode Island:
We knew the Rhode Island team was a hard-working club and they were just going to battle. We had to have our compete level and work ethic up at a high. We had to make certain we were committed to details because that all adds up to big things. We were able to get a lead and that was key, and then build off that lead. We got our third goal late in the second and were then able to get the fourth in the third. We were feeling pretty good, but I told the kids between the second and third periods that we had been in this situation before, and that we needed to just keep our foot on the gas pedal and not let up.
It was a little touch-and-go there for a little bit -- that team battled from Rhode Island.
On Chicago Mission:
I always felt that throughout the season, the [Chicago Mission] team really challenged our kids when we played them. That was the one team we played where I think they got the best of us in some areas and that was always in the back of mind … that we would be meeting them at some point.
The game against Mission was just classic. It was all the makings of a classic hockey game and it will be one game these kids remember for the rest of their lives because it was like two heavyweights continually throwing punches. We came out strong and got a 2-0 lead but they came right back at us and got two quick goals to make it, 2-2.
In the second, we got that third goal but they came back late in the second to tie. In the third, we scored a big goal with about eight minutes to go up, 4-3. The atmosphere was great; it was one of those games where you couldn't write a better script. But we had a penalty called against us with about two minutes left in the third; it was late in the game. But you have to learn to deal with adversity at any given time and they were able to go on the power-play. When they pulled their goalie to go up two men, Brandon Fortunato was able to clear it down the ice and it was headed toward the open net, but just went wide. Eventually, they had a faceoff deep in our zone, and would score to tie it with about one minute left in regulation.
I remember calling a timeout and telling the guys to just keep skating. I just felt like we were going to get one back; we were going to get another shot at this. Sure enough, [Nicholas Hutchison] made a couple of moves at the blue line and red line and beat a couple of guys before a third guy tripped him. I saw the referee's hand go up with about 30 seconds left in regulation. I told the guys this was our chance, this was our opportunity; a time to make their mark. We went out and couldn't get that goal to end the game late in the third, so we went to OT.
I told the boys, 'Listen, if I were to tell you at the start of the season that you would be 4-4 going into overtime against Chicago Mission in the semifinal of the national championship would you take it?' They all said, 'Yes.' So I told them 'Hey, we're right where we're supposed to be.'
They guys got all fired up and we drew up a play to start the OT. They executed it about 30 seconds later, exactly the way we talked about doing it. We got a shot on net with a screen and rebound goal … kind of the way we were hoping it would happen. Mike Marnell was the one to jump on that rebound and then it was like a Stanley Cup celebration. Obviously, we still had one game to go, but they made a mark by knocking off the No. 1 team and, arguably, the No. 1 Under-16 team most of the season.
On Dallas and a national championship:
We knew we couldn't take them for granted after such an emotional win the day before. The boys knew what was at stake and everything we did [against Mission], we needed to do it again. We were down, 1-0, and Nick Hutchison scored a big goal to tie it up late in the first period. In the second, we got another goal and it was 2-1 heading into the third and had a power-play. We drew up a play and Brett D'Iorio was able to score off one-time from the point with a screen. I just saw the net pop and remember turning to [assistant coach Steve Webb] and saying, 'Here we go.'
It was one of those moments where the kids were working so hard and I was so proud of them. All the hard work, the sacrificing, the commitment and discipline; everything we talked about. They really pulled together. They became a team in the end in the way they competed, came together and supported each other. You almost forget that they were being documented all season long but were able to find a way to pull together and play their best at the right time. Now they have a memory of a lifetime.
[LaFontaine's son] Daniel had gotten hurt in the Mission game near the end of the second period. We tried to give him a shift to play afterwards but he had to see the doctor and was diagnosed with an MCL sprain, so he couldn't play in the final but was on the bench cheering the guys.
Matty Ward, who had been injured most of the year, was able to get stronger and he filled in really well and played great. He was able to have a super game and super national tournament. We got a lot of timely scoring from different guys at different times. Everybody stepped up at different spots. Goalie Zac Waiman played a really big and confident game in the net and Peter Fosso had a shutout over Dallas in round-robin play. Everyone contributed all season long and it was no different in the national tournament.
On lasting memories:
It all paid off in a big way and, what's most special, is that these kids have a shared experience of a lifetime. They know what it takes and the commitment and that if you do it collectively and everyone buys in as a team and unit, it could pay off in a special way.
I told them from here on out, they're no longer just the Long Island Royals but the National Champion Long Island Royals. That's something that will stick with them for the rest of their lives.
I've been blessed and have gone to the Stanley Cup Final, won a World Cup and President's Cup on a junior hockey level. I think what was really special was that I was never on a bench really, watching kids develop into not only tremendous young hockey players, but fine young men off the ice. Having that vision and a goal and watching it then come true was fantastic.
I was an assistant coach for five years with the Royals, and then the head coach the last three, and finishing in this way with a national championship is a culmination of coaching and watching them come together. My dad did it for me and, now, for me to able to coach my son, Daniel, and watch him play on a team with a great group of boys and win a national championship ... it doesn't get much better than that.
Just the feel for the direction they were headed and what they're trying to do, it just felt that this is a really good thing for this organization. They've got the pieces. We can put something together and go on a run or two and be together for a while, and I'm really excited about that opportunity. The team we have here has an opportunity to win, and that's the most attractive thing.
— Washington defenseman Matt Niskanen on why he decided to sign with the Capitals