UPDATE: The U-18 AAA Blue Jackets defeated the Cape Cod Whalers on Saturday to win Pool C and advance to the quarterfinals at Nationals for the first time in the program's history. The team will play at 12:15 PM on Sunday.
The U-18 Ohio AAA Blue Jackets took care of business in the regular season and league playoffs, winning the Tier 1 Elite Hockey League Championship. Now it’s on to bigger things.
The top team in the league this season, and arguably the best in the country, the Blue Jackets (26-4-2) defeated the Pittsburgh Penguins Elite in the league championship game and are now off to Amherst, N.Y. for the Tier 1 National Championships.
“They know how special it is. Luckily enough, for probably half our team, this will be their fourth trip and they’ll be looking to make some noise,” said head coach and program coordinator Ed Gingher. “We haven’t been able to make a run at it so far in the prior trips that these guys have had, but the excitement never goes away. This is special and it’s a special team we have here.”
The Blue Jackets will play in Pool C and will play three round-robin contests to reach the elimination rounds. The Jackets will play the TPH Thunder on Thursday, Mar. 26, the St. Louis Blues on Friday, and the Cape Cod Whalers on Saturday. A placement in the top-two of their pool would earn the Jackets a berth in the three-round elimination playoff.
A national tournament for youth programs will often bring together a collection of teams from around the country that may not be too familiar with each other, but these Jackets have already gotten a look at some of the competition within their own pool.
The Jackets faced the Thunder and Blues this season during regular season play, twice against the Thunder and once against St. Louis before the teams met again in the playoffs. The Jackets took down the Thunder 5-0 in the postseason and then gutted out a 3-2 overtime win over the Blues en route to their league title.
They’ll have to repeat that feat to win another trophy in Amherst.
“With the exception of one game against the Thunder, all the games have been close and both games against St. Louis were overtime games," Gingher said. "These are teams where they know us and we know them. And sometimes that can be good, sometimes that can be bad. Hopefully for us, we can get off to a good start in both those games and we can see Cape Cod up here because that’s a team we don’t see, without many common opponents."
The Blue Jackets know they will get just as stiff a challenge from Cape Cod as their more familiar foes. At this point in the season, there are no weak teams, only the best of the best from each division around the country are left and looking to knock off a Blue Jackets team that led the way for much of the season.
“This group has gotten every team's best all year long because of the start we had. We had a bulls-eye on us early on and that’s helped us to be a better team and prepared us for where we are right now,” said Gingher. “Our schedule the second half of the year was probably a bit of a tougher schedule against some pretty good teams, and these guys continued to step up. We had a few blips on the radar, but every time we had to reset we did so for the better and embraced the challenge to continue to push forward.”
For young players still aspiring to play junior, college, and possibly even professional hockey, the weekend offers yet another chance to make their case for the next level of competition. The Blue Jackets already feature a handful of NCAA Division 1 college commitments, including Kole Sherwood (Boston University), Brendan Demler and Carson Meyer (Dartmouth). With the stands flooded with scouts from teams around North America, center stage will be set for these kids to perform.
“The exposure level that these kids will get here at Nationals will be off the charts," Gingher said. "Our kids get a lot of exposure all year long, but when it’s on the stage that it is at Nationals it’s going to be a wonderful opportunity for them to take advantage of. All these guys understand that playing within the team game is very important, but we allow them to showcase their individual skills and what they do best as part of that system.”
Taking advantage of that skill and an incredible league season could see the Ohio AAA Jackets fighting for a national title against traditional powers like Shattuck St. Mary’s. That’s the company in which these young Ohioans find themselves, and they know that they belong.
“We’re not worried about who we play as much as how we play,” said Gingher. “Every team is going to be bringing their A-game or trying to, and it’s going to be up to us to catch a few breaks, work for a few breaks of our own, but play our game. And if we play our game I think we’ve got as good a chance as anybody.”
Fans can watch all Ohio AAA Blue Jackets national tournament games at fasthockey.com, where the games will be live-streamed.