To those not familiar with Middle Tennessee’s youth hockey culture, it might have seemed like an April Fool’s Day joke—a team of 12-and-under kids from Nashville, Tenn., winning a USA Hockey Youth Nationals Tournament. But when the 3rd period buzzer sounded to end the finals on Sunday, April 1 in Ashburn, Va., the Nashville Junior Predators ’99 were indeed USA Hockey Tier II 1A 12-and-under champions: the first ever youth team from Nashville to win a national title. The team beat the Oklahoma City Oil Kings 5-2 in the finals to close out a six-game tournament run in which it dominated—going undefeated and outscoring opponents 59-10.
“It’s a special group of kids,” head coach Kyle Jennings says of his team. “As a unit they really jelled and got on board as a family and sacrificed and encouraged each other. There’s constant encouragement. You hear the kids yelling ‘I love you’s’ to each other throughout the rink and throughout the halls wherever we’re at.”
If you’ve never heard of youth travel hockey, then you’d find the commitment alone to be impressive. The purpose of the relatively new Nashville Junior Predators program is to bring together the best Middle Tennessee ice hockey players in specific age groups to compete in tournaments around the country. As a result, the hockey is competitive and the expectations are high.
“When the level of the intensity starts to dwindle a little bit [in practice], it’s something that we bring out and we say, ‘Listen, if you don’t want to focus on the task at hand and maintain the intensity, then you need to go play a less competitive level,’ ” Jennings says. “So the players are completely committed. The parents are very committed. We regularly travel 8 to 10 hours on any given weekend for a tournament, which requires a financial commitment from the parents and a time commitment on behalf of the players and parents both.”
This year’s USA Hockey Tier II 1A 12-and-under national tournament required travel to the Washington, D.C., area. But when the season began, Jennings didn’t have a clear indication that his team would rank best among its peers across the nation.
“We knew talent-wise we had an outstanding group of players,” he says. “I think one thing that sets hockey apart from any other sport is the demand for team chemistry and the willingness for players to unselfishly sacrifice for each other as a unit for a common goal.
“You could have all the talent in the world and it doesn’t necessarily mean you have the best chance of winning.”
The Junior Predators’ finals opponent, the Oklahoma City Oil Kings, had pushed the Junior Preds to a shootout three days prior in pool play—the Nashville team’s closest match by far. The Junior Predators won that one 5-4, and in the finals overcame a late 2-1 deficit against the Oil Kings, scoring four unanswered goals.
“Going into the 3rd period of the last game down 2-1, I think it was a pretty extraordinary mentality that was in the locker room,” Jennings says. “There was not an ounce of negativity. It didn’t seem to me like anybody was down. Everybody was very positive and just excited about how good it was going to feel when they came back. For a group of 12 year olds to be that mentally focused and optimistic is rare.”
Junior Predators ’99 teammates Jackson Sterrett (16 g, 7a) and Kieran Ogle (10g, 13a) tied as the tournament’s leading scorers with 23 points each. Sterrett was a Sept. 2007 graduate of the Nashville Predators’ Get Out and Learn program. Goaltender Price Wynn (two wins during the Nationals tournament) was a June 2007 graduate of the program. It’s a testament that the foundation is now in place for the Nashville hockey community to grow first-class hockey players.
“I think that was the goal that was set in place when they started this [Junior Predators] program, when they sat down and started talking about this program,” Jennings says. “Not just a goal to bring a championship to Nashville, but to develop the quality of hockey players that can compete at a national level.”
Jennings praises Junior Predators hockey director Tim McAllister, the program’s board of directors and the Nashville Predators organization for giving the Junior Predators initiative proper support in the community.
“There’s a handful of Nashville Predators players that I know personally that have just been very proactive in helping produce this program and nurture it,” he adds, “and they’re starting to see the fruits of their labors.”
Since the win, post-game celebration and return home, the Junior Predators ’99 team hasn’t really gathered to celebrate. Instead, members of the squad have been sending in photos of themselves finally indulging in desserts and guilty pleasures that were certainly not a part of their strict tournament diet. One such photo shows team captain Ian McCollum biting into a doughnut while wearing his championship medal and hat.
“There’s probably still a lot that’s settling in with the players,” Jenning says. “At 12 years old it’s a heck of a lot. After the game was over and there was the celebrating on the ice, we all came in together as a team in the locker room and talked about the weight of what they’d just accomplished. The importance of how they handled it. The class, the dignity, the respect for the other players, and congratulating them as well. Like I said, you can’t say enough about the kids who—they earned it. They never expected anybody to give them anything and they’re a product of their own attitude and hard work. I’m very proud of them.”About the Nashville Junior Predators Program
During the 2009-10 season, the Nashville Predators teamed up with local youth hockey associations to form an alliance between A-Game Hockey and the Nashville Youth Hockey League at Centennial Sportsplex to develop the NHL club’s first minor hockey affiliate, the Nashville Jr. Predators. This youth hockey “AA” travel program is comprised 100 percent of local Nashville area kids and fields a Minor and Major team at the following age divisions: Mite (8-and-under), Squirt (ages 8-10), Peewee (ages 10-12), Bantam (ages 12-14), Midget (14-18). For more information on the Nashville Jr. Predators program visit nashvillejrpredators.com