The River East Kodiaks ended up being the lone stars at a Texas tournament.
The Kodiaks captured gold in the U18 division at the 2014 Texas Star Winter Classic held in the Dallas-Fort Worth region from Jan. 18 to 20, edging the Santa Margarita High School Eagles of California 1-0 in a shootout in the gold medal game.
River East started the tournament with easy victories of 7-1 over the Texas Jr. Brahmas and 7-0 over the Lone Star Wolves on Jan. 18. Things were tougher for the Kodiaks on Jan. 19, as they were downed 5-2 by Santa Margarita, but later edged out the Las Vegas Jr. Wranglers 4-3 in a shootout to advance to the final.
Defenceman Tyler Hall, who scored the tournament-clinching goal in the shootout, said the Kodiaks got themselves into penalty trouble in their first meeting with Santa Margarita, the defending USA Hockey National High School champions. However, the championship game was a different story, as River East outshot the Eagles 30-13 in regulation, but couldn’t solve goalie Brandon Schellin.
"We were a lot more disciplined, for sure," Hall said. "The second game, we held them in their end for most of the game, we were all over them."
Head coach Ben Zajac agreed, noting the Kodiaks cut down on their retaliatory plays, while also ensuring they held onto the puck for the bulk of the game.
"We saw that the cycle worked well in the first game, but we didn’t do it enough — we started to panic and we were shooting from everywhere," he said.
Santa Margarita had some star power on its side, as its head coach is 10-year NHL veteran Craig Johnson, while Eemil Selanne — Teemu’s son — scored the Eagles’ only goal of the shootout in the final.
While in Texas, team members stayed with billet families in order to help get a taste of southern life, as families took players to see the sites of Dallas and the surrounding area. Players visited the Grassy Knoll, AT&T Stadium (home of the Dallas Cowboys), and took in a home game of the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks.
The billet families had younger players in the tournament, and the Kodiaks enjoyed seeing their hosts embrace the game — and the feeling was mutual. Some even gave River East some friendly advice — such as never shoot to an American goalie’s glove side, as it will be strong from playing baseball growing up. It was advice Hall took on his shootout winner, beating Schellin to the blocker side.
Defenceman Tristan Beach Ducharme said opposing players were a lot friendlier at the tournament than in the Winnipeg High School Hockey League, where River East had accumulated a 10-7-1 record in the Platinum Promotions Division as of Jan. 24.
"There’s no name-calling or any kind of chirping on the ice," he said. "It’s all ‘How are you doing?’ ‘Where are you from?’"
While the Kodiak players felt the games tended to be less physical — Santa Margarita excepted — Zajac disagreed citing an attitude carried over from football.
"It was a more physical game," he said. "They’re very physical in other sports, but they’ve picked up hockey."
Zajac feels the tournament win will set up the team well for the rest of the season — there are only four league games left before the city championships. As well, the Kodiaks already have a provincial berth lined up by virtue of being the tournament host, but he hopes to see his club play well and earn its spot.