It was a foggy Sunday morning in Charleston, South Carolina. Four white 15 passenger vans rolled into a nearly empty parking lot of an unassuming shopping center. Tucked into one end of the strip mall is a pair of ice rinks and on this particular Sunday morning, two hockey games would be played. This is the story of one of the games and one of the teams.
But lets back up 48 hours earlier. Two of the vans pulled into the parking lot of the Chilled Ponds Ice Facility in Chesapeake, Virginia to load a hockey team for a trip to Charleston to play in the South East Junior Hockey League’s end of season tournament. The Hampton Roads Junior Whalers Green team had a seven hour drive in front of them.
Their bother team, The Hampton Roads Junior Whalers Blue team had to leave the night before as they had a 5pm game Friday night. The Green team got a morning skate in before they packed up and left a couple of hours later.
Their destination was the Carolina Ice Palace. The top two teams from the tournament would join regular season champions, the Atlanta Knights in Marlborough, Massachusetts in two weeks to participate in the USA Hockey Tier III National Championships. “Three Wins and your In” was the motto of the Green team as they headed down I-95.
At the same time parents, family and friends were packing up their cars to make their journey to watch this end of season tournament. It would be one of the best parental showings of the year for these men between 14 and 21 years of age. Some traveled from as far away as Louisville, Kentucky and West Palm Beach, Florida to cheer their players on.
Text messages from the parents already at the rink were sent to the players on the road to keep the players updated on the progress of the Blue Team’s game. The two teams had not officially played each other during the regular season, but their league records were nearly identical and their scrimmages were split. Either of these two teams could come out of this with a bid to nationals and there was a chance they both could.
After the Green team checked into the hotel and got dinner, most of them migrated to the rink to watch the last game of the day. The Tampa Bay Bolts were playing the Space Coast Hurricanes, both teams had come up from central Florida. At the end of regulation, it was tied. After a 5 minute overtime, it was still tied. The Green team had an early 9am game on Saturday and the lateness of this game was becoming a concern. Surely the ensuing shoot out would be over quickly and they could get back to the hotel. A long shootout took place, going 15 shooters per team deep. Finally a team had an advantage giving the underdog Tampa team the win, effectively eliminating the Hurricanes. The Green team headed to their hotel to get some sleep before their 6:30am wake-up call the next morning.
The Whalers would need to win their two round-robin games and win their semi-final game to qualify for nationals. They would not need to win the championship game. Just three wins.
First up was the Tampa Bay Bolts. The Whalers Green team quickly dispatched them 10-2.
With many thanks to the Davies family, the boys were treated to a cookout for a post game lunch. The Davies were staying at a Residence Inn next to the rink, which had a large gas grill in the pool area and some 40 hamburgers, 40 hot dogs and 2 boxes of chicken later, the boys were fed and playing pickup basketball on the adjacent court.
But for one player, Billy Varley, basketball wasn’t his post meal entertainment. It was Billy’s birthday. His mother surprised him with a belly dancer who performed for him. It was pretty clear the boys were having a good time.
A post meal nap was scheduled before the boys had to be back for their 8pm match-up against Space Coast. Two junior hockey games in a given day is taxing to the body. Space Coast had nearly 20 hours to rest between games, the Whalers less than 8.
Everyone was nervous going into this game. Though the Green team was 2 and 0 against Space Coast for the year, the games were reasonably close and in their last meeting a major brawl broke out after the game. Would there be any bad blood?
The game started out hard hitting. It was clear these teams did not like each other and that Space Coast was here to extend their season. The teams went to the locker room with the Whalers up 1-0 at the end of the first period. The second period started up with more hitting. But starting 5 minutes into the period and over a period of the next 7 minutes, it was “Good Night Sally, See ya” as the Whalers effectively ended the game. The Whalers found the net 3 more times to end the game 8-0 putting the Green Team into top seed in their bracket going into Sunday.
Earlier the Blue team gave the East Coast Eagles Majors a tight game, but the Eagles prevailed to take the number one seed in their bracket. This setup a match-up between the Whalers Green and the Whalers Blue team in their first official meeting of the year.
With the top two teams getting bids to the nationals, the winner of the Blue-Green game would get a bid, the other’s season would be over. The other semi-match-up pitted Tampa Bay against the Eagles Majors which the Eagles would easily win. The championship game only mattered for seeding in the nationals.
The season was on the line. This had the billing to be a very good hockey game.
Five minutes in, Nate Atangan put the green team ahead. Ten minutes later, Chris Armand, for the Blue team tied the game. It was a hard hitting fast paced game. The Blue team climbed to a 3-1 lead on goals from Barron Sluder and Michael DePatto in back to back goals within 35 seconds half way through the 2nd period. The Green team would not go easily. Atangan picked up a short handed goal to narrow the deficit to one at the 7:32 mark. Four minutes later, Brandon Rumble scored an unassisted goal to knot the game at 3-3. Just before the period expired, Alex Byrne scored to give the Green team a 1 goal lead going into the 3rd period.
Two minutes into the 3rd Period Brandon Rumble gave the Green team the most dangerous lead in hockey . . . a 2 goal lead. The game moved back and forth until a 5 minute major penalty put the Green team on a power play that would consume most of the remaining 3rd period. The Blue team killed it off and with about 2:00 left, the Green team took a penalty that gave the Blue team some life. With the goalie pulled giving the blue team a 6-4 man advantage brought the game to a 5-4 score just after the penalty expired with 11 seconds left on the clock. The Green team killed the last 11 seconds. Joy was on one end of the rink, sorrow and sadness on the other.
In a great show of sportsmanship, instead of shaking hands, the players were all hugging each other. This was extra special since the referees were not allowing post game handshakes in many of the games. To see these guys being so emotional to each other after such a hard fought game was amazing.
The sun was out. The fog has been burned away. It was a glorious day for the Green team.
From the beginning of the year, the Green team was focused on making it to the Nationals. Instead of “We’re going to Disney World” the chant was “We’re going to Natties”.
The team headed to Hooters to celebrate achieving their season goal. More birthday embarrassment for Varley and the captains were forced into doing the hula-hoop.
There was another game to be played and congratulations to the East Coast Eagles Majors on their bid. It was an amazing weekend for the boys. They happily piled into their van’s for their seven hour drive home knowing their season was extended as they were:
Going to Nationals!