HOUGHTON - The Keweenaw Storm has struck out on the road west again looking for a California gold rush in its third try at the USA Hockey national level.
The Storm U-19 team begins Tier II Tournament play in the San Jose area Wednesday.
It's a once-in-a-lifetime experience - playing for a national championship, bonding on the road and seeing the country - and the Storm is on its third consecutive trip.
The Keweenaw Storm U-19 girls’ hockey team listens to coach Glenn Patrick (front, in black)?at the end of a practice Friday at Dee?Stadium in Houghton. The Storm will play in the national tournament for the third year in a row, starting Wednesday in the San Jose, Calif., area. (DMG photo by Brandon Veale)
"I make a standing joke to people when I talk to people about this experience. I'm pretty fortunate to be traveling around the country on the coattails of a bunch of teenage girls. They work hard but they also enjoy some of those things," head coach Glenn Patrick said.
This time, the Storm is looking to reach the pinnacle after finishing as national runners-up in the U-16 division in the Anaheim area two years ago and reaching the quarterfinals in the Dallas area last year as U-19s.
"We're definitely a lot better players than we were two years ago. We've been working hard every day since on our passing and our shooting and everybody's so much stronger, everything's come a long way," forward Bailey Raffaelli said.
Though in Michigan Tier II teams draw from a smaller geographic area, other states have no restrictions on how far-flung a team can be. But it's clear the players see the relatively compact region their teammates come from as a strength, not a liability.
"Living in such a small town keeps us really close together. We're always together, even at school or after practice. We're a really close team," defender Cassidy Rajala said.
In addition to the cohesiveness and skill-building that comes from having what is largely the same group together for a three-year span, Patrick talked about the committment to off-ice physical training the girls made months ago, fitting in several days each week.
"They are so much stronger than they were last year. That just shows their dedication. They just want to succeed and they just work hard," he said.
The Storm will play three pool play games, one apiece on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. Then, if everything goes to plan, it's on to the pressure cooker of single elimination tournament hockey. Quarterfinals are Saturday with the semifinals and finals Sunday.
"It's just like our high school playoffs up here. Once you get past the pool play it's one game and it's over, whereas if you're over in a tournament in Thunder Bay or playing someone in the Canadian Sault, just playing for the weekend, you're just trying to improve," Patrick said. "We just try to teach during the whole season, now when you get into the state tournament, when you get into the national tournament, there's that finality to it. It's a little haunting and it makes it a little more intense."
It's a situation the Storm are familiar with and has thrived in. Just a few weeks ago at the state tournament, Keweenaw trailed Marquette 2-0 early but came back for the victory in the title game.
"Confidence comes from working hard to develop your skills, studying the game enough to learn how to move without the puck and know what to do and having the heart and desire and ambition to do it. They possess all three of those and if you work on those three, you can have confidence and you can succeed," Patrick said.
The reward is an experience that features some serious hockey but some good times, too.
"It's like one big vacation plus we get to do what we love and we hope to do well out there," forward Lexi Pyykkonen said.
The whole team is grateful for support from the community to help them chase their hockey dreams.
"The Keweenaw Storm team would really like to thank the community again for the great support. We know it's difficult, it's three years in a row. We sincerely appreciate it. It's an expensive trip and the community once again has responded well. It's a great trip and we're looking forward to represent the Copper Country well," Patrick said.