DYHA 16U team steps up with solid performance in Sarnia
Arms crossed and speaking matter-of-factly, John Damyanovich’s typically tough expression loosened as the Desert Youth Hockey Association (DYHA) 16U coach let out a deep-toned chuckle.
It had been just days since his Jr. Sun Devils team had returned from a runner-up finish at the CCM World Invitational in Sarnia, Ont., Canada. He needed a quick pause before answering if he had expected his team to reach the tournament’s championship game.
“Not really,” he admitted.
He wasn’t alone.
After all – despite being in his third season with this core group of continually improving and maturing players – Damyanovich’s group was still an Arizona team, a distinction that rarely translates to success north of the border. They would’ve been forgiven for not making it out of a testing group stage schedule.
Instead, they became the first Arizona team to ever make it to the prestigious event’s title game.
“We were expecting to go up there and show well,” Damyanovich said. “We had been preaching to our defense to get the puck out quickly and they did that well. We know what we have in this team. We have a lot of blue-collar hard workers.”
Just as Damyanovich had hoped, his team’s hardworking style surprised the traditional blue-blood Canadian hockey programs they faced in the Sarnia Jr. Sting and London Jr. Knights.
“We knew that it was going to be tough – the teams were a lot better than what we play [normally],” DYHA captain Carter Newlin said. “We had to mentally prepare ourselves to play tough and play physical because we know that Canadian teams don’t like to be hit.”
It wasn’t smooth sailing from the start for DYHA, however.
The Jr. Sun Devils found themselves trailing Sarnia 2-0 going into the third period of their tournament opener. But in the final frame, everything clicked and the Jr. Sun Devils rallied to earn a 2-2 tie and found a rhythm that would carry them to a silver medal.
“For these boys to come from behind like that, we dominated the third period,” assistant coach Gary Aungst said of the Sarnia game.
Added Damyanovich: “It gave us a shot of confidence.”
That shot of confidence turned into a wave of momentum. After a 3-2 win over the Geneva (Ill.) Cyclones, DYHA pulled off the upset of the weekend.
London is ranked No. 9 in the Ontario ’02 AA myhockeyrankings.com poll, and had lost just three games of its first 25 of the season.
But there were only two numbers that mattered after its meeting with DYHA:
Final score: Jr. Sun Devils 3, Jr. Knights 2
“When we beat them, they were mad,” Newlin said. “At the end, they were pretty surprised that we made it that far.”
The weeks of preparation the Jr. Sun Devils spent leading up to the tournament paid off.
“The drills and the explanation of what we are trying to tell them the last two weeks, they did it in these games,” assistant coach Ernie Hicke said.
“We had been preaching to our defense to get the puck out quickly and they did that well,” added Damyanovich.
Aungst noticed that “one of the things that had hurt us this year was positional hockey, and we did a much better job of that as well.”
Again, the hard-working blue-collar style outweighed the Canadian teams’ obvious talent.
That and great goaltending.
“When we can rely on the goalies in the back, that really builds confidence for the team as well,” said Damyanovich.
The Jr. Sun Devils finished the group stage undefeated with a 4-2 win over the West Kent (Mich.) Hawks before falling in a title-game rematch with London – a loss DYHA’s coaches blamed on their team spending too much time on the penalty kill.
But with a 3-1-1 record and runner-up finish in a talent-rich event, DYHA did more than build self-confidence. They took another transformative step forward as a team.
Said Damyanovich: “We can go to the next step and it hopefully snowballs.”
— Jack Harris
(Nov. 22, 2017)