Here’s an example of a good idea morphing into a great one.
Coach Scott Welch wanted to create an opportunity where his Nichols girls’ team could measure itself against the team considered the best in the nation among prep schools. At last season’s USA Hockey Tournament, Welch approached Shattuck-St. Mary’s counterpart Gordon Stafford, the father of Buffalo Sabres forward Drew, proposing that the teams play a two-game series.
The longtime coach of the Minnesota school made a counteroffer: Why not have a tournament in which they get to play each other twice, while also testing their teams against two of the best Canada has to offer?
Stafford immediately sold Welch on the idea. Welch then sold Nichols Athletic Director Rob Stewart on it, and thus we have a unique weekend in Minnesota where Nichols, the reigning North American Prep Hockey League (NAPHL) and Conference of Independent Schools Athletic Association champion, gets to see just how good it is.
It will play four tough games in two days, beginning today at 11 a.m. when the Vikings face Shaftesbury of Manitoba, a team with 11 Division I prospects and ranked second among prep schools in Canada.
Nichols also plays at 6 p.m. today against another Manitoba-based team, Pembina. Nichols then plays two games Sunday against Shattuck-St. Mary’s, which lost in the national semifinals of the USA Hockey 19-under Tournament last season.
“It’s going to be a good test for us,” senior center Maddie Elia said Thursday night in between the team’s off-ice workout and scheduled practice at Dann Memorial Rink.
“Should be a lot of fun,” added Welch.
It’s the test any competitor wants. It’s a test Nichols, which is using the event to prepare for next weekend’s NAPHL playoffs, welcomes because tough competition – whether it’s from opponents or teammates pushing one another – has helped the players develop into college prospects. A good number of the Nichols players have been teammates for years at the travel level with the Buffalo Bisons – a perennial participant in national tournaments.
“Our bar has always been Shattuck’s, the No. 1 team in the country,” Welch said. “My bar was to go play them and kind of challenge them because we’re always sitting No. 2 or 3 so it’s like let’s go play the best and see how we really stack up.”
The current myhockeyrankings.com poll lists Nichols (24-4-1) at No. 3 and Shattuck (20-19-2) a spot behind, but Welch dismisses that as arbitrary. While Nichols does play a tough schedule, Shattuck plays perhaps an even more daunting one. Shattuck has a long reputation for sending players to Division I programs (five current seniors are already committed to Division I schools as are three juniors, with eight other juniors on the Division I radar) and to the U.S. National program.
Nichols may consider itself the underdog entering the tournament but a good number of the players on the roster were members of last season’s Buffalo Bisons team. That squad finished as national runner-up in the USA Hockey Tournament Under-16 Division to perennial thorn in its side Assabet Valley of Massachusetts.
The Vikings have five Division I recruits, other potential ones and two others who will play at Division III Oswego.
Elia will attend Boston University. Classmate and defenseman Kelly Seward is heading for Penn State. Juniors Allison Gasuik and Julianna Iafallo have verbally committed to Ohio State, while classmate Madison Sansone has done the same with Providence.
Sophomore goalie Madison Welch already has received Division I interest.
Senior defenseman Kristy Knoll, who is recovering from two knee surgeries, also would have been committed to either a Division I or III school by now if not for the injuries. Kendall Appelbaum and Ashley Lyman will play collegiately at Oswego.
That’s a lot of talent developed through years of hard work. A collective effort that ultimately led to Welch’s idea, and this weekend’s hockey adventure.
“That’s one of the nice things with this program since I’ve been involved the last three years,” Welch said of Nichols. “They really want to turn this program into a national power. The school has been very supportive. The athletic director has been great and because of that they really helped coordinate and put this thing together for us.”
The honors keep pouring in for East Amherst’s Ryan Schmelzer of the Buffalo Junior Sabres. After being named Ontario Junior Hockey League Player of the Month for January, he was the first player to receive the Canadian Junior Hockey League’s new First Star of the Month Award. The CJHL consists of 10 leagues in Canada.
Think the NHL’s version of the Three Stars of the Month and you get the idea of what the CJHL version is all about.
Schmelzer had eight goals and 17 points in seven games during the month of January. He had two four-point games and one five-point effort.
The former Williamsville East player ranks ninth in the OJHL with 61 points (24 goals, 37 assists) in 45 games.
Around the boards
• Hasek’s Heroes’ Tim Hortons Backyard Classic Outdoor Tournament recently raised $11,000 for the Buffalo-Inner City organization.
• The Buffalo Junior Sabres’ game Friday night at St. Michael’s (Toronto) was rescheduled for next Friday, Feb. 15, at 7:30 p.m. due to the weather.
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