Anthony Tomasula notices the change every season at this time of year.
The general manager of the Buffalo Regals/Jr. Sabres 18-under team sees the players paying more attention to detail and doing their best to eliminate bad habits from their games. They become more businesslike in their approaches to practice because these upcoming games at the New York State Amateur Hockey Association Tournament are the ones that will make or break their season.
Win and the Regals/Jr. Sabres do more than just earn the state’s bid to the USA Hockey Championships. The program will extend its reign as state champions to 16 years in a row. The Regals/Jr. Sabres begin their title quest at 8:30 p.m. today at Northtown Center in Amherst when they face Albany C.P. Dynamo in the Tier I portion of the 18-under tournament.
“It’s always interesting watching the team this week,” Tomasula said. “A light bulb goes off. ... No one wants to be the team that doesn’t get it done” this time of year.
The 16-under and 18-under Tier I, II and III state championships run from today through Sunday night at Northtown Center, featuring 44 teams from throughout the state. This is the second straight weekend in which the four-rink facility has hosted boys state tourney games with the 12-under and 14-under tournaments controlling Northtown last weekend. Admission is free, although fans are encouraged to arrive early for the Tier I 16-under and 18-under title games, which begin at 4:10 p.m. Sunday.
Beside the Regals/Jr. Sabres, Western New York’s representation in the 18-under tournaments include Amherst (Tier I), Buffalo Saints (Tier I), Cheektowaga (Tier II), Clarence (Tier II) and Jamestown (Tier III). Area teams vying for titles in the 16-under tournaments include Buffalo Regals/Jr. Sabres (Tier I), West Seneca (Tier I), Buffalo Saints (Tier I), Clarence (Tier II), Cheektowaga (Tier II) and Batavia (Tier III).
To put the Regals/Jr. Sabres’ streak in perspective, most players on the current roster likely would have been learning how to skate for the first time when the outfit known as the Elite Midget Development Program of Buffalo (then affiliated with the Buffalo Saints) began its title run in 1998.
“Everyone knows the history,” Tomasula said. “But I don’t think they start to understand until this week comes around, when everything is on the line. ... I think the remarkable thing about the streak is high school teams you are constantly turning over senior class. Our team, we have a virtually new team every year. To not have a misstep or not have a team rise to the occasion is truly remarkable.”
It helps being able to field a team featuring most of the area’s top Tier I talents, and as usual this edition of the Regals/Jr. Sabres has its share of highly coveted recruits. Some have even had cups of coffee with junior teams this year – including leading scorer Nathan Sucese (31 goals, 72 points in 60 games), Ryan Kuhn (24 goals) and defensemen Matthew Nuttle and Frank Hora.
The Buffalo Saints 18-under team, which is Nichols’ Prep team and lost earlier this season to the Regals/Jr. Sabres, 2-1, features stud defenseman R.J. Gicewicz, St. Lawrence-bound Michael Ederer and goalie Anthony Tirabassi.
Amherst 18-under is led by Niagara-commit Dennis Gilbert, who recently helped St. Joe’s win the state Catholic title along with teammate Dimitri Gogos, and first-team all-state pick Brendan Chambers (Williamsville East).