Cooper Cleaves had no idea what was waiting for him inside the New England District locker room on June 28 at the Northtown Center at Amherst in Amherst, New York. It had only been 10 minutes since Cleaves scored the game-winner with 17.7 seconds remaining in overtime of the 2023 USA Hockey-BioSteel Boys 17 National Festival championship game to propel New England past the Pacific District, 6-5, capping a thrilling week at the annual USA Hockey-BioSteel Player Development Camp.
When the Riverside, Connecticut, native busted through the locker room door, his teammates proceeded to shower him with water and ice in celebratory joy.
USA Hockey Champion hats were tossed into the air as the group jumped up and down before erupting into song and dance, belting David Guetta and Sia’s “Titanium” at the top of their lungs.
“This feels so good,” Cleaves said. “No one really thought we could do it. We as a group wanted it more than everyone else. We were saying it all week, and we just ended up doing it. From the first day, we were all hanging out in one room getting to know each other. We bonded faster than any other team I have ever been on. That is really what got the job done for us.”
Smiles. Exhilarating competition. Team unity. Pride for your district. Lifelong memories.
All of these were some of the hopeful goals for USA Hockey when they revamped the USA Hockey-BioSteel Boys 17 National Festival into a District team-based tournament format for the first time since 2004. The Festival featured USA Hockey’s 12 districts and 216 of the top players of the 2006 birth year.
The priority was still to improve and showcase the individual players participating, who were also competing to earn an invite to the 2023 Hlinka Gretzky Cup Camp on July 20-24 in Plymouth, Michigan. The players continued to experience a competitive, age-specific environment with on-ice training (drills, small area games, competitions, etc.) and off-ice training (strength & conditioning, team building, mental skills, nutrition, classroom, etc.). The rosters featured primarily players from the district, while teams also had some at-large players who earned an opportunity to attend the camp as well.
“We had been talking about it for some time, and we want to make each of our Select Camps or National Festivals different,” said Bob Mancini, USA Hockey’s assistant executive director of hockey development. “We felt like we had the Select 15s really dialed into what it is – a combination of exposure and information, and also some skill development. Then at 16 and 17, we are picking international teams. But by the time kids got here at 17, we wanted to give them something exciting. Something new. We wanted to return to the format where kids are now coming to national camp and are getting a chance to play with their friends. We also knew it could have tremendous benefits for coaching and player development.”
Parker Metz, the camp director for the Boys 17 National Festival, has been helping run USA Hockey-BioSteel Player Development Camps for 15 years and he knew there was something special brewing this year when Mark Tabrum, USA Hockey’s director of youth hockey, unveiled the championship trophy during the first day of orientation at Daemen University.
“The bar was set pretty high when we presented the trophy at our opening meeting,” Metz said. “You saw the kids eyes light up for opening ceremonies. It was cool to see that at the front end of it. Then you talk to the team leaders and the coaches throughout the week, and they had a goal to aspire to reach. You saw them get really hungry right away.”
Tabrum explained that the Boys 17 National Festival is the last of the Player Development Camps for youth players in the USA Hockey development structure.
“We decided let’s give them a sense of pride with the district they are from,” Tabrum said. “It is neat to see all the districts and teams together. The coaches and team leaders we selected are from those districts as well. You see the district unity. All of their t-shirts were color-coded based on their jersey, so they were wearing those around town, and we had district logos on the locker rooms. We tried to incorporate district pride into everything we did.”
Tabrum and Mancini agreed as players continue to develop that they ultimately begin to play alongside national talent in their later teenage years.
Therefore, the Boys 17 National Festival reunited some players with friends from earlier youth squads.
“The majority of kids at this age are playing all over the nation, no matter where they are from,” Mancini said. “Now they are going back, and they are playing with the kids from their district where they grew up with and who they competed against at 10, 11, 12, 13 or 14. What we saw this week was more kids were tuned into the team aspect of play. They wanted to play well together because it is for their district. They want to play well together because there is a win and loss on the line. Whereas when we had the mixed teams in the past, it was a little too individual. Kids were only focused on making the (Hlinka) team. I don’t think we saw the quality of hockey play that we are seeing now. I am not buying the competitiveness. I think kids were competitive before. But I absolutely am seeing a better hockey environment.”
In fact, Jason Guerriero, head coach for the New England District, knows what it feels like to represent a district and win a championship at the Boys 17 National Festival as a player.
Guerriero represented the New York District during his developmental years and helped New York win the 1998 USA Hockey Boys 17 National Festival in overtime.
“This new format has taken on a different vibe for sure,” Guerriero said. “It was exciting and fun. I went through this as a 15-,16- and 17-year-old when it was this old way, and I was fortunate enough to win it my 17-year for the New York District in overtime. To do it as a coach now in overtime is pretty cool and pretty special.”
Guerriero is currently an assistant coach for the Northeastern men’s hockey program, and Mancini said an additional benefit of this year’s Festival is that it gives USA Hockey a chance to showcase some of its up-and-coming coaches as well.
“The other thing that is huge is we want to give back to our best young, American coaches,” Mancini explained. “A lot of times they are assistant coaches at the college level or at the junior level and they have a bright, bright future, but they don’t get a chance to be a head coach. We thought this would give our young American coaches experience at being a head coach. Then they can bring their college, junior or high school experience and give young kids an element of coaching or being coached that they maybe are not receiving.
“There are tremendous positives in the whole environment here.”
The biggest accomplishment, of course, is the smiles and memories that were created on the ice.
Even Guerriero could not stop grinning as he stood off to the side alongside Mancini as the New England District players took turns lifting the championship trophy high into the air.
“I hope they keep it this way, and I think a lot of the coaches would agree,” Guerriero concluded. “It is just really exciting, and it means a lot to these guys. You can tell with the celebration in overtime. It was like they won their regular-season championship. It is great for the kids and it is all about their player development, but they got a great experience and I hope we get to do it again next year.”
STAT PACK: New England’s Kolin Sisson led all players at the Boys 17 National Festival with six goals…Pacific’s Colin Frank had a tournament-high nine assists and 12 points…New England’s Zachary Ericson led all goalies with 96 saves in six games.