by Matt Gajtka
PLYMOUTH, Mich. — For BK Selects players, staff and supporters, the scene was awfully familiar.
And that was a very good thing.
Just like last year, a BK boys team, coached by a man with the last name Collins, was defending a late lead in a USA Hockey national championship game in a southeastern Michigan rink.
And just like last year, the Selects delivered.
This time, instead of Dan Collins’ 16Us prevailing over the Long Island Gulls in Rochester, Mich., it was Greg Collins’ 14Us holding off the Chicago Mission, 2-1, at midday Monday on the other end of the Detroit metro area.
Turned out the déjà vu was legit.
For the second straight spring, a BK Selects team had won a national title.
“It was an emotional rollercoaster,” Collins said a couple hours after his guys lifted the coveted golden plate. “It’s rewarding to see the boys pull through.
“It was an exciting, cool way to finish it out. The players bought in and they performed.”
On the home ice of the storied USA Hockey National Team Development Program, the youngest of the four BK boys squads showcased some significant talent of their own, outscoring their six opponents at Nationals by a combined total of 19-7.
But as Collins alluded to, it wasn’t as routine as the final stat sheet looked.
After the 14Us comfortably claimed their first two games in Plymouth, Chicago Mission beat them on Friday in the round-robin finale, by the same 2-1 score as the final.
That meant BK Selects had to face No. 1-seeded Shattuck St. Mary’s in a quarterfinal game that would require overtime. During a sudden-death power play, Dain Gordon (Denver, Colo.) swept in the rebound of a Cameron Chartrand (Montréal, Québec) blast to send the boys in black through to the semifinals.
The Buffalo Saints take it in OT! #USAHNationals@ChipotleTweets | #TrainEatRepeat pic.twitter.com/3Z0HR1pZfU
— USA Hockey (@usahockey) April 1, 2023
After prevailing against one of the perennial premier programs in the nation — SSM had lost just three games all year — the seventh-ranked BK Selects 14Us (64-16-3) had some serious wind in their sails.
“Shattuck had beaten us up earlier in the year,” Collins said, recalling a three-game weekend sweep at the hands of SSM. “But we had a good feeling going into the game and the boys just rallied.”
This group had gotten used to persevering. The 14Us were forced to ice a smaller roster in the early part of the year, due to players leaving the program. Following that, they had to assimilate new skaters on the fly while taking on the usual highly-competitive schedule.
Despite this, the group won the USHL American Cup in December and followed it up with a commanding performance in the New York state tourney last month. They were undeniably rolling as they prepared for Nationals with an increased focus on togetherness.
“Just the mental preparation the boys had, we came into the tournament with confidence and all battled together as a team,” said Gordon, who finished Nationals with two goals and assisted on the title-winning tally.
“In the weeks before Nationals, we started to believe in the team’s capabilities more and just came to Nationals with great energy.”
In the semis, BK trailed the Boston Jr. Eagles 1-0 midway through before scoring four straight to secure a rematch with the Mission. For the fourth time in six games, the opponent netted the first goal, but defender Josh Henry (Middle Sackville, Nova Scotia) tied it quickly with a second-period point shot.
In the third — where the Selects boasted a 7-1 goal differential in the tourney — Rudolfs Berzkalns (Cesis, Latvia) polished off a rebound for his team-best sixth goal of the tournament, giving BK its only lead of the day with 15 minutes to go.
Incredibly, BK goalie Gavin Weeks (Goffstown, N.H.) had to stop just one shot on target the rest of the way, capping a stalwart Nationals performance in which he allowed just seven goals in six games. The lone netminder on the 14U roster said some thoughts of the finish line popped into his head late in the championship, but the urgency of the moment was too great to get distracted.
“It was hard to believe that it was actually happening,” said Weeks, whose .947 save percentage was best in the 16-team tourney. “But it wasn’t hard to focus because the final buzzer didn’t go off yet.”
With under a minute to play, Chicago called its timeout, allowing Collins and his assistant Ben McManama to give their group a final set of instructions.
“They told us a strategy to lock it down,” said defender Dave O’Brien (Weymouth, Mass.). “Coach Collins fired us up and said, ‘Forty seconds to become national champions,’ and we all felt and played like it was.
“We were relentless on every puck (in the tournament). We battled hard. If we were down a goal, we didn’t give up. We believed in God and we believed we could beat all the best teams.”
Adding to that belief was a special message from 16U coach Dan Collins, who video-chatted with the players before the championship game for a little more inspiration. Specifically, he relayed what it was like to claim BK Selects’ first-ever USA Hockey crown almost exactly one year prior.
“It’s what you want and it’s what we’re achieving,” said Greg Collins (no relation), who joined the staff last summer. “We’re trying to bring in a successful culture. I’m just pumped to be part of a good staff that buys into the same stuff, and hopefully when the players arrive, they buy in, too.”
For a team that essentially functions as the BK Selects’ entry level, to have this particular group climb this particular mountain can only bode well for the continued growth of the boys program, which just completed its third season of competition.
(Similar things can be said for the 15Os, who ended the season ranked fifth in the nation and made it to the national quarterfinals in New Jersey, and the seventh-ranked 16Us, whose bid for a repeat ended in the Nationals round robin in San Jose.)
Of course, all that long-term stuff appropriately flies out the window in the heat of the championship moment. When that tension finally breaks, the enormity of the accomplishment sets in.
“I remember seeing everyone smiling and crying,” Weeks said, recalling the immediate aftermath of another BK crown.
“We, as a family, won the national championship.”
The author can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.