by Matt Gajtka
PITTSBURGH — We’ve just crossed from summer into autumn, but BK Selects’ 16U USA Hockey national championship run of last spring might as well have been five years ago.
Not that it’ll be tossed forever into the memory hole, but with roughly 20 games to be played for each of BK’s boys teams before September is out, the present moment demands considerable attention.
That goes for both the 16U team — still coached by Dan Collins but featuring a fresh roster of players — and the 18U squad, which features a handful of young men who earned gold medals in April, plus several returnees and a few newcomers to the BK family.
Sure, there’s no such thing as a true title defense at this level, but there’s an unmistakeable aura that surrounds this program now.
“Looking back, it still doesn’t feel real,” said 2005-born 18U forward Owen King (Webster, N.Y. / Providence College), not long after the Selects’ oldest boys squad started the USHL Fall Classic showcase with a pair of wins.
“I can’t even describe it. You get goosebumps looking back at it, even how many months later.”
King, who scored 70 points (26 goals) in 69 games for the 16U squad last season, is one of those national champions now adjusting to the 18U level. Through 18 games this month he’s popped in five goals and 14 total points.
Moreover, he’s part of what 18U head coach David Arduin calls a “great leadership core” from last year’s 16Us: King, plus fellow forwards Ryan Bunting (West Deptford, N.J.), Michael Bartkowski (Fort Mills, S.C.) and Nick Shaw (Syracuse, N.Y.), and defenders Josh Player (West Deptford, N.J.), Trevor Berg (Sugarland, Texas), Dexter Kichline (Henderson, Nev.) and Brendan Gilmore (Toronto, Ont.).
“I’d like to say I’m a three-year vet,” King said. “I know my way around. Helping the new guys is huge and even some returning guys who haven’t been here as long, I help them and lead the way.”
With the BK Selects boys program just starting its third season, players like King and his ilk have quite literally seen it all.
But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to learn, either for the returning champs or second-year 18U forwards J.C. Humphreys (McMurray, Pa.) and Jett Otwell (Frisco, Texas), both of whom have also been at BK for three seasons. (Also, New Jersey-born D-man Chris Magovern returns to BK after a year with the Rockets AAA program.)
The fact remains, though, that the newcomers attracted to BK’s precocious winning ways are going to need some help in getting up to speed.
“I think we’ve established some success year-over-year here and you get a lot of kids who want to be part of the program,” Arduin said. “When they come, it’s a lot harder to be successful than I think they think. We have to get them to believe in playing the right way, buying into the habits, the culture, the systems, and really seeing the improvement week over week.
“It’s not about wins and losses, especially if you’re able to take the losses and learn from them as a coach. Over a long season, I think that’s the goal. Just getting them to believe and the quicker they can do that, the quicker we can improve.”
There’s a good chance the improvement is already underway. Carrying a 7-6-1 record into Pittsburgh, the 18Us rattled off a 3-0 record in round-robin play, outscoring their opponents 16-4. While they fell to the Penguins Elite, 3-2, in Monday’s semifinals, Arduin felt his team hit an upward trajectory after shifting out of “practice mode” in the middle of their opening game against familiar regional foe Buffalo Regals.
I spoke with Arduin early Sunday morning, after his 18Us blanked the Oakland (Mich.) Jr. Grizzlies, 7-0, despite having less than 12 hours to recover from a 6-2 comeback win over the Regals. Add in the myriad college scouts in attendance and just the general buzz of the team’s second national showcase tournament in as many weekends, and Arduin could only shake his head.
“I don’t know how they do it sometimes,” he said. “This is our 17th game in the first four weeks. But as far as scouts and everything, that’s why they come to BK. That’s why they come to play at this level and be showcased the way that they are. The kids put enough stress and pressure on themselves as it is. The scouts and everything is just part of it.”
Unlike at the Minnesota Blades showcase the previous weekend, when — in a program first — all four BK boys teams traveled together via plane, the USHL Fall Classic was divided into a younger half and an older half. The 14U and 15O divisions were competed in various rinks around Pittsburgh on Thursday, Friday and the first part of Saturday, then the 16U and 18U divisions took over from Saturday evening through Monday afternoon.
There was some welcomed BK Selects symmetry on both ends of the weekend, with the 14Us also going undefeated in round robin before losing a tight semifinal decision, to NE Pack rival Mount St. Charles in this case. That three-win showing lifted the squad coached by first-year bench boss Greg Collins to 8-3-2 on the season, the best record among BK boys teams at this early juncture.
The 15Os stand at 5-5-3, but are ranked fifth in the nation by MyHockeyRankings.com, while the 16Us jumped to 6-6-0 after a 3-1 showing at the Fall Classic.
Dan Collins’ team started its stay in Pittsburgh with a bit of revenge, spanking Buffalo Regals, 4-1, in a game that wasn’t even that close. Buffalo had served up a similar margin of defeat to BK over Labor Day weekend, but the Selects played a pristine team game, even while shaking off some bus legs.
A loss to Little Caesars on Sunday evening kept the 16Us out of championship contention, but an 8-1 thrashing of the Colorado Thunderbirds on Monday morning capped what Collins hopes is an early turning point.
“The whole thing with this group is that they’re just so talented they can play an individual game,” Collins said. “But this is the level for me where you have to start playing a team game. They’re starting to click in. They’re understanding what we want to do and how we want the game to be played.”
Collins admitted that coming off a national championship run has the tendency to make a coaching staff impatient, but it’s easy to forget that no team in the history of hockey has ever had all its ducks in a row before October.
“In my mind, because of how last season ended, I want things faster than it is right now,” Collins said. “But the hindsight of looking over the past few years, every team is in this spot right now. They’re kind of up and down and everything starts to solidify as you go.
“I want it to be farther along, but that’s OK. It’s all part of the process and they’re in a much better spot and they’re starting to buy in.”
Collins explained that his group needs to stay in the mentality of creating two-on-one matchups all over the ice, translating that puck support to extended possessions and offensive-zone time. Especially in grueling weekends like the last two, that can help a team conserve energy and actually gain momentum as games approach their conclusions.
Metaphor for the season on the whole, too? Hey, it worked out well last time around, didn’t it?
Beyond the Xs and Os, though, there’s more support within BK Selects that has nothing to do with the puck.
“It’s crazy,” King remarked. “You live with all the other teams, so it’s one big family. I never thought before I got here that it could be such a family.”
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