With the state championship tournaments coming up this weekend, four Grand Niagara teams are hoping to cap a season that has been, well, just grand.
The Grand Niagara Pee Wee, Bantam, Midget and Squirt squads, all Tier II, have gained berths in their tournaments. This is the first time in a decade or longer that one organization has sent four teams in the same year.
Pee Wee coach Dan Nicolette will travel to his first states in Rome. "We feel we have a good shot at winning the states, but so does Batavia."
Anticipating the pressure, Nicolette said, "I want my team to concentrate, yet keep it loose. When you play not to make mistakes, that's when you make them."
The Pee Wees finished second in the Western New York Amateur Hockey League at 14-2-2, one point behind Batavia and one behind in the Qualifier (Q) game standings, 7-1-2, to Batavia's 8-1-1.
How did GN place four teams in the states this year? According to Nicolette, the organization has upgraded the coaching staff in the past five years. "We also purchased video review machines and drawing boards and helped the coaches and kids with these better coaching tools."
Gary Hill, coach of the Bantams, has state championship experience. His current Bantams won the states as Squirts in 1991 and again as Pee Wees in 1993.
"Each state tournament is different," Hill said. "You never know the opposition because teams come from Long Island, Oswego, Clinton, Saratoga and other places and you've not seen them play all winter."
Hill said he relies upon scouting the other teams in the early-round games.
The Bantams won both their overall league standing, 11-3-2, and the Q-game schedule. Their state tournament is in Saratoga.
The GN McIntyre "Boys of Steel" Squirts are seeking their second straight state title. Last year Ray Gruarin was an assistant coach, but now he is the head man.
"I agree with Dan (Nicolette) that our coaching has improved, with many of our coaches having played top high school or major college hockey themselves," Gruarin said. "I myself played for UB when it was Division II and Gary (Hill) played at Cornell."
After a grueling 62-game season all told, the Squirts finished the WNYAHL year tied with Cheektowaga at 14-2-2 but won the league on the head-to-head tiebreaker. They play their state tournament in Cheektowaga.
Despite placing fourth in the regular WNYAHL season at 16-7-2, the GN Midgets went 8-1-1 in their Q-games.
"I think I had a more talented team last year," said coach Mark Galuszka, "but these kids this year are so coachable and know how to respond in big games.
"We won many of our games on third-period comebacks, so they never quit. We were Tier III up until three years ago when we moved up to Tier II, so we've come a long way."
The Midgets will travel to Auburn.
Meanwhile, the Buffalo Regals' Midget Majors of the Empire West Hockey League are going to their state tournament this weekend in West Seneca. They tuned up by winning the prestigious Richmond Hill (Ont.) Tournament last weekend, only the second American team in the last 27 years to win. Marty Reasoner earned the tournament's most valuable player award, an honor that once belonged to Pat LaFontaine.
The Buffalo Regals' Pee Wee Major squad will travel to its state tournament on Long Island after a first-place EWHL year of 22-4-2.
"My team is dedicated, with three-quarters of my players never missing a practice all year," coach Jim Reaume said. "This team, the youngest in the EWHL Pee Wees, allowed the fewest goals in the league (by) stressing team defense."
Also, the West Seneca Mites won the Sam Pastor Pepsi Invitational Tournament as Chris Walh had a hat trick in a 3-2 win over Meadowvale, Ont.