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Junior Purple Eagles vie for national attention

The Niagara Junior Purple Eagles Tier II Midget Minor team has a lofty goal. In order to give itself a chance to achieve it the Purple Eagles must do something they've already done together: Win a state championship.

The only way Niagara (24-3-2) can give itself an opportunity to play for a national championship -- the title the team really wants -- is to win the New York State Amateur Hockey Association championship this weekend in Long Island. The tournament began Friday.

Seems simple enough for the top-ranked team in the state and second-ranked team in the myhockeyrankings.com national poll. But these Purple Eagles won't sneak up on anybody. Everyone wants a piece of them.

"Sure there's a little bit of pressure knowing we're one of the best teams out there, but we're used to that," said team captain Charlie Stein, 16. "We know everyone is coming for us. We know everyone wants to beat us. I think we're up to the task."

This edition of Niagara has been scary good for quite some time. Two years ago the Purple Eagles stunned the masses by placing third at the USA Hockey National Tournament.

As great as that moment proved to be for the program, the core group of this team -- including eight who have been together since they were Mites -- wants to go out on an even higher note.

A number of this team's players will likely explore other options that could give them a better chance at getting noticed by junior teams or college programs. For a group that has won state titles as Bantams and Pee Wees, a national championship would be a nice cherry to top off years of sweet memories.

"To go out on top would be a dream come true," said Stein, one of 14 current Purple Eagles who were on the Bantam team that placed third at nationals in 2008.

The Purple Eagles need to win the state tournament in order to get into the national event.

Strange things can happen in winner-take-all tournaments, but when Niagara has been focused on the task at hand it has proved to be quite a handful -- even for the higher level Tier I teams. The Purple Eagles recently beat Tier I state tournament participant Wheatfield, 4-3, by scoring twice in an eight-second span late in the third period to pull out the win.

"When we're clicking, it's hard to find a team that can beat us," coach John Bruno said. "They all feel this is the year. . . . Their desire is to win a national championship because that's something they've never done."

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Pfalzer goes for gold

Last year, Niagara Falls' Adam Clendening helped Team USA's Under-18 team win the IIHF World Championships.

While he'll attempt to help the team defend its gold medal April 13-24 in Belarus, another Western New Yorker hopes to help a different red, white and blue squad strike gold. Getzville's Emily Pfalzer is a member of the Under-18 women's national team that will compete in the worlds next Saturday through April 3 in Woodbridge, Ill.

The 16-year-old defenseman plays for Mississauga (Ont.) in the Provincial Women's Hockey League. She's also played for Nichols, the Buffalo Bisons and Amherst Knights.

Pfalzer played three games against Canada for the U.S. Under-18 Women's Select team in Calgary over the summer. She also was one of 10 girls picked to practice for five days with the U.S. Olympic Team before it left for Vancouver. She was picked for the Under-18 team March 2.

"It's an honor," said Pfalzer, who leaves for Chicago to practice with the team Sunday. "It's always been my dream to wear the USA jersey. To do that I'm really excited."

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Around the boards

*This is the final weekend of state tournament play. Thus far, Western New York teams have captured six championships with the Bisons' girls hockey program (12-under, 14-under and 16-under teams) accounting for three of them. Niagara's 14-under Tier II girls team, along with Tier II boys teams from Tonawanda (Squirt) and the Bisons (Pee Wee) have also won titles, according to www.usahockey.com/new_york/.

*Just a reminder that the Amherst Center will host the Tier I 12-and-under and 14-and-under USA Hockey National Championships on April 7-11.

*Hockey is for Everyone, in conjunction with Hasek's Heroes, will present the three-day Willie O'Ree Skills Showcase Weekend event beginning Friday.

The event showcases talented youth players from across North America from economically-challenged backgrounds. Following the 6 p.m. opening-night reception ceremony at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, there will be a skills-and-skating-session seminar followed by a skills competition Saturday at the Bud Bakewell Ice Rink at Riverside Park. The long day of hockey begins at 9 a.m. with the skills competition to start at 2:30 p.m.

The event concludes with a 9 a.m. game Sunday at HSBC Arena featuring Hockey is for Everyone players. The event is free and Willie O'Ree, the first African-American to play in the NHL, will be on hand throughout the weekend, along while Sabres alumni.

For more information, visithttp://www.haseksheroes.org.

*Holiday Twin and Leisure rinks are hosting the 34th Annual Pepsi Invitational, a month-long tournament that takes places on weekends until April 11. This year's event includes more than 250 teams from the United States and Canada competing for house and travel league championships. About 80 percent of the tournament participants are from outside of the area.

e-mail: mrodriguez@buffnews.com

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