Local players urge USA Hockey to consider rescheduling national championships

Wednesday, March 18, 2020 | 6:58 PM

Since 1938, USA Hockey, then known as the Amateur Hockey Association of the United States, has been crowning national champions on the rink at a myriad of different levels.

Thousands of athletes have competed for what is one of hockey’s greatest accolades.

Three PIHL teams and plenty of other local players were set to compete at different levels of the nationals this year, which would’ve started with the high school nationals from March 26-30 and ended with championships at the youth, girls, women’s, sled and adult tiers following throughout April.

That opportunity has been stripped away, as USA Hockey decided to cancel its nationals due to coronavirus outbreak concerns.

While the kids, coaches and those around the sport understand why the decision to cancel was made, that hasn’t stopped them from feeling a variety of emotions, not the least of which is disappointment for having what is, for most, a once-in-a-lifetime experience and dream taken away because of something completely out of their control.

One local athlete, North Allegheny senior Tyler Boyles, who is on the U18 Pittsburgh Predators amateur team that was supposed to play at nationals in Irvine, Calif., has spearheaded an effort to ask USA Hockey to consider stepping back its decision to cancel events rather than reschedule them.

His petition has more than 53,000 signatures and continues to climb with each passing day.

For Boyles, it’s about the work each athlete, parent, coach and anyone involved with the team has put in over the course of the last year. It’s about having the chance to make memories and great hockey moment and having the culmination of a dream.

He said, as many who have shared stories and messages with him and on the petition page have echoed, that it’s the last chance for some athletes to play in the final organized, competitive hockey games of their lives after years of blood, sweat and tears devoted to the game.

“We understand the situation and the health risks. All we’re asking for is that USA Hockey reverses its decision to outright cancel nationals and put rescheduling them back on the table,” Boyles said. “So many players’ dreams have been crushed by this decision, and it is so unfair to all of those players coaches and parents who have worked so hard.”

Each year, the PIHL selects a few teams to go to USA Hockey Nationals and play in the high school tier event, which is usually held about a week before the tournaments for the amateur teams.

Last year, the Burrell Bucs were the national runner-up in Cleveland in the open division. This year, Class AAA Upper St. Clair, Class AA Greater Latrobe and Class B Ringgold were going to represent the league.

If rescheduling is off the table, it’s a crushing blow to three teams that had hockey left to look forward to.

That’s especially so for Upper St. Clair, whose season came to a premature end in the first round of the Class AAA playoffs.

“The kids were all excited. Obviously we can’t control the virus, but I know they would love for the opportunity to play in them,” said Panthers coach Justin Becinski. “It’s not the finish we wanted, so once we lost to Seneca Valley, we just repositioned our focus to Dallas for nationals.”

Should the PIHL portion of the schedule resume, Ringgold will play for the Class B championship and Greater Latrobe for the Class AA crown, but even that is uncertain.

“It’s tough when you have nine seniors on your team and they’ve worked so hard for years to get to this point and just like that, it’s gone,” said Ringgold coach Rick Kalinowski. “I don’t want to downplay it, but it’s big for this to be taken away from these kids, and it’s not because of something in their control.”

The Icecats went from happy to disappointed in a matter of moments. They won their semifinal last March 11 before finding out nationals were canceled on the bus on the way home. That was the same night the NBA season was suspended, and the ball got rolling.

“We were pretty excited. The team was super pumped and we have already had a few meetings to figure things out like who was rooming with who and other things,” Latrobe coach Josh Werner said. “We’re hoping we get to play the PIHL championship game. At least we’re able to focus on some other things. I’d love to see them reconsider. There are a lot of teams that prepare for that opportunity.”

Boyles’ petition had 30,000 signatures in the first day and another 10,000 a day later. He wasn’t even close to the only local player set to play at the event either.

Boyles’ teammate on the Predators, Liam Tomczak, who plays in the PIHL for Avonworth in Class B and just completed his senior season at the high school level, said the news was heartbreaking. The team’s season was brought to an end “just like that.”

Bri Medved, who plays for the Pens Elite U19 women’s team and played at West Allegheny, was set to play in Nashville.

“It took everything in us to fight through the highs and the lows and to give everything we’ve had in us since the season started all the way back in August,” Medved said. ‘That’s almost eight months of hard work and complete dedication to the sport, all in hopes of making it to nationals for the chance to become a national champion.

“It was taken away from us so quickly like none of that work even mattered. If nationals were rescheduled, so many athletes would get their chance to compete in their first, last or one of many national championships.”

For many who were supposed to play at nationals, they’ve played their last amateur hockey game, and at the time, they didn’t know it.

The hope for these athletes is that the petition helps sway the organization to consider rescheduling, though given world events, they know it will not be an easy task.

Once things return to normal, perhaps the three PIHL teams and all the amateur players will have the chance to play at nationals, but for now, that’s not on the table.

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