Oklahoma City Jr. Blazers

A sheet of ice after a solid hockey game is a lot like sheet music. Each cut and groove in the ice is a record of sorts, a permanent registration of the action that took place on its surface. Each cut records one note in a much larger symphony. And like a good symphony, hockey demands a lot from its players – balance, power, skill, and subtlety. There is a time to play it soft and there is a time to play it loud. On the ice, the sixteen members of the Oklahoma City Jr. Blazers will play it however they have to in order to win. Off the ice, they want to get loud. And they want you to hear about them. It is not about the individual, but instead about the team working together to create a work of physical art.

This is an unlikely collection of twelve, thirteen, and fourteen-year-olds. They hail from Shawnee, Edmond, Oklahoma City, Norman, Moore, and even as far away as Stillwater. They represent fourteen different middle and high schools in the Oklahoma City area. They come from all walks of life. The most unlikely thing about them? They all play hockey to win–in Oklahoma.

From the front of the ice to the back, the Jr. Blazers are: forwards, James Coppock, Ben Dillman, Joshua Gleason, Brandon Gorges, Corey Morgan, Sean Nobles, Kyle Sharkey, Anthony Stancampiano, and Mike Thibodeau; defensemen, Alex Autry, Shane Bonds, Michael Dunford, Taylor Monkman, and Bradley Thomas; and goaltenders, Brad Roth and Will Ryan.

The dedication – on and off the ice – of the Jr. Blazers is startling. On the ice, hockey demands stamina. For most of us, ice-skating is hard enough on its own. These kids do it with precision, turning on a dime while wearing forty pounds of equipment and still coming around to drive the puck into the net at speeds that sometimes approach 100 miles per hour.

Off the ice, the bantam division in which they play seems to require the same level of commitment as a professional team. For many of them there is the long drive to Arctic Edge, a rink in Edmond, or the Oklahoma City Blazers’ rink, where they practice frequently. There is time on the road–Dallas, Manitoba, Ontario, Michigan–wherever the tournament is located. Fly in; get on the ice and play. Play again, eat, sleep, get up at 5:00 a.m. the next morning to play again, and then again, and find some time somewhere to eat more. That’s what a weekend looks like for these guys.

Edmond resident and defenseman, Taylor Monkman, easily explains his commitment to the sport and the team, saying, “It is a team sport where you can encourage others to play harder and be encouraged by them. It is fast-paced, physical, and competitive, but when it’s over you shake hands with the other team and tell them, ‘Good game.’ The friends you make are the best. Usually, they’re not the same friends you have at school. These are the friends that share your love of the game. The commitment, the love of hockey – it’s fun to have that in common with fifteen other guys.”

That commitment pays off. The Jr. Blazers started this season with back-to-back victories over the Dallas Stars and the Dallas Ice Hawks in a doubleheader. Last year’s team won the Silver Sticks, a major North American tournament that features only the "best of the best" in American and Canadian hockey. Seven of the Jr. Blazers that weren’t with the team last year kept themselves busy winning the Texas Amateur Hockey Association’s Peewee championship.

In November, the Jr. Blazers grabbed first place in their division at the annual Fall Roundup Tournament in Dallas.

The commitment doesn’t stop with the players. Think of all the connotations rolled into the common phrase, “soccer mom.” Then multiply them by ten. That’s what it takes to be a hockey mom, and it extends to the fathers, too. Where the Jr. Blazers go, their parents follow – whether it’s to Edmond for practice or Canada for a tournament.

Edmond resident, Jeff Thibodeau, says it’s worth the effort. Making it possible for his son, Mike, to play brings him big rewards in the parenting department.

“I enjoy having my son play hockey because it has taught him a lot of 'life lessons' about things like perseverance, self-discipline, teamwork and overcoming obstacles," said Thibodeau.

Cindy Sharkey, however, is quick to underscore the fun side of being a hockey parent. “I enjoy taking Kyle to games and I love traveling to different places. Kyle’s dream is to play in the NHL someday and I will do whatever I can to help him make his dream come true. It’s a big commitment for parents as well as for the kids but it is all worth it,” she says.

Coach, Chris Johnston brings his experience as a professional hockey player to the team. The secret to his, and to the Jr. Blazers’ success, may lie somewhere in a teaching approach that focuses on more than just winning games. He is as interested in shaping character as he is teaching the game.

“We play to win,” said Johnston, “When we go to tournaments, we want to win and we work to win. But the winning isn’t everything we’re thinking about on the ice. Some of these guys will play serious hockey someday. That will make me proud. But all of them are learning life skills here, and that makes me equally proud.”

For many of the Jr. Blazers, hockey is an inter-generational pursuit, a love that came to them from fathers, mothers, and grandparents. Forward Kyle, Sharkey’s grandfather played in the NHL and his father played semi-pro. Defenseman, Taylor Monkman’s father played junior and college hockey in Canada. Monkman practically grew up on the ice. During his early years he absorbed by osmosis the game and the excitement of playing it.

The Jr. Blazers are the most visible manifestation of the recent interest and growth of hockey in Oklahoma. Hockey came to most of the Jr. Blazers via family, friends, and sheer accident. But thanks to the efforts of the Oklahoma City Youth Hockey Association, that’s changing. Kids can now come to the sport by participating in the Association's Kids First Beginner program. Headed by former Blazers coach and three-time Stanley Cup winner, Michael McEwan, the program gives kids the opportunity to explore hockey without having to pay steep, up-front costs for ice time and equipment. Details are available at http://www.okcyha.org/.

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