Looking for its identity was the No. 1 goal for the Glenwood Grizzly midget hockey team at the recent Vail Sportsman Tournament.
After graduating many senior veterans the previous year, many saw this as a rebuilding year, unless you talked to the players and coaches. The players that were committed to their team never saw it that way in the offseason.
"We believe we have a determined young group that are willing to learn and commit to a team concept. We are there for each other. ... Now is not the time to think individually. We knew we had to pull together quickly," acknowledged forwards coach Chuck Apostolik.
The weekend would prove to be a mental and physical challenge, with less than 48 hours to play five down-to-the-wire games. The first game of the ironman weekend was against Littleton at 11 p.m.
The young Grizzlies felt more butterflies in warm-ups, and the pucks were flying at rookie goalkeeper Jake Fegan's pads. Littleton set the pace right out of the gate, taking it to the Grizzlies the first period.
"I think we were a bit nervous to say the least. Littleton is a tough rival and we were watching the game instead of becoming part of it," added second-year defensive coach Bryan Gonzales.
Glenwood was able to battle to a hard-fought 1-1 tie with Glenwood's lone goal coming from captain Jackson Wilson.
"We had too many defensive breakdowns in our own zone and they capitalized late in the game" head coach Tim Cota stated.
Glenwood took its game to Vail early on, with the natural hat trick going to Wilson.
"We set a goal for ourselves to get more offensive opportunities after the 1-1 tie the night before, and Jackson was able to lead the way in that regard," Cota added.
Another 11 p.m. game faced the Grizzlies in this matchup. Improved defensive play from Glenwood's defensive group and key saves from Fegan allowed the Grizzlies to come roaring back from a 2-0 deficit.
Veteran defenseman Sammy Carmer tied the game with less then 10 seconds remaining to keep the championship hopes alive for the Grizzlies.
"Tactically speaking, this was our most fundamentally sound game of the tournament. We didn't make many mistakes," Coach Gonzales said.
Five hours of hibernation didn't affect the Grizzlies run for the championship game.
"We knew we controlled our own destiny and that's where we wanted to be after three games. The players had done their job up to this point, and we needed to finish it now," a confident Coach Apostolik stated.
The Grizzlies started rather slow but fired off four goals in the second and third period after a scoreless first, with the blue line contributing three of the four goals. Chaz Apostolik, Tias Dacuma and Wilson lit the lamp.
"We earned this one, boys," Dacuma said. "This was a team effort."
This was the fifth game in less than 48 hours for both teams, so fatigue became a factor for both coaching staffs.
Littleton came out with the extra jump in the first period, taking it to the Grizzlies, but Fegan handled the onslaught with ease.
At the 4 minute, 44 second mark of the first period, Littleton dumped the puck into Glenwood's end. Fegan had position, but the puck took a strange bounce and hopped in over his shoulder, which is how the period ended.
"It's one of those things in hockey. Jake had proper position, the puck jumped at the last second. Littleton got lucky on that one," Cota added. "The coaching staff knew we would respond properly."
Glenwood would once again battle back from a 2-0 deficit to tie the hockey game 2 late in the third period, with two top-shelf goals by Wilson.
The Grizzlies would give up the game-winning goal on a nice pass from Littleton off a draw in the neutral zone to the center of the ice, allowing the winger a free ride the net.
Glenwood took home the runner-up trophy and also the sportsmanship award trophy.
"The players exceeded our expectations this weekend, and we surprised some people," Cota said. "There were some that didn't give us any chance this year. These kids are committed to their team and each other. We have work to do, a lot of it, but the foundation is there."
The Grizzlies open their home league season up against first-place, undefeated Arapahoe this Saturday at 7:45 p.m. at The Cave (aka the Glenwood Springs Community Center rink). Admission is free.