Members of the Colorado Thunderbirds' 16U squad celebrate winning their Tier 1 national title in April 2010. All photos courtesy of Stacey Smith
Ten years later, the Colorado Thunderbirds are still the only team from the state to win a Tier 1 USA Hockey National Championship.
When considering all of the great players who have emerged from the Centennial State, it’s a testament to the 2010 Colorado Thunderbirds 16U team that they were able to climb a mountain that no other team has been able to scale.
“It was just so special. You’ll never forget, and we’ll get to laugh about it forever,” said Matt Cope, a forward on the 2010 team who is now a Thunderbirds coach. “It’s funny how a championship bonds you together. I could list 10-12 guys I’ve seen in the past 12 months. That kind of camaraderie is different.
“I like to give [Thunderbirds Director of Hockey and former 16U coach] Angelo Ricci a hard time because he’s had better hockey teams [in terms of future pros] than us.”
The 2010 champions, however, were no slouches. Ten members of the team went on to play NCAA Division I hockey, and most of the rest played Division III or American Collegiate Hockey Association (ACHA) hockey.
The Division I players on the roster included seven forwards — Cope (Robert Morris), Evan Anderson (Michigan Tech), Brad Hawkinson (University of Denver), Christian Heil (Colorado College), Austin Ortega (University of Nebraska Omaha), Quentin Shore (University of Denver) and Landon Smith (Quinnipiac) — as well as three defensemen — Matias Cleland (New Hampshire), Josiah Didier (University of Denver) and Gavin Stoick (Cornell).
Goaltenders Sam Mallory and Payam Sami, defensemen Brennan Bohnsack, Johnny Dora, Eric Killam and Kyle Robison, and forwards Dylan Bozeman, Ansel Duesenberg, Josh Racek and Jerad Tafoya rounded out the roster.
“Ten years is a long time but it goes fast,” Ricci said. “It was really special to be part of. Things aren’t easy when you go through that process, but hopefully we as a staff and coaches made a positive impact on these young men.”
What follows is the first of two parts in an oral history of the 2009-10 season, as told by six of the team’s players and Ricci.
Four members of the 2010 team had gone to Nationals with a group of 1992 birth years — Bohnsack, Bozeman, Sami and Smith. That further whet their appetite for winning a title.
Payam Sami: I think we knew that with the skill we had we could easily compete for a national championship. I played for Angelo three years in a row. He told us a lot of teams go to Nationals, but he told us he truly believed we had a legit shot at winning it. Out of the four times I went to Nationals that was the only time I thought, holy [crap], we have a shot to win it without a miracle.
Angelo Ricci: The loss at Nationals [in 2009] gave them a close taste. To them it was about reaching the pinnacle.
The roster ended up with a perfect split of 10 players from each of the 1993 and ’94 birth years.
Ricci: The balance of 94s and 93s was something we had to get over early. The 94s were really good, but the 93s were, too. Once we understood we’re not a 94 team, or we’re not a 93 team, we’re a 16U team — that was a huge turning point for us. That solidified the group.
Eric Killam: It made the transition into a season easier when you’re already familiar with a lot of guys in the locker room. Even if you hadn’t played with them before, we knew a lot of guys through teammates. We had that connection even if we hadn’t played together. … We didn’t have to have that get-to-know-each-other period. We had that buy-in right away.
Brad Hawkinson: All of us who were 94s had played a few years together. When Gavin Stoick and Austin Ortega came in, we’d known them from national camps and tournaments. … That’s the first time we’d played with people from out of state. Once they signed on and said we want to go there because that’s the best place to advance, that helped us out. That boosted the psyche of everyone; that people would want to come play on the Thunderbirds was pretty cool.
Josiah Didier: You never thought you’d have people from out of state wanting to play here. Once you’re at that top level and have top coaching, you’re going to get those guys. I don’t think we’d have won if we didn’t have Ortega, and Hawk coming here a few years before, and Gavin Stoick from Oregon. They brought so much to our team. You see that more and more now if a kid is from a place that isn’t a hockey hotbed sometimes they have to leave. It shows what a great organization the Thunderbirds is.
To this day the 2009-10 Colorado Thunderbirds 16U team (pictured) remains the only Colorado group to win a Tier 1 national championship.
The backbone of the championship team was a group of players who had grown up playing together. That, as much as anything, contributed to the Thunderbirds' uncanny chemistry.
Landon Smith: I grew up with a lot of these guys so it really felt like a family.
Didier: A lot of us grew up through the Littleton Hawks organization. We’re all the same age so we were on the same teams. Then we moved over to the Thunderbirds. … That core group of guys was pretty much whom I grew up playing with — Landon, Quintin Shore, Payam, Brennan, Eric Killam, Evan Anderson. Landon’s dad [Tom] was my first hockey coach when I was 5 years old. I played with Landon every year until that [16U year].
Hawkinson: It reminded me how it was at DU [when Denver won the 2017 NCAA championship], and the results spoke for themselves. Being a 15-, 16-year-old kid, it doesn’t seem like much, but when you think about getting a group like that on the same page, it would be a tough job. … Everybody got along so well. There was no animosity. There was no pecking order. Guys could speak up, or be funny and not get looked down on.
Ricci: The players really cared about each other. Whenever you have a championship team there is a special bond, and not just the players but the coaches, the staff, the parents, everyone. My staff was incredible. Brian TenEyck, Scott Smith, Justin Waldron were a big part of it. We worked well together. We had great players, and when you have great players who buy into their roles and want to do the right thing for each other success follows. That’s a hard thing to understand at that age. … [Team manager] Larry Cleland, Kim Feno, Linda Hawkinson, everyone did so much and helped. ...Tom Smith, Landon’s dad, was a huge part of everything, and his mom, Stacey. Everyone contributed.
The fulcrum of the team was Ricci, who remains the Thunderbirds’ director of hockey and also works for the Philadelphia Flyers as their skills coach in the NHL.
Didier: Playing for Angelo there are such high expectations. The Thunderbirds have been such a high, elite program. Going into that year we knew we had an expectation to perform. We had a great coaching staff. They got the best out of us.
Hawkinson: [Angelo’s] an incredible coach. He could have moved on long ago to higher levels. His whole thing was teaching us what to expect going forward in the game. I can’t tell you how many times he’d tell us, ‘You’re doing this because this is how they do it at the next level. This will make you successful.’ …That was the first time I’d ever really heard that. I’d only thought about offense. He did that with everybody, preparing them well.
Matt Cope: Angelo really preaches knowing your role on a team and taking care of your job. If you look at the depth of that team and the commitment of guys … everyone had their goals and knew what they wanted to do. The maturity of the guys was reflected in their willingness to put in the work to achieve team and personal goals. That’s what was so special. … He’s doing what he does in the NHL for a reason, and every time you’re on the ice with him you get a reminder for why.
Killam: It’s unique having a coaching relationship with him now, as opposed to playing for him. Those are two completely different dynamics. … His best characteristic is he’s never coaching against the other team. He’s only coaching how his team performs. At times, it didn’t seem like it mattered who we were playing against. ‘They’re in our way, and let’s focus on how we play and not do anything to change the way we play.’ … His knowledge of the game. Putting up the numbers he did in the USHL and at DU is impressive. If the injuries hadn’t happened he would have a pretty lengthy NHL career. I think he sees the game and has a knowledge of the game that is second to none. Even being the skills coach of an NHL team, there are a lot of nuances that not many people can communicate like he can. That’s his strength. He’s got a motivation and intimidation factor that makes you want to perform well. He’s built up this credibility. He knows the game and advances a lot of players.
Ricci: You want them to gain skill, to develop but it’s fun to have success and do well. A lot of those kids moved on and have done very well, whether in hockey or out of it. It was a great foundational base for their future. That’s what’s most rewarding for me to see, how well guys are doing now.
"I think we knew that with the skill we had we could easily compete for a national championship. I played for Angelo three years in a row. He told us a lot of teams go to Nationals, but he told us he truly believed we had a legit shot at winning it."
--Payam Sami on how competitive the 2009-10 Thunderbirds were
The team also took cues from a core of leaders that included Bohnsack, Cope, Didier, Smith and even the goaltender, Sami.
Hawkinson: None of them thought they were above anyone else. That’s hard to pull off at that age.
Sami: We didn’t have to build a whole new squad because a lot of us had played together. Landon and Brennan were our captains at Squirt A and Pee Wee AA with Littleton. They were already looked at as leaders. The most important thing is we didn’t have a big divide between our first- and second-year players. We had so many guys looking at D-I offers. On other teams you see guys who just care about me, me, me. We had so many unselfish players that everyone bought in and realized scouts like to watch winning teams. They want guys who know how to win. So a lot of guys put personal success aside to pursue team success. … We had a lot of different types of leaders. Landon’s not a real vocal leader. His leadership is going to be through his work ethic and follow me. Matt Cope and Brennan were a lot more vocal. Josiah was more quiet, but he did all the right things. There were a lot of different styles but they complemented each other.
Smith: We had more of a group leadership style. Guys held each other accountable. It wasn’t like [Bohnsack] and I had to scream at guys to lock it in. If a guy’s not doing the right thing, or says something out of line, everyone would let him know.
Killam: The beauty of that team was everybody pulling on the rope together. We didn’t have clicks. We had leaders who weren’t wearing letters. … The leaders we had were guys who could keep the mood light. Angelo was so intense we needed some guys who were able to take a licking from Angelo and still keep it light. We needed a couple of good cops. … Josiah was a little more of the serious type who kept people in line, but Landon and Brennan Bohnsack can keep the mood pretty light and still perform at a high level. We had a good balance.
Ricci: Matt’s a funny guy. He kept the locker room light. But when it was game time, he performed. You need that mix of serious guys and guys who can lighten things up. All those leaders were amazing, and they all supported each other. … That team was accountable to one another, and they were on a mission from Day 1.
The Thunderbirds recorded 143 points in 85 games played en route to winning the 16U national title in 2009-10.
With so many talented players on one roster, not everyone could be on the power play or get lots of ice time. But that wasn’t a problem for this Thunderbirds group.
Didier: That’s probably the biggest thing when it comes to championship teams, no matter where it is, everyone accepting their role. You just want to go to battle with the guy next to you every game. It was something special.
Hawkinson: I remember how many good players we had. You could tell with other teams that guys were in it for themselves. I don't think anyone on our team was that way. Maybe it was blissful ignorance, or being so young. We weren’t doing it for our future advancement. That really helped us. … We had almost a pro or college roster-type makeup. We had guys who could score every game. We had third- and fourth-line guys who could grind it out. People really embraced their roles and never complained. [Dylan] Bozeman played on the fourth line and killed penalties, and you never heard him complain.
Smith: I don’t think there was one individual guy; everyone played their role. And that’s what made it so special. Everyone knew what they had to do at a given time. … Our fourth line was just as important as our first line.
Sami: A lot of teams have the skill to win a championship, but it goes beyond that to the bond in the locker room, guys wanting to play for each other. That came pretty naturally. … Everyone bought into their role. We didn’t have true 1, 2, 3, 4 lines. In the national championship game we rolled lines. Everyone understood their role. If they weren’t on power play, you know you’re a PK guy.
"We knew we were pretty good, but I don’t think we knew we were as good as we were. The Tier 1 Elite League’s structure was so good at that time. You were playing top-10 teams pretty much every weekend. Every game was a battle. Outside of a few games we didn’t really blow a lot of teams out, we just found ways to win."
--Matt Cope on his 2009-10 Thunderbirds experience
The Thunderbirds’ team-first mentality was cultivated and constantly reinforced by strength and conditioning coach Ryan Herzog, an Air Force veteran and pioneer in tactical training methods. The players say Herzog gave them an extra edge.
Sami: Ryan Herzog taught us a lot about leadership. Everything was done as a team. We did push-ups at the end of every practice as a team at center ice. There was no man left behind. … When we did dryland, if we did a 3-minute plank and I dropped before 3 minutes, we all restarted. Everything was team-based. A lot of that came from his philosophies. That broke down everyones’ egos. He once made us do a 6-minute plank. That guy made us do things I never thought were possible. So much of it is if you’re doing it as an individual, there is no way you could do a 6-minute plank. But if you have 19 guys you’re not going to let down, you’re going to push yourself a little bit farther.
Cope: He brought a [military] mentality to our team off ice, which would translate into who you are as a person. He was a huge factor for that team. My parents are the biggest influences on who I am today, but right behind them is Ryan. He’s such a leader and someone who obviously teaches you how to do the right thing every time.
The Thunderbirds had a remarkable 67-9-9 record in 2009-10, playing against the top teams in the country week-in and week-out. Put another way, that is 143 points in 85 games, or comparable to the NHL record, which the 1976-77 Montreal Canadiens set with 132 points in 80 games.
Killam: Consistently is the challenge in any season. Angelo was a great communicator of if we play our game it can translate well against anyone in the country. We had the mindset that it doesn’t matter who we play, whether it was the [Pikes Peak] Miners down in the Springs, who always played us tough, or [Detroit] Belle Tire, which was one of the better teams in the nation.
Sami: It was team defense. We had enough skill we knew we were going to score goals. We had to buy into our team defense and that’s how we were actually going to win games.
Cope: Outside of a couple of games, and the national tournament, I didn’t remember much of that season. When you’re having that much fun it’s just a blur. Our team was stacked. It’s hard not to put together a lot of wins when you’re that deep at such a young age. … It’s funny now when you talk to guys you played against. We knew we were pretty good, but I don’t think we knew we were as good as we were. The Tier 1 Elite League’s structure was so good at that time. You were playing top-10 teams pretty much every weekend. Every game was a battle. Outside of a few games we didn’t really blow a lot of teams out, we just found ways to win. I’m starting now to realize just how good we were.
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