The Colorado Thunderbirds' 16U team leaves the bench to celebrate their Tier 1 national championship victory in April 2010. All photos courtesy of Stacey Smith
The Colorado Thunderbirds remain the only team from the state to win a Tier 1 USA Hockey National Championship.
Ten members of that championship 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 skaters on the roster included seven forwards — Matt 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.
What follows is the second of two parts in an oral history of the 2009-10 season, as told by six of the team’s players and Angelo Ricci, the Thunderbirds' director of hockey and former 16U coach.
The Thunderbirds were in prime position to possibly win the prestigious Nike Bauer Invitational in suburban Chicago in November 2009, but a rink malfunction landed a majority of the team in the hospital.
Matt Cope: The Nike Bauer would have been that moment. We were set to play in the semifinals, and we got carbon monoxide poisoning and had to forfeit the game.
Payam Sami: We had played to a 1-1 tie against the Chicago Young Americans. That whole day our entire team was complaining about headaches. … We had a game that night and played it not knowing what was wrong. A tournament official reached out to us a couple of hours later and said, ‘Hey, how are your boys feeling? We had a carbon monoxide leak in one of the rinks during the game before yours. There are kids on the other team who had seizures.’ … Anyone who had a headache went to the hospital. They lined us by last name. A couple guys had to go to the hyperbaric chamber. We were supposed to play in the semifinals against [Detroit] Compuware the next morning. The doctor recommended we not play. … I just remember we were all lying down in rows. We got back to the hotel at 3 in the morning and we had a game at 8 that morning. We’re supposed to meet in Angelo’s room to decide if we’re going to play. More than half the guys slept through their alarm. … We ended up dropping out of the tournament. I remember Nike Bauer ended up sending us a package with gear and swag. Sixteen out of the 20 players had to go to the hospital. … Who knows if that made us closer or not, but we had a legit chance of winning that damn tournament.
Eric Killam: Any time you have something scary like that it rallies everyone together. Had we continued to play I think we were playing well enough that we had set ourselves up to have a chance to win it. Winning that tournament at 16s is like a mini national championship because you’ve got every top team in the country there. We had to lean on each other to get through it. … We were so good all year that I wonder if you can say there was a turning point. We had one trip to Wisconsin when we went 2-3, which was a third of our losses in one weekend. Maybe you could label that a turning point. I don’t know what our record was after that, but I’m sure the flight home and bus ride home after that was pretty quiet.
"We wanted to win. We had that confidence to us that we knew we could do it. Going to a shootout in that first game [at Nationals] woke us up. Everyone bought into their role. We were so skilled, but everyone focused on the defensive side first, and that’s how we won."
--Josiah Didier on the will of the Thunderbirds
When the chips were down, Sami was at his best. More than unbeatable, he was virtually impenetrable in knockout games. He pitched shutouts in the state and district finals, and didn’t allow a goal in elimination games at Nationals until the final minute of the championship game. “We did not let in a goal until there were 15 seconds left in the national championship game, which Angelo never let me live down,” the goaltender recalled with a laugh. “I had water in my eye. I was squirting myself with water and I was blinking. This shot was probably from the blue line. You have to remember me somehow.”
Cope: All throughout youth hockey that’s how Payam was. He’s probably the most normal goalie I’ve played with throughout my career. In youth hockey he was lights out because he was so competitive. He wasn’t pretty but he found ways to get it done. We were fortunate to have him and Sam Mallory, who was in his first year in the program. Sam played a big role for us, too. … Payam’s competitiveness would take over in those big games, and our whole system was dialed in. We looked across the room and knew how we had to proceed.
Josiah Didier: Payam was great. That year he was on another level. He was so locked in every single game. He had an unorthodox style of goaltending at the time, a mix of standup and butterfly. He was so good. Even in practice, he was so hard to score on and that translated to our games.”
Landon Smith: He was one of the best goalies in Colorado by far at U16, U18, if not the best. He was [Dominik] Hašek-like. He had great fundamentals, but he could make those sprawling saves when he needed to. He was all over the place. It was hard to beat him because he also was super-athletic. … [He and Sam Mallory] split time that season, but toward the end Sam knew that Payam was going to have the lead role. That’s what made our team so special. Guys realized what their roles were.
Brad Hawkinson: We had two really good goalies, Sam and Payam. If we needed a joke or something to loosen us up, Payam was the guy. He’s hilarious. We were playing so well, there was confidence we had in him, but also that he probably had in us. We didn’t give up a lot of shots. We were very structured on defense. He never once cost us a game and we played 80-something games.
Killam: Payam was the glue to our entire team. He’s not one of those weird goalies who sticks to himself. Payam was right in the mix all year. He’s somebody that everyone in the room wants to play in front of, will block a shot for, do whatever it takes. He played 16s the year prior so he had experience and a calmness that I think really helped us. He never seemed fazed. He had that incredible run in elimination games, where I think he pitched a shutout in every game. His calmness gave us confidence. If we made a mistake we had one of the best goalies in the country behind us. I can’t say enough about Payam.
Angelo Ricci: Goaltending and special teams help win a lot of championships in hockey. I think we outscored opponents 25-8 [at Nationals]. … When we needed him, he came up big. Anytime you have that guy in the net making saves it builds confidence for your defensive game, your transition game. If you give up an outnumbered situation or you take a penalty, you know that guy’s back there and he’s going to shut the door. It bred so much confidence.
The 16U Thunderbirds heated up when it matters most, resulting in the team winning their last 15 games of the 2009-10 season.
The Thunderbirds capped their magical season with a 15-game winning streak, including a 7-0 run at Nationals. Sami allowed just five goals on 94 shots in six games. Mallory was a rock when he got the call.
Killam: That first game [at Nationals] against North Jersey [a 4-3 shootout victory] was a bit of a wake-up call that it wasn’t going to be a cakewalk. We got the win, which gave us some confidence and calmed our nerves. The following day we had to play Chicago Mission. We had split with them in the Tier 1 Elite League. They were ranked No. 1 much of the year. We dominated that game, maybe the cleanest game we played all year. Just having Payam back there gave us confidence. … North Jersey and Compuware and Shattuck had to play all these overtime games, and we rolled through people and were more rested, more physically and mentally there. Going through a triple-overtime game leaves you drained, and North Jersey had to do that two or three times that weekend. So when they got to the title game they were drained, and we took care of business those first four games. … We were riding on such a high. I don’t remember ever being that nervous. This group had a great way of never getting too high and never getting too low.
Didier: I think it was the will. We wanted to win. We had that confidence to us that we knew we could do it. Going to a shootout in that first game [at Nationals] woke us up. Everyone bought into their role. We were so skilled, but everyone focused on the defensive side first, and that’s how we won. Our forwards and defense, everyone was on the same page.
Smith: We got to a point during that last 15-game stretch where Angelo just stepped away and let the team do its thing. That’s a sign of a great team when a coach is able to do that. He’d say, ‘You guys know what you need to do, now go do it.’ That’s a real testament to Angelo impressing upon us what to do. … I’ve only seen this twice — once with the Thunderbirds and once when [Quinnipiac, where Smith scored more than 100 points in his NCAA hockey career] went to the national championship game against North Dakota [in 2016]. The team became so dynamic and worked so well, like a well-oiled machine, that we just knew what we needed to do. We just went out there and did it. There was never a question about that. Every game, every practice, it was like a steamroller — just go and go and go.
Hawkinson: We had been playing against the best teams in the country. Going into Nationals nobody was nervous. It didn’t seem like there was any doubt we were going to win it.
And the Thunderbirds won it without Shore, their leading goal scorer. He was a player who would go on to play for the U.S. National Team Development Program (NTDP) and the University Denver, and he also was drafted by the Ottawa Senators and played a few seasons of minor-league hockey.
Sami: Angelo thought conditioning should happen through drills, something I agree with. If you’re going hard in drills you should be getting your conditioning in. We wouldn’t really skate at the end. The one practice Angelo decides to skate us, Quentin was doing a lap around the rink and he was going around a net, and he hit his wrist on the post and broke it two weeks before Nationals.
Ricci: What was amazing to me is our leading scorer, Quentin Shore, from an amazing hockey family, didn’t even play at the national tournament. He got hurt right after district championships in practice. To beat Mission and all those other teams at Nationals, you had other guys step up, like Christian Heil, Austin Ortega, Evan Anderson, Ansel Duesenberg, Jared Tafoya. So many guys were a big part of it.
"Ten years is a long time but it goes fast. 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."
--Angelo Ricci on his 16U team's performance in 2009-10
On April 11, 2010, the Thunderbirds etched their name in the state’s history book — the first Tier 1 team from Colorado to win a national title. The memories remain vivid to this day.
Smith: I remember the relief. We were so locked in on our goal. I remember when we got to Nationals we said, ‘Boys, everyone put your phones away. We’re here for hockey. No phone calls, no texts.’ We were so dialed in. For us to make it to that last game and play the way we did was incredible. [When we won] sticks were flying, everyone’s excited. It was so nice to have all of our efforts, all of our sacrifices pay off.
Hawkinson: It’s funny now, but I remember looking for a place to put my helmet on the bench. I set my stick and gloves down. … Quentin was on the bench with an open water bottle spraying everyone. Christian Heil jumped up on the glass. It was almost expected at that point.
Didier: There’s no better feeling than winning a championship with a great group of guys you’re so close to. That’s something pretty special I’ll never forget. I remember the clock couldn’t count down quick enough. Everyone threw their stuff and jumped super high. I had my family there, as did pretty much everyone, so to share that with their parents was special. We wouldn’t have been there if it wasn’t for them.
Sami: Our van had a win song — 'Party in the USA' by Miley Cyrus — that we would blast. Matt [Cope] led this cool celebration in the locker room where we linked arms.
Making the Thunderbirds' national title season even more impressive is that they had to finish the stretch run without Quentin Shore, one of the team's top offensive weapons, who was out with an injury.
The championship brought hockey full circle for Ricci, who had won national titles as a Pee Wee with Team Illinois and a Bantam and Midget with the Chicago Young Americans during his youth in the Chicago area.
Ricci: One of my old coaches met with the team and showed everyone the ring we won as Midgets. It was inspiring.
Was there another hometown assist?
Killam: This was 2010, the year the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup, and Angelo was from Chicago. The locker rooms at Seven Bridges [Chicago’s practice facility at the time] were named after Original Six teams and we got dressed in the Blackhawks locker room three of our four [round-robin] games. So when we got to the national championship game, and we weren’t in that locker room, Angelo made the rink attendant switch all the locker rooms around so we could be in that locker room. So there was some superstition. Maybe that familiarity helped.
Sami: Winning it in Chicago, which was Angelo’s hometown, was pretty cool.
Didier won a Calder Cup with Charlotte in the American Hockey League in 2019, but he said the closeness of the Thunderbirds championship team is unique.
“Every time I see the other guys that were on that team, like Matt Cope, Landon, Payam and those guys, we joke about it or talk about it a little bit,” he said. “It’s a great memory. Any time you win a championship, no matter what level it’s at, you have the special bond with that group of guys. That will stick with you for life.”
Today, Didier and Ortega continue to play professionally. A handful of others had cups of coffee in the pros. But perhaps the biggest impact the 2009-10 team has had on Colorado hockey is giving themselves to the current generation of youth players. Cope and Killam coach for the Thunderbirds, while Sami, Bohnsack and Smith coach for the Arapahoe Warriors.
“They’re all giving back, which makes me very happy, very proud. … It was a resilient group and a special group,” Ricci said.
They’re a group that continue standing alone in Colorado hockey history.
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