Goalie Sam Simon (pictured) has guided his Fort Collins team to back-to-back state tournament runner-up finishes. Now he'll be one of 20 players representing Team Colorado boys in the CCM NIT in Minnesota. Photo by Steven Robinson, SportsEngine
Fort Collins goaltender Sam Simon wasn’t surprised when last year’s CCM High School National Invitational Tournament (NIT) was canceled. Flights, both domestic and international, ceased nationwide as Americans braced for the COVID-19 pandemic. This included youth sports grinding to a halt to help prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.
But as athletes, coaches, organizers and officials alike have weathered and adapted to the ever-changing nature of state and national health protocols, Simon and 19 other Colorado prep hockey players are soon getting the chance to showcase their skills at the highest level in the country.
Team Colorado, a 20-man all-star team comprising players from 10 different CHSAA-sanctioned programs, is slated to travel to Plymouth, Minnesota, to play against some of the country’s most hockey-rich states in the CCM NIT later this month.
The tournament, which also features teams from Minnesota, Wisconsin, North Dakota, and Michigan, takes place April 22-25. Team Colorado was invited to replace Massachusetts last year before the tournament was called off.
Simon, a senior who has backstopped the Lambkins to consecutive state title games and runner-up finishes, has taken each chance to step on the ice as a gift in the past year.
“I’m excited I get to play hockey one last time [in the NIT],” Simon said. “I was happy to play somewhat normal CHSAA season. I’m happy I get to play in Minnesota this time. I’m more grateful than anything else.”
This year’s Team Colorado roster is made up of 11 juniors and nine seniors. While each player's goals beyond high school hockey differ, the excitement surrounding playing some of the nation's top competition in future Tier 1 junior and NCAA Division I hockey players is unanimous across the team.
George Gwozdecky, coach of Team Colorado, has guided Valor Christian to two consecutive CHSAA state titles. He said the CCM NIT has carried much more appeal to players compared to past showcases where players needed some encouragement to participate.
“Every single kid we made an offer to not only accepted but was really excited and really pumped about being offered and having a unique opportunity to play in the NIT,” Gwozdecky said.
Valor Christian forward Evan Pahos anticipates Team Colorado will need to have a defense-first mentality and capitalize on its chances. Pahos, whose nemesis in the past two state title games has been Simon, in net for Fort Collins, said it's reassuring to have Simon on his side now.
“He’s a strong goalie and now I just gotta worry about someone else,” Pahos said. “It’s reassuring for sure.”
Evan Pahos of Valor Christian (9) is one of the standout players on this spring's Team Colorado roster that's traveling to Minnesota for the CCM NIT. Photo by Steven Robinson, SportsEngine
Team Colorado has four practices over the next two weeks before they embark on their trip to Minnesota. They’ll need to come together quickly to develop the reliance and trust needed to play a team-defense brand of hockey.
Pahos, a Minnesota native who moved to Colorado five years ago, said the team doesn’t have any extracurricular plans in store for Minnesota yet. However, if he had his choice, he’d take the group to the Mall of America.
“First things first is going to be able to try to win and try to have fun as much as possible,” Pahos said. “I’d like to go to the Mall of America where we would take everybody. Top floor with all the restaurants, movie theater gaming areas, Go-Kart track, play area — they've got everything.”
Simon expects there won’t be a problem with the team jelling as every player has one common goal in mind: representing Colorado hockey.
“We’ll come together. Some guys like to hate each other during the season but we’re all the same: kids trying to play hockey in Colorado,” Simon said. “This will be a pretty cool experience to represent our state.”
Pahos echoed the same sentiment.
“We have a little chip on our shoulder,” Pahos said. “We want to show Colorado is a strong hockey state — even though we're known for baseball or lacrosse — we want to prove hockey is strong here too.”
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