Team Colorado coach George Gwozdecky (in gray mask) watches on as his players compete in their first CCM High School NIT game on April 22. Team Colorado won one of its four matchups at the tourney in Minnesota. Photo by Jeff Lawler, SportsEngine
For nearly two decades, George Gwozdecky coached the Denver Pioneers men’s hockey team to more than 400 wins and a pair of national championships. A week ago, he led a different group of pioneers to the airport.
The former NCAA head coach and current leading man at Valor Christian was tasked with coaching the Team Colorado boys, 20 of the state’s top high school players, to play in the CCM High School National Invitational Tournament (NIT) in Plymouth, Minnesota, from April 22-25.
Though this was the first year Team Colorado played in the tournament, which features competition from states such as Minnesota, North Dakota, Michigan and Wisconsin, this was not the first year Gwozdecky and his players had prepared for it. The original plan was for Team Colorado to play in the 2020 version of the NIT in Minnesota, but those plans were halted a year ago due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The tournament resumed play this year, but to help curb the spread of COVID Team Colorado’s calendar was still altered. In getting ready for last year’s tournament, tryouts were held in the fall, allowing plenty of time to finalize the roster and prepare for the games. This year, however, the tryouts started in March.
“I think the biggest thing that was apparent was that we had a number of kids who hadn’t skated or practiced in two weeks going into that weekend,” Gwozdecky said. “For any team, it’s crucial you’re on the ice practicing.”
About 100 players had put their names in the proverbial hat to play for Gwozdecky’s Team Colorado squad. That number was trimmed to 80 selected for on-ice tryouts, and the final roster was formed, consisting of 11 seniors and nine juniors from across the state. For some, this was their second time being selected to the team.
“We were just grateful to get to go,” said goaltender Sam Simon, a Fort Collins senior who had been named to Team Colorado for the second consecutive season. “As a high school player, it doesn’t get much cooler than that.”
The team's final roster was announced in March, just weeks before the NIT. With the altering of the Colorado high school schedule due to COVID-related modifications, this newly formed team had just three chances to get together before heading to Minnesota for the four-game event.
Goaltender Sam Simon (pictured) from Fort Collins and Regis Jesuit's Gage Bussey split time in net and combined for 131 saves in four games at the CCM High School NIT in Plymouth, Minnesota, from April 22-25. Photo by Jeff Lawler, SportsEngine
Team Colorado faced a formidable foe in the Michigan Seniors team for the first matchup on April 22. Gwozdecky and his staff learned through conversations that the squad from Michigan had 270 players try out for the team.
From the opening puck drop, the players on the ice for Team Colorado quickly saw how fierce the tournament competition would be.
“Colorado hockey is good,” said Riley Hunt-Bahn of Cherry Creek. “But that was some of the fastest hockey you can play. We’re some of the fastest players in Colorado, so we were confident we could keep up with these guys.”
Adjusting to the competition’s speed, Team Colorado stuck with its opponent through the opening game’s first two periods.
“We were able to hang in there because of our good goaltending,” Gwozdecky said. “We were just playing superior competition.”
Throughout the four-day NIT, Simon and Gage Bussey of Regis Jesuit split time in net, doing their best to keep the high-flying opponents off the scoreboard. They finished the event with a combined 131 saves in four games.
“We’re not used to those caliber of shots,” Simon said. “You had to be able to keep your energy through all three periods and match their energy and pace.”
From the third period of the team’s first game on, the reality of how tough their opponents were set in. The Michigan Seniors broke out for four goals in the third period to pull away to a 7-2 victory. A day later, the Wisconsin seniors shut out Team Colorado 6-0 and in Game 3 on April 24 Team Colorado fell 8-1 to the Minnesota 18 High Performance team.
Those types of losses could bring down the mood of many teams, but that wasn’t the case with the players from the Centennial State.
“It was exciting just to be out there playing against teams like this,” said Sean Holloway from Regis Jesuit. He led the team offensively with three points in the NIT.
The players on the ice did come to some realizations of ways they had to improve in order to succeed.
“The boys had to be able to adapt,” Gwozdecky said. “They had to make those decisions quicker. You could see the improvement. That’s what it was all about.”
The last day, Team Colorado’s final matchup came against the Michigan High Performance 18 squad. The teams fought to a 2-2 tie through three periods of play and went to a shootout to determine a winner. Team Colorado won the shootout to cap the experience with a triumph.
“We weren’t really prepared to go out with a win,” Holloway said. “It was a good feeling and was pretty reassuring.”
During the flight back home, and throughout their four days in the North Star State, members of Team Colorado developed some newfound friendships in teammates who they’ve often seen as opponents during the high school season.
“We all love the same game,” said Nolan Devine of Fort Collins. “We all kind of connect on that aspect. It’s nice to be able to talk about what you love to do.”
The plan is for Team Colorado to return to Minnesota for the 2022 installment of the annual NIT. Getting to see the experience up close and personal, it allows for those involved with building a team for this tournament to see how to best succeed.
“All of the kids on this team will come back to their teammates and buddies, and talk about the NIT,” Gwozdecky said. “We know that Colorado high school hockey is growing, and it has to grow and improve to play at the level of these other states.”
The completion of this year’s tournament, however, is a swan song of sorts for the 11 seniors on the roster, including for Simon. Next year he’ll be at Colorado State, where he plans to play club hockey and focus on academics.
“It was a lot of fun just to be a part of this,” Simon said. “I can’t think of a better way to wrap up my high school career.”
Juniors such as Holloway, meanwhile, will have a chance to come back and compete for a spot on next year’s team.
“I’m just going to try and bring the level of intensity I saw in this tournament with me back home,” he said. “I hope we can bring that intensity and better competition to Colorado.”
With the NIT now in the books, there is plenty of reflection being done. After waiting a year longer than expected to play, Gwozdecky and his squad finally got their chance to see what they could do against elite talent from across the nation.
“This group of guys knew they were the pioneers,” Gwozdecky said. “They broke the new ground for high school hockey in Colorado. That’s a great legacy for them to have as they move on.”
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