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Despite ups and downs, 16U Colorado Thunderbirds’ 2021 run is one for the books

By Ryan Williamson, SportsEngine, 05/20/21, 8:00PM MDT

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Hub exclusive: Earlier this month the 2020-21 Thunderbirds nearly became the club’s second 16U group to capture a national championship.

The 2020-21 Colorado Thunderbirds 16U team. Photo submitted by Colorado Thunderbirds

The 2020-21 Colorado Thunderbirds 16U team. Photo submitted by Colorado Thunderbirds

The 2020-21 season was a memorable one for the 16U Colorado Thunderbirds.

Besides playing through a pandemic, the Thunderbirds made a memorable run at the 2021 16U Tier I USA Hockey National Championship from April 28-May 3 and nearly captured the program’s first national title since 2010. Though that didn't happen, the Thunderbirds’ runner-up finish will live on inside the program and with the players who took the ice.

Built to last


For many hockey players in Colorado, this past year has been defined by a number of starts and stops. For the Thunderbirds, they found their season paused on five separate occasions due to positive COVID tests.

“As an organization, we took the steps to try and be safe,” said coach David Clarkson. “It was a tough year, but rewarding.”

Despite some setbacks, the Thunderbirds eventually made their way to the national tournament after playing in the Rocky Mountain District playoffs. The Thunderbirds advanced after beating the Dallas Jr. Stars twice, including a 2-0 win in the final to send the team to the national tournament.

The players had benefited from some help from former Colorado Avalanche player Milan Hejduk, who had previously coached a number of the players on this year’s 16U team, according to Clarkson.

“Their coaches in the past did a great job of developing their skills,” Clarkson said. “The coaching is why they got where they got.”

Getting things going

 

After a winning performance in their regional tournament, the Thunderbirds made the jaunt to Maryland Heights, Missouri, to play in the Tier I 16U tournament. They played at the Centene Community Ice Center, a facility just outside of St. Louis that is home for St. Louis Blues practices.

Heading into the tournament, the Thunderbirds didn't seem to be a threat to capture the national championship. At least based on rankings, as the team was outside of the top 10 of MYHockey Rankings for 16U squads heading into the event. 

In the team’s first game on April 28, things got off to a strong start. The Thunderbirds jumped to a 3-0 lead over Fox Motors. Fisher Scott, Patrick Raftery and Borya Valis all scored to power the Thunderbirds' 1-0 victory.

A day later, the team improved to 2-0 in tourney play with a 5-1 win against the Nashville Jr. Predators. That set up a pool-play closing matchup with the New Jersey Avalanche that would decide the group's winner.

The Avalanche took down the Thunderbirds in a 5-2 defeat to close out group play. New Jersey had raced to a 3-0 lead, a deficit the Thunderbirds never recovered from.

Luckily for the Thunderbirds, the loss didn’t mean their season was over.

Pushing forward

 

The Thunderbirds faced another Garden State opponent in the New Jersey Rockets in the quarterfinal round on May 1. Trailing 3-1 after two periods, the players from Colorado rallied and eventually took the game 4-3 in overtime. David Klee started the rally in the third period and Noah Grolnic finished the job with the game-winning goal in overtime. 

“For us to be able to come back late, we gained confidence,” Clarkson said. “We always believed we had that opportunity and didn’t give up.”

In the semifinals the next day, the Thunderbirds met the Pittsburgh Penguins Elite. While the Thunderbirds were buried in the rankings, the Penguins found themselves near the top. And according to Clarkson, for good reason.

“These teams are as well coached as our group,” Clakrson said.

The teams were knotted at 2 through two periods of play. Looking to break the deadlock, Cael Dolph came through with a goal from Grolnic early in the third period to give the Thunderbirds a 3-2 advantage and the eventual win, putting the team in the final.

“You always believe you have that opportunity,” Clarkson said. “It was pretty special.”

According to Clarkson, one set of linemates stood out — the team’s third line, which consisted of Dolph, Jack O’Rourke and Grolnic.

“They were some of our leading scorers in that tournament,” Clarkson said. “They provided what we needed to get where we got and got us some big goals.”

While the third line stepped up, Clarkson’s group had to make up for a significant absence. One of the team’s top defenseman, Brett Baugh, went into the boards head first during the quarterfinal matchup against the Rockets.

“Our kids worked through the adversity,” Clarkson said. “They made the decision to not give up.”

"It was an honor to be one of the two teams left playing. I think it helps you realize that you don’t need to leave Colorado to be a part of a successful team like this.”

--Thunderbirds coach David Clarkson on the team's runner-up finish

A big-time rematch
 

When the championship tilt came around on May 3, the Thunderbirds found themselves playing a familiar opponent — the New Jersey Avalanche. It was a chance for some revenge and a national championship for Clarkson’s squad. Oddly enough, it was also a rematch of the 2010 final that the Thunderbirds won.

As the team prepared for the finale, they got some extra motivation thanks to some of the program’s alums, including Dylan Gambrell from the San Jose Sharks. 

“I think that gave us a little boost,” Clarkson said. “They look up to those guys.”

Though the team had plenty of motivation, the Avalanche again proved to be too much for the Thunderbirds. After a scoreless first period, O’Rourke put the Thunderbirds ahead early in the middle period with the team’s only goal. The Avalanche went on to tally five unanswered goals to take down the Thunderbirds.

Making memories

 

Clarkson saw a deflated group following his team’s loss in the final. But he made sure to try and lift the spirits of his players following their defeat.

“I told them how proud I was of them,” Clarkson said. “Teams like that are why we coach. It was a fun ride.”

Though the team didn't take home the championship, Clarkson believes this sort of success can help out this AAA program.

“It was an honor to be one of the two teams left playing,” Clarkson said. “I think it helps realize that you don’t need to leave Colorado to be a part of a successful team like this.”

As for the team itself, Clarkson said he expects this group to be bonded together for years to come.

“I think that the bond this group made through all of this is going to be great,” Clarkson said. “They’ll be close like this for years to come after going through all that they did.” 

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