Team Colorado coach George Gwozdecky praised Regis Jesuit defenseman Blake Bridges (above) for his performance and leadership at the 2022 CCM NIT. Photos by Loren Nelson, LegacyHockeyPhotography.com
Invaluable. That is how Team Colorado’s head coach George Gwozdecky described the importance of his team receiving an invite to the 2022 CCM High School National Invitational Tournament (NIT).
While team Colorado has only made two appearances in the tournament’s history — the appearances have come in back-to-back years — the NIT features the best high school hockey athletes from Colorado, Michigan, North Dakota and Wisconsin.
Although Team Colorado went 0-4-0 in the tournament with a 0-3-0 to finish eighth overall, the experience matters most.
“A number of these boys learned how to play at a faster pace in a more physical environment, be stronger around the puck, pressure the puck, and compete against high-end players. I think the boys came away from that experience as better players,” Gwozdecky said. “Certainly, to play in a high-end tournament like that was a real good experience for all our boys.”
Gwozdecky felt Team Colorado was competitive throughout the NIT. As the team continues to compete in the tournament, he remains confident the team will see better results in the future.
Even though the results did not go their way, Gwozdecky is proud of how the team represented Colorado as a state.
“I think all of us on that team, whether coaches or players, are proud to represent Colorado in a real positive way and show not only people out of our state, but people within the state, that Colorado high school hockey is getting better and better,” Gwozdecky said.
Gwozdecky praised Regis Jesuit’s defenseman Blake Bridges, a leader for Team Colorado, saying “he was one of the boys that really stood out” throughout the tournament.
Bridges, standing at 6-foot, 175 pounds, skated as the shutdown defenseman for Team Colorado as he actively blocked shots and did a lot of the dirty work that does not always show up on the scoresheet.
Bridges mentioned he was not a shutdown defenseman while competing with Regis Jesuit this season. However, transitioning into one for Team Colorado was not very difficult.
“It was not a hard transition because I love that style of hockey,” Bridges said. “I can be the shutdown guy because I am not the best goal scorer. I take way more pride in my defense than my offense.”
While Bridges contributed to the scoresheet by recording one assist, two players for Team Colorado recorded at least two points during the NIT in forwards Sean Holloway (two goals, one assist) and Jacob Zinno (one goal, one assist).
The second time around in the NIT, things were a little different in terms of experience and competitiveness, as Team Colorado returned seven players who competed with the team last year.
A sense of familiarity with the tournament came from Team Colorado, as Bridges and Gwozdecky felt the team was more prepared.
“The team played better this year, even though we won a game last year. The games were way more competitive, and the team did really well this year. We wanted to be better and show why Colorado should be there.”
— Blake Bridges
Team CO defenseman
“The team played better this year, even though we won a game last year,” Bridges said. “The games were way more competitive, and the team did really well this year. We wanted to be better and show why Colorado should be there.”
Colorado had two teams on the national stage this year, one in the NIT and the other in America’s Showcase.
Gwozdecky mentioned that having two teams on that stage is a big help and can only benefit players in the state, as it helps the best high school hockey players in Colorado play against elite skaters from states around the country.
Gwozdecky selected the top-20 players in the state to compete for Team Colorado in NIT, while the following best 20 skaters competed in America’s Showcase.
“It helped tremendously,” Gwozdecky said. “It bodes really well for high school hockey in Colorado. I think the benefits of having 40 kids in national events are a great benefit versus just having 20 kids play. It is a win-win.”
Overall, the experience was nothing short of terrific for Gwozdecky and Team Colorado, and they are looking forward to returning to the tournament again next spring, where they will look to have even more success.
“It was an experience that was invaluable for a number of these boys,” Gwozdecky said. “This is a big deal for Colorado to be a part of this."
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