BY JAMES COOK
TRAVERSE CITY — The travel hockey state championships may as well be held in Traverse City.
Most TC teams are headed there anyway.
Four Grand Traverse Hockey Association teams have already qualified for the Michigan Amateur Hockey Association state finals — and a fifth has a shot to earn a spot this weekend.
"I'd attribute it all to Dallas (Drake) and how he's brought a skills-based program into GTHA," said Bantam A coach Rob Johnson. "It started right about the time the kids that he has were younger. And it keeps getting better and better. ... If the kids are good enough to play, then anybody can teach them the system stuff at a higher level."
That includes playing a couple fewer games and focusing more on skill development.
"We've been for a number of years now having pretty competitive teams as part of our developmental aspect that we started eight or 10 years ago," Pee Wee AA coach Kerry Russell said.
"The last two or three years, we're really focused on skill development a lot in our practices," said Drake. "Sometimes it doesn't translate to wins all the time, but it does translate to a more skilled player. And it's starting to really pay dividends now, especially as the kids start to get a little older."
Here's how the five teams stack up:
Drake coaches the Bantam AA Traverse City Pepsi team that wasn't in a league, but played in loads of tournaments throughout the season.
Led by forwards Casey Gilling, Parker Hebden, Thomas Barnes and defenseman Dylan Cook — the younger brother of Team USA's Dawson Cook — the TC squad rang up a 41-10 mark.
Gilling scored an overtime goal against Mackinaw City to give the squad the district championship after wins against Sault Ste. Marie and Alpena.
At the state finals in Lansing, the Traverse City squad plays Grand Rapids, Plymouth and Lansing.
Johnson said winning the North American Cup in Port Huron was a turning point for his Traverse City North Stars.
"It was the first tournament those guys won together as a team," he said.
Ryan Dickerson and Jack Boyce split time in goal, while Ethan Stoudt and Dylan Davies anchor the defense and left wing Zak Johnson helps power the offense.
"They've come together as a team," Johnson said. "They're a great bunch of kids."
The North Stars posted a 25-19-3 record this season, winning the district crown with a pair of victories over Mackinaw City in Gaylord. They took the first game 4-0 and won the second 4-3 with 4.3 seconds left in overtime on a Scott Klavon goal.
The Stars do have a very tough draw in the state finals, facing the nation's top two teams — the USA Eagles and Grand Rapids Griffins — in pool play, as well as the Ann Arbor Wolves.
Pee Wee AA
The Dave Harvey's Pee Wee AA team won the Little Caesars league with an 18-1-1 mark.
With a 33-12-2 overall record, the players ages 12-13 head to Canton on March 1-3 for the state tournament.
The team's offense is led by left winger Ryder Rolston — the son of assistant coach and 20-year NHL veteran Brian Rolston — center Mark Alekseykov, goalies A.J. Ruskowski and Sam Randall and Cadillac center Jacob Cook.
"It's been a pretty good group effort," Russell said.
The squad faces off with Canton, Farmington and Jackson in pool play, with the top two teams in each of the two pools moving on the semifinals.
Russell's team was 1-0-1 against Jackson in league play and didn't meet up with Farmington or Canton. The top team in the state, the Grosse Ile Islanders, is in the other pool. The TC team was 0-2 against Grosse Ile, but the last of those meetings was a 5-4 overtime setback in the Silver Sticks tournament.
"They're very good," Russell said of Grosse Ile. "But we took them to overtime."
Pee Wee A
That's what the Traverse City Pepsi Rangers have this weekend.
Because the Upper Peninsula didn't produce a true Pee Wee A team, the Rangers are in a tournament starting Saturday morning to determine the eighth representative at the March 9-10 state finals.
"It's going to be a tough battle," coach Mike Matteucci said. "They're all the second-place teams from the other districts. There's some really good teams."
Petoskey won District 7, even though the Rangers had an excellent regular season (32-10-3) and produced a 15-2-1 mark to finish second in the Little Caesars league's Howe Division.
Traverse City plays Allen Park at 10 a.m. Saturday in Dearborn.
The Rangers are led offensively by right wing Chris Usiondek, defenseman Andrew Rickenberg and goalies Kamerin Lannen and Iain Galton.
The Pee Wee A state finals are March 9-10 in Orchard Lake.
The Traverse City Bayshore Bruins were impressive in their run to the district crown, beating Sault Ste. Marie (twice, including in the title game), Alpena and Gaylord.
In the process, the Bruins surrendered only one goal and allowed the opposition to generate 21 shots on goal.
"We had a U.P. trip where we did the whole charter bus thing, and that was exciting for the kids because that was the first chance they ever had to do that," Mike Peters said. "We won three in a row on that trip, and that seemed to really be where the team came together and started bonding."
Goalies Tyler Herzberg and Quenten Derwin share time in the pipes, while the defense of Charlie Douglass, Hunter Basel, Dugan Bradfield, Delaney Bonifacio, Michael Schermerhorn and Garrison Waugh doesn't let much through.
Putting up a 27-11-6 record in the regular season, the Bruins start the March 15-17 state finals with the Grand Rapids Griffins before playing former Detroit Red Wing Kris Draper's Birmingham Little Caesars team and then district host Trenton.