TRAVERSE CITY — It’s showtime for the Traverse City Hounds.
The Hounds begin their quest for a United Hockey Union Junior national championship Wednesday in Las Vegas.
Traverse City, champions of the the Midwest Junior Hockey League (MWJHL), will battle the Idaho Steelheads in an opening-round game. The Steelheads are the defending national champions. They beat the Hounds, then playing out of Hartland, 5-1 in last year’s semifinals.
“They beat us pretty handily,” Hounds coach Scott Gardiner said. “It was a learning experience. I think we’re up to the task this year. We’re a much stronger team. I’m looking forward to taking them on right away to see how we stack up.”
Six teams, representing three leagues, will vie for the title. The No. 1 seeds — the Hounds, the El Paso Rhinos of the Western States Hockey League (WSHL) and the Jersey Shore Wildcats of the Northern States Hockey League (NSHL) — will be grouped in one division. The No. 2 seeds — the Steelheads (WSHL), the AHI Fighting Spirit (NSHL) and the Soo Firehawks (MWJHL) — will be in the other division. The No. 1 seeds will play the No. 2 seeds over three days. Teams will be reseeded after play Friday, with the top four advancing to the semifinals on Saturday. The Hounds will face the Soo, a team they beat for the MWJHL championship two weeks ago, on Thursday, then close out round-robin play Friday against the Fighting Spirit.
The Steelheads were this year’s runner-ups in the WSHL.
“I’ve watched them on film several times and I think we match up well with them,” Gardiner said. “I know our guys are ready to go.”
The Hounds have four players who were in the nationals a year ago, including Kalkaska’s Scott Luca.
“They (Steelheads) were really good last year so I’m sure they are this year, too,” Luca said. “This will be a big test for us, especially for the guys that didn’t go last year. They’ll get a little bit of an awakening. We’ve been telling the guys, ‘It’s not going to be like playing teams in our league. These teams are a lot bigger, a lot quicker, a lot faster. You have to be ready for it.’”