PART 4 (Winning the National Championship)
The first or second night in Colorado Springs at the 2002 Nationals, Matt Carey was woken in the middle of the night by a phone call. There was an emergency meeting in the hotel conference room and team leaders were dragged out of bed to meet with the Public Health Department (PHD). “I nervously walked down to the room, thinking something happened to one of our players,” remembered Carey.
The PHD told the crowd of managers that a kid on one of the eastern teams was sick with meningitis. “Luckily, we had not played that team and had no contact with that player,” said Carey.
All the TW kids were healthy except for Joe Piskula of Antigo. “He had a sunburn from skiing,” laughed Carey.
“It was just my whole family (mom, dad, brother, and sister) at Winter Park,” said Piskula. “We went out a few days early to do a little skiing and golfing. I golfed a round with Pavelski, Ben Bosworth, Brooks Lockwood, and some dads.”
It helped Piskula get acclimated to the high altitude. Maybe Carey should have gone with them.
TW opened the preliminary round by blanking the Washington Little Capitals 9-0 on Wednesday. The boys from Wisconsin scored five goals in the first period and out-shot Washington 60-16.
Game Two on Thursday was a different story, as TW faced Shattuck Prep, and lost 4-1 to the powerful Minnesota school. Things didn’t get any better on Friday, as TW lost to the Buffalo Saints 6-4. The boys had a 3-0 lead early in the middle period, only to see the Saints score three goals late in the period to tie the contest. TW scored in the third to take a 4-3 lead, but lost control of the game when Buffalo scored three times in the last three minutes to win 6-4.
“The turning point was that Buffalo game,” said Skille. “We had the game won and we gave it away.”
Things didn’t look good for TW, but they made the quarterfinals despite a 1-2 record, thanks to a ‘goals for/goals against’ tie-breaker. On the strength of the win and staying close in the other two games, TW finished with a plus-four total to make the ‘elite eight.’
Saturday morning saw TW face Honeybaked, a team out of Detroit that was ranked seventh in the nation with a 34-20-10 record. “Their entire team had bleached yellow hair,” recalled Carey. “They were fast and skilled; it was just what we needed to get back to our up-tempo game.”
TW won a 2-1 nail-biter, with the two teams combining for 52 shots in the last two periods of play in an end-to-end battle. Up-tempo indeed!
So, what does a team do after a big win? They travel up to Pikes Peak.
During the week, Carey had been pushing his players to stay hydrated. He bought bottled water earlier in the week, filling his car’s trunk, and insisted his players keep drinking it. Once they got to the top of the mountain, Skille’s son Jack said, “Dad, Coach Carey’s lips are turning blue!” The coach had forgotten to follow his own advice, but after chugging some water and the passing of a few minutes, Carey began to recover.
“That (drive) allowed us an opportunity to refresh our minds, and have clairvoyance regarding a plan to shut down Shattuck that evening,” recalled Carey.
As Skille and Carey talked amongst themselves, they realized they needed to involve Cal Roadhouse in the conversation. The veteran coaches then devised a plan to beat Shattuck.
“We were at lunch and we called Cal,” recalled Skille. “We came up with the idea of ‘shadowing’ (Zach) Parise, and we also came up with a breakout to relieve the pressure.”
And what forever will be known as a ‘sky bomb’ to any TW player from that tourney came to be. “Our ‘D’ would toss the puck up as high as they could and our forwards would rush that ‘D,” said Skille. “It was like fielding a punt with no chance to fair catch it.”
(The World Arena had a very high ceiling that allowed the ‘sky bomb’ to succeed; a normal youth rink with a lower ceiling would not have.)
“Shattuck’s first line was loaded with Parise, Tyler Hirsch, and Brady Murray,” said Roadhouse. “We wanted to do some kind of ‘left-wing lock/neutral-zone trap’ with just the Parise line.”
So that Saturday evening at the World Arena in Colorado Springs came the contest that TW was confidently looking forward to: top-ranked Shattuck Prep, who came strutting into the game with a 42-1-5 record, against upstart Team Wisconsin.
So, what happened next? Drew Stafford, who went on to play 13 seasons in the NHL and was on Shattuck’s second line, scored to give Shattuck a 1-0 lead. Another Shattuck goal moments later gave the Minnesota team a 2-0 lead going into the second period.
Kyle Hilmershausen (Wausau West) and Jeff Christiansen (USM) scored in the second to tie the game at two. And then Dan Sturges (Verona) netted the game-winner midway through the third and the lead was never surrendered. “The shot came from the point and I was able to get a stick on it to get it past the goalie,” said Sturges.
“I remember the feeling during the game,” recalled Sturges. “There was a moment when our group decided it was time to show the (Shattuck) guys what we had, and it proved to be too much. The bench was electric, full of energy and talk, and the coaches were hooting and hollering because we had nothing to lose.”
“Our coaches had a plan,” recalled Hudson’s Brooks Lockwood. “We had lost several times to Shattuck during the year. But we locked things down in that semi-final game, guys stuck to the plan; we had total buy-in. (It’s a) credit to our coaches and our captains; that’s a hard thing to do when kids come together just on the weekends.”
Shortly before the end of the game, Hudson’s Ben Bosworth yelled out, “We are going to beat the best team in the country!”
Carey immediately corrected ‘Boz,’ “We are now the best team in the country.”
“After we beat Shattuck, JP Parise (Zach’s dad and 17-year NHL veteran) came over to all of us outside the arena and shook our hands,” recalled Lockwood. “(He) told us we played hard and deserved (the win). Pretty amazing moment from a great hockey dad and a legendary hockey player.”
All well and good, but TW had one more game to play: Sunday’s championship game against the Pittsburgh Hornets.
Just to give this ‘rags-to-riches’ story some historical parallelism, ‘Miracle’ hero Mark Johnson gave TW a pre-game speech before the contest with the Hornets, just like Herb Brooks did with his 1980 USA team before their final game.
“He related the Russian game in 1980 to our situation and that they still had to beat Finland to win the gold, and that we had to beat Pittsburgh,” recalled Skille.
“Our players’ eyes were wide open and Mark’s message resonated regarding the importance of our team winning its final game to achieve our ultimate goal,” said Carey.
“One vivid memory that I had was Mark Johnson coming into our locker room and giving us a pep talk about being underdogs,” recalled Christiansen. “It certainly worked!”
In the championship game, Christiansen and Hilmershausen scored in the first for a 2-0 TW lead. The Hornets stung back for a goal in the second to cut the lead in half, but TW buckled down and played a great defensive game the rest of the way for the 2-1 victory.
Casey Mapes (McFarland-Oregon) allowed only four goals in the three games on the weekend. Carey said, “Goalie coach Brian Kreft brought out the best in our goalies. Coach Brad Byce had the ‘D’ improving each game. Coach John Sturges positively impacted our strategy from his ‘bird’s-eye view’ and his rapport with the players. And Lee Skille, our head coach, led us all to a national championship.”
“Mostly, I remember the determination of the team,” said Christiansen. “No matter who we were playing or what the score was, our team had a chance to win. We weren’t going to be intimidated.”
“What struck me was our team chemistry,” recalled John Egge. “We all respected each other’s games and just got after it. We were humble and fearless. We knew we could play with (Shattuck) and honestly our coaches put a great game plan together and we were able to beat them in the semis when it counted.”
One huge loss, that hadn’t previously been mentioned, was not having defenseman Davis Drewiske (Hudson). The big d-man played for TW in the ‘pre’ 2001 season, but was unable to play in the ‘post’ 2002 season due to having suffered a broken neck during a holiday tournament in Duluth in December 2001. Drewiske recovered and would go on to play four years at Wisconsin, winning a national title in 2006 with former TW players Pavelski, Piskula, Adam Burish, Jack Skille, Andy Brandt, Jake Dowell, and Josh Engel. And he was part of a Stanley Cup team in 2012 with the Los Angeles Kings. He would play six years in the NHL, appearing in 135 games.
“Davis was clearly in our top 6 D and but for his injury, would have been with us,” said Carey.
“I wish Davis would have been around for (the title) as well,” recalled high school teammate Lockwood.
Team Wisconsin finished with a record of 23-10-2 and was fourth in the final USHSHO rankings. But they were National Champions, in just three years of being.
The proposal that was brought before the WAHA Board in May 1999 came to fruition just 35 short months later. What was a hockey team on paper in 1999 became a championship team on the ice in 2002.
“A group of players and coaches from different parts of the state and different backgrounds all came together and accomplished what nobody would have dreamed possible three years earlier,” mused Carey. “I am thankful to the entire WAHA Board that approved my proposal to start Team Wisconsin in 1999, and a special thank you to two WAHA board members that didn’t receive recognition for all their efforts: Bud Sheldon and Don Kohlman,” said Carey.
“Without Matt Carey there would be no Team Wisconsin,” stated Lee Skille. “TW was Matt’s brain-child.”
Shortly after Team Wisconsin won the 2002 USA Hockey Nationals, the team was honored at the annual WAHA meeting. Matt Carey was on stage and introduced the players and coaches, allowing association attendees to find out more about the special group of young men that made up the team, including where they played high school hockey and where they played WAHA youth hockey.
Mike Connor asked Carey if he had a ‘cheat sheet’ with the player’s info. Carey laughed and said later, “I knew our player’s heights, weights, school, whether they shot left or right and if they played other sports. I didn’t need a cheat sheet!”
Following the WAHA meeting to celebrate the national championship with player introductions, Carey notified Lee Skille he was departing TW. “Lee asked me to stay one more season, so I did.” The fourth season of TW saw USA Hockey change the age classifications, so consequently Team Wisconsin is the final team to win a 17.5 national title. In fall 2002, the age classification U18 replaced 17.5, and U16 was a new age classification. Fall 2002 was the first year TW had two teams.
In part because of the success of the first three years of Team Wisconsin, including two trips to USA Hockey Nationals and a National Championship, and very likely for the first time in Minnesota hockey history, the folks in the Gopher State modified its hockey system due to something we in Wisconsin had done. Hockey leaders in Minnesota took notice of Team Wisconsin and under the vision of hockey legend John Russo, the Upper Midwest Elite League was created.
Starting in fall 2002, and continuing today, Team Wisconsin has its U18 team compete during the fall in the Upper Midwest Elite League, which is widely regarded as the most scouted and highly-skilled league in the United States for players below juniors.
“We were a confident bunch,” said Egge. “Despite taking subtle jabs and hearing (talk) at these tournaments that we were just a bunch of ‘no-name’ high school kids from Wisconsin.”
A bunch of no-name kids that just happened to shock the youth hockey world in April 2002.
The creation and rapid ascent of Team Wisconsin to the 2002 national championship was an exceptional accomplishment. Congratulations to all of those that made it happen!
(The fourth and final chapter describing the rise and early success of Team Wisconsin.)
PHOTO CREDIT: Lisa Carey
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