Photo by Hickling Images
16 teams entered the weekend with a chance to claim the title of the USHL Fall Classic 16U Youth Tournament Champions. The one that skated away with that title was dominant from the first puck drop.
Team Wisconsin reached the semifinals of this tournament in 2016, as did their opponent the Dallas Stars Elite, who were the only team to reach the semifinals in each of the previous to years.
Forward Jake Schmaltz opened the scoring less than three minutes into the game and Team Wisconsin would never trail. Forward Cade Lemmer opened the second period with two goals in the first two minutes, before Dallas answered with a score by forward Ryan Robinson. Forward Drake Baldwin would add another to give Wisconsin a 4-1 lead at the end of the second.
30 seconds into the third, Dallas scored to cut their deficit to two. Forward Logan Greene netted the unassisted tally and it was 4-2 Wisconsin. The score held until forward Sam Stange put things on ice for Wisconsin, capping the scoring at 5-2, as the team from the Badger state clinched the title.
While winning the tournament was certainly a goal for Team Wisconsin, it was the way they performed that had their head coach Brad Byce smiling at the end of the day.
“They do a good job of staying in the moment,” said Byce, who’s team heavily outscored its opponents 19-5 through five games in the tournament. “They’re playing for the team and they’re playing for themselves and without playing well as a team, they don’t have individual success.”
“Once they see success, it’s so easy to buy in. The momentum that these kids have right now is tremendous.”
Team Wisconsin built that momentum throughout the USHL Fall Classic Youth Tournament, opening Guentzel Division play with a 5-1 win over Compuware and a pair of 3-0 shutouts against Pittsburgh Penguins Elite and Shattuck-St. Mary’s, before a 3-2 semifinal win over Little Caesars sent them to the championship game, where they won 5-2.
Success is something they’ve had plenty of so far this season, thanks in large part to the approach that is taught. Everyone learns the same techniques and no one is locked in to a specific role.
“We’re 13-2-2 and I don’t think we’ve had the same combinations for any of those 17 games,” said Byce.
“We don’t even have ‘positions.’ When you go out there, you’re just responding to where the puck is. There’s just so much freedom to be fast and that’s what we preach, work ethic and to be fast.”
"It’s not just coachspeak. It’s the message that is lived on the ice and in the program that Team Wisconsin has built throughout the age groups, not just the 16U team."
“One of the things that’s super important to us is that were a development team. We’re at our best when we’re rolling four lines and the kids have all bought in.”
Part of that buying in started with former Team Wisconsin coach Luke Strand, currently the head coach & general manager of the USHL’s Sioux City Musketeers.
“Everyone clips in,” said Byce.
“Clipping in” is like climbing a mountain, where you clip the carabiner as you climb. Team Wisconsin actually has to clip in when they get to the rink, physically checking in but also symbolically clipping into the game plan and mindset of what the team is there to accomplish.
Team Wisconsin was certainly clipped in at the USHL’s Fall Classic 16U Youth Tournament, where not only did they perform at a high level, but they did so in front of an audience that included more than 250 scouts from across all levels of hockey.
“We’re trying to put kids in places where they can get seen,” said Byce. “There’s no better weekend for a showcase than the USHL Fall Classic. For them to rise up and play at their potential in what can be a highly stressful situation for 16 year olds, was what I was the most pleased with. They played to their potential the entire weekend."
Headquartered in Chicago, Illinois, the USHL celebrates its 16th season as the nation's only Tier I junior hockey league in 2017-18. 30 or more players from the USHL have been selected in five consecutive NHL Drafts, and more than 400 players on team rosters last season committed to NCAA Division I schools, further establishing the USHL as the world’s foremost producer of junior hockey talent.