Grapevine, TX - Expansion team. Immediately the first thing most people think of when they see those words is "struggle", and for the most part they're right. This year the Western States Hockey League had six new teams; and in a league where 12 of its 16 teams make the playoffs only three of those teams saw the postseason and two were guaranteed to make it (three of the five teams in the Mountain Conference were expansions). However, after the Conference playoffs ceased, only one expansion team rose above the rest to compete for the Thorne Cup. That team was the Dallas Ice Jets.
Built on the foundation of an association started in 2002 with one of the most successful U18 teams west of the Mississippi, the new Junior 'A' team based just outside of Dallas Texas made it all the way to the final game of the Thorne Cup Championships beating the likes of the Fresno Monsters and El Paso Rhinos along the way. But let's not get ahead of ourselves. First we'll take a look at the road they ventured down, starting with the beginning.
Long before the puck first dropped for the 2011-2012 season, the Ice Jets organization was hard at work recruit young players to come play for the newly formed U20 team. The ground work for billeting, ticketing, and scouting began months prior to the season; but it all paid off finally when that small piece of volcanized rubber fell to the frozen water on September 17th, 2011 in Euless, Texas: home of the Dallas Snipers. And just like that, the legacy of the Dallas Ice Jets was born with a 5-3 win against what would become a rival they ended up sweeping by season's end. The game winner came off the stick of team Captain, Richard Bohan and thus set the tone for the season. Michael Baldwin earned the first win by a goaltender in team history.
The Ice Jets rocketed off to a 5-0-0 start to the season, including an 18 save shutout by Thomas Scoggin, before suffering their first loss to the in-state rival Texas Brahmas 5-3. They would go on to lose both games in that two-game series that spanned 12 days in-between games. However, the night is always darkest just before the dawn, and the sunlight broke when they hosted the Odgen Mustangs. The Ice Jets swept their fellow expansion team 3-0 by outscoring them 18-3 with goals by 11 different players. Sam Akins, Joseph Matyaszek, Dan Hudson, Jordan Deckard, and Bohan all had multiple goals throughout the weekend and defensemen Greg Sauers, Tommy Mines, and Phil Meade even joined the box score. That weekend showcased the scoring ability this franchise possessed.
The WSHL Western States Shootout Showcase Tournament
Speaking of showcases, jump ahead a month and a half when the Ice Jets arrived in Las Vegas, Nevada for the WSHL Western States Shootout Showcase Tournament sitting on an 18-4-1 record. In game one they faced another expansion program, the Park City Moose where the win was overshadowed by goon James Talmage and his 29 penalty minutes that got him kicked out of the league. But Dallas pushed through thanks to the hot hands of Bohan, and Brandon Unser who both notched two goals. The following game would prove to be a nice preview of things to come down the road when they took on the Fresno Monsters. It was a tough game that given a third period may have gone differently, but Dallas just couldn't come back from a two goal deficit. 3-2 was the final in that one. Game three came bright and early against San Diego in which the Gulls gave them their second bad taste of California hockey. Mines scored with just under two minutes to tie it at 4, but they lost a 10 round goalie duel in the shootout to end with a 5-4 final. However, they would strike back at the Golden State when they faced the Long Beach Bombers in their final game before the Christmas/New Year's break. Baldwin had an outstanding 35 save shutout victory with supporting goals by Jefferson Wright, Kyle Tonoli, and Christian Elsborg.
Return to Action
Coming back from a break is never easy. The extra food, the family time, and sleeping in your own bed can make a return difficult. However, the Ice Jets had to return to a hungry El Paso Rhinos team that ended up sweeping them in three very close games. Luckily for them, Dallas had two weeks before traveling to Wyoming to right the ship against another new team to the league: the Stampede. After dropping game one, the Ice Jets broke their four-game losing skid with back-to-back wins thanks to game winners by Unser and Johnny Henson. When asked what the message was to turn his team around, head coach Paul Taylor said "there really wasn't much that was needed to be said. These players are all extremely determined individuals that pick each other up, it was just a matter of time before we got back on track." And they stayed on track, all the way to the Mid-West Conference playoffs.
The Mid-West Conference Playoffs
Round one went right down to the wire as they drew a familiar foe: the Texas Brahmas. After splitting the first two games, the rubber match became a 9-2 blowout with the Ice Jets making a statement in the Lone Star State. They took that series 2-1 before heading to El Paso to take on their biggest rivals. After nearly sweeping the Rhinos just three weeks before, nobody was quite sure what to expect. However after two close battles lost by one goal each, the El Paso Rhinos were crowned Mid-West Champs. But the season didn't end there. Due to the fact that El Paso was hosting the Thorne Cup Championships and already had an automatic bid, the Ice Jets got to move on as a consolation.
The Thorne Cup Championship Tournament
"The guys were determined to prove they deserved to be in that tournament" said Taylor, "they knew they were the only ones that didn't have to win to get there and that gave them something to fight for." Dallas' Captains ended up hosting a players-only meeting to get everyone on the same page and something must have stuck because in game one on Thursday, March 29th, they got their rematch with the Rhinos and won 2-1. Between the goals by Austin Azurdia and Christian Elsborg (who took the postseason by storm), Dallas had their most impressive win against El Paso of the season. But their next foe would be one they hadn't yet beaten, the Fresno Monsters. Not intimidated, Dallas had one of the most shocking come-from-behind upsets in Thorne Cup history! After falling behind 3-0 after the first period, the Ice Jets caught lightning in a bottle with two goals by Elsborg that bookended one by Emilio Mayagoitia to tie it at the end of 2. The third period was just as good as Wright scored the game winner with insurances by Azurdia and Unser to clinch a spot in the Championship game against the Idaho Junior Steelheads!
Even though both Dallas and Idaho had already secured their spots for Sunday, they still needed to play their previously scheduled game on Saturday. Despite the outcome being moot, both teams showed a desire to be there and tested the waters in a game that Dallas fell just short in 3-2. The title match was the important one.
The Cup Final
Sunday, April 1st 2012 was a day that nobody thought Dallas ever had a shot at playing on. After a long and grueling season, the expansion team out of Grapevine, Texas played for the Thorne Cup. Period one went back and forth throughout as Idaho matched each goal Dallas scored. Wright put one on the board and Stefan Brucato evened it up. Then Elsborg gave the Ice Jets a 2-1 lead, but five minutes later Brucato tied it again. The physicality in the first was more than matched in the second as hits were coming at a bargain for both teams. But Austin Rehwinkel helped Dallas to a two goal lead that was only to be spoiled by another Brucato goal. Azurdia took back the two goal lead less than a minute later though. The back and forth was worse than a tennis match at times and just when it looked as though Dallas would take the lead into the 2nd intermission, Brucato scored two more to tie it at 5-5.
The third period went without a goal as both Baldwin and Jordyn Kaufer locked down the nets. Then in overtime, controversy struck when Christian Elsborg was called for hooking 1:53 in. It was a call that could have gone either way and went in favor of the Junior Steelheads as who else, but Stefan Brucato scored the Thorne Cup winning goal 23 seconds later. Taylor said a few days after that "His (Brucato's) effort was one unlike any I have ever seen nor will I ever see that again. Anything that touched his stick turned to gold, it was just a phenomenal job by him. Our boys played well but just missed it."
And while the final game of the season put a damper on an otherwise perfect first strike at the WSHL, the Dallas Ice Jets could hold their heads high as they defied the odds and took second place in all of the league. It is unsure yet who, if anyone of the players will be returning for next season as the object of playing Tier III hockey is to advance them, but the success of the franchise this season is one that will only help build more seasons like it in years to come. The Dallas Ice Jets have proven that they are one of the top destinations for rising players in all of the Western States Hockey League. Not bad for an expansion team any team.
Matt Prosser, Beat Writer for JuniorHockey.com. Founder of Fifty8 Productions and freelance writer from the San Francisco Bay Area. Voice of California State University, Sacramento Hockey and host of The Sports Cycle with Matt Prosser on KSSU1580 Sacramento. For comments and writing ventures e-mail Matt@Fifty8productions.com. Follow on Twitter @MattProsser58 or visit www.kssusportsycle.com.