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Two Spokane youth hockey teams – the 14U-A1 and 16-U-A1 boys – qualify for nationals as state champions

By Dan Thompson For The Spokesman-Review

These are good times for the Spokane youth hockey scene.

Two Spokane Junior Chiefs teams – the 14U-A1 and 16U-A1 boys – are headed to nationals April 4-8, having won State Tier II titles in March.

The 16U team will play in Plano, Texas; the 14U squad is headed to South Bend, Indiana.

It is the first time in recent memory that the program is sending two teams to nationals, said Neil Runbeck, director of hockey operations for Spokane Youth Hockey.

The last time a youth team from Spokane won a national title was in 1988 in the Youth Tier II Bantam classification.

“Hockey in general in Spokane is growing. Our numbers are up over the last three years,” Runbeck said, “and we are having more success in end-of-the-season tournaments.”

The 16U team won all five games at the state tournament, while the 14U team – coached by Alex Peltram – went 4-1, including a victory in the championship game.

Runbeck said Spokane teams competed for nine different state titles and won five of them this year, though for the other three there is not a national tournament to follow.

But for the two still playing, it is a great opportunity.

“We’re developing our players a lot more,” said 16U coach Dustin Donaghy, who played for the Spokane Chiefs of the Western Hockey League. “We’re able to teach these kids the game so they can compete and be a relevant factor against teams that may have more money and more kids.

“The caliber of player we’re producing is far greater than in years past.”

Runbeck credits the coaches for upping the program’s game.

“We’ve put a pretty strong focus on skill development and power skating and puck skill, and it’s starting to show that it’s working,” Runbeck said.

Spokane Youth Hockey, which practices and plays at the Eagles Ice Arena, now has 27 teams across a variety of age groups and levels of competition for girls and boys, from 8U to 18U.

Local hockey players could, then, in theory, stay in Spokane their entire youth career, and the best could continue to stay in the area with the Spokane Braves of the Kootenay International Junior Hockey League, a Junior B league with teams in British Columbia and Washington.

Some of the very best could one day play for the Spokane Chiefs, or other teams in the vast constellation of junior and professional hockey leagues.

“My goal is to make sure they’re ready to be on a junior team and contribute,” said Donaghy, who is also the division director for the 14U, 16U and 18U teams.

Participating in the national tournaments is expensive, though, Runbeck said, and the teams have been raising funds in various ways so that each family doesn’t bear the full cost of getting and being there on its own.

Some private sponsors and companies have stepped up as well, Runbeck said.

“With the two teams, we have basically doubled the fundraising, but we have a number of different fundraising opportunities to explore before heading off,” Runbeck said. “It’s a great opportunity, but it comes at a price tag. The more we can do to reduce that price tag and let them enjoy the experience the better.”

The national tournaments start with a round-robin stage followed by an elimination bracket. Each team will play at least three games.

The 16U team will compete against 35 others in Texas, opening against the Maine Moose. The 14U team, with 39 others competing, starts with a game against the Maine Gladiators.

More information is available at nationals.usahockey.com/2019.

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