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Sunday, November 24, 2013

NHL Sled Classic in Pittsburgh

Top: Andrew Hodge (8), Terry Miller (22), Summer Samuelson (26), Nicholas Jenkins (5), Joshua Swope (15), Pedro Gomez-Ramos (10) Bottom: Brian Rathfelder (9) Charlie Alvary (23), Wesley Barrientos (3)

The Los Angeles Kings sent a team of sled hockey players to this year's NHL Sled Classic (Nov. 22-24) in Pittsburgh. The team consisted of the adult team at LA Kings Icetown Riverside, and three players from Bakersfield. This was the first time a West Coast NHL team has ever had a sled hockey team in this tournament, so we were under a lot of pressure to represent the Kings properly. Coach Andrew Hodge even encouraged the players to wear dress shirts and ties so they would look as professional off the ice as on.

Standing: Wesley Barrientos, Summer Samuelson, Todd Jenkins (manager), Terry Miller, Andrew Hodge. Sitting: Charlie Alvary, Joshua Swope, Nicholas Jenkins, Brian Rathfelder, Pedro Gomez-Ramos

So, how did the team do? Surprisingly well, considering this was their first tournament and they were playing against more experienced teams. They won 1 game, tied one game (lost in a shootout), and lost two games.

The tournament started at 11:45 on Thursday night, November 21. That's when the airplane took off from LAX carrying the LA Kings sled hockey team. The red-eye flight was the only way the team could get to the tournament on time. Several team members had to work on Thursday before heading to the airport. Of course they tried to get as much sleep as possible on the flight, but it's not comfortable or particularly restful.

When the team got to Pittsburgh, they had just enough time to find the hotel, eat a snack, and head to the rink for their first game. All of the Kings' games were played on the rinks at Robert Morris University Island Sports Center, in the middle of the beautiful Ohio River.

Game 1- LA Kings vs. Nashville Predators (the "Sled Preds") November 22

This first game caught the team blindsided because of the lack of sleep and the lack of experience. Nashville got out to an early lead, and though the Kings started coming back, Nashville held onto a lead the entire game. A late two goals sealed the game and the Kings lost 3-6. Brian Rathfelder scored the very first goal of the tournament for the Kings, and Wesley Barrientos scored the second (and got an assist on Rathfelder's goal as well).

After the loss, the team was able to grab dinner at the rink and watch some of the other games. Rink food wasn't the healthiest of options, but it was there, and since the members of the team hadn't sat down to a meal since dinner the night before, they were famished.

There were 16 teams at the tournament, representing 14 NHL teams. In addition to the Kings, there were teams representing the Stars, Sabres, Capitals, Hurricanes, Blue Jackets, Predators, Panthers, Flyers, Avalanche, Bruins, Rangers, Blackhawks, and the Penguins (the host team). All teams that came to the tournament have an official affiliation and relationship with their respective NHL teams. The teams were divided into three divisions; as a basically brand-new team, the Kings were placed in Division C. Most of the US National Team players were their playing on their club teams, and it was nice for our athletes to see top-level sled hockey players.

Despite the lack of sleep and being off-schedule because of a 3 hour time change, the team had to find some steam to play a second game on Friday before being able to turn in for the night to get some sleep.

Game 2- LA Kings vs. Buffalo Sabres November 22

This game was as lopsided as the last one, but this time it was in favor of the Kings. Andrew Hodge scored two goals,  Wesley Barrientos netted two goals and two assists, Terry Miller got an assist, Charlie Alvary got three assists, and Brian Rathfelder got an assist. Wesley Barrientos also took a penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct that would have given the Sabres a penalty shot, but the Sabres ended up scoring on the play so the penalty was recorded but not served. The Kings scored 5 goals and ended up winning 5-2.

There was no time to party after that win, since the next game was at 8:00 AM the next morning. Yes, that would be 5:00 AM by California clocks. The sleep-deprived team went to the hotel to find some very nice (and too brief) rest.

Game 3- LA Kings vs. Carolina Hurricanes, November 23

The word for this game is awesome. The Canes had come into the game having won their previous two games, so they were the first place team in our division. The Kings were able to hold them off 1-0, despite the loss of our goalie, Summer Samuelson, who got injured in the warmups and decided to stay out of the game as a precaution. Brian Rathfelder played back-up goalie, despite needing to use Summer's gear (left-handed gear even though he's a rightie), and never having tried a goalie sled before. Then, the Kings tied it up with 1.8 seconds left in the third with an incredible shot from Pedro Gomez-Ramos. The game ended up going to 8 rounds of shootout which built excitement throughout the arena. More and more spectators poured in to watch before the Hurricanes finally pulled out with a win. However, both teams fought hard for their points, and it was decidedly the game that the Kings athletes had the most fun playing.

Nicholas Jenkins in the 8 round shootout.

After the game against the Canes, the Kings were able to regroup, grab a bite to eat, and head back to the hotel for a nap in preparation for the semi-final game. While they were napping it began snowing outside. Everyone was hyped from the change in weather, and they headed back to the rink with excitement. Many people at the tournament who live in cold places jokingly blamed the California team for the snow. "You came out here wanting hockey weather? You got it."

Steven Jenkins, the youngest helper who went with the team, plays in the snow.

Pedro Gomez-Ramos enjoys the snow.

Game 4- Semi-final match, Kings vs. Nashville Predators (again), November 23

Before the semi-final game, they got a pep talk from Avalanche coach Corey Fairbanks (and several Avs players and personnel sat on the bench for part of the game).

The Kings felt like there was some unfinished business after the Preds beat them in the first game. They came into this game fired up and ready to win. However, Nashville scored two goals in the first period and another goal in the second, letting the wind out of the Kings' sails. The Kings started coming back with two goals in the second in a very short time by Pedro Gomez-Ramos and Wesley Barrientos. At the end of the second, Pedro Gomez-Ramos took a hard (legal) hit into the boards and ended up with a dislocated shoulder. He was taken off the ice and paramedics were called. This seemed to fire Nashville up, and the disheartened Kings lost to Nashville in the semi-finals 5-2. This marked the final game for the LA Kings in this tournament. If they had won, they would have moved on to the division finals.

As a side note, Gomez-Ramos wouldn't let the paramedics cut his Kings jersey, even though he was in a lot of pain and couldn't move his arm away from his body. So the paramedics removed the jersey as carefully as they could before taking him to the hospital, and Pedro endured the pain to preserve his jersey. I told him we would get him a new one, and he said, "No way! This one is special. Never let it touch the ground."

The final game in Division C was between the Nashville Predators and the Carolina Hurricanes. It was played at Consol Energy Center (where the Penguins play). Nashville ended up beating Carolina 2-1, taking the division title.

The Carolina Hurricanes and Nashville Predators play in the division finals at Consol Energy Center. The Kings came to watch the game, and they had a very hungry look in their eyes when Nashville won.

Kings defenseman Nicholas Jenkins (right) watches the Division A title game between the Buffalo Sabres and the Dallas Stars with team manager Todd Jenkins
In the other divisions, the Sabres and the Capitals took home titles. (This was not the same Sabres team we played and beat. The Sabres sent three teams to this tournament.) Overall, it was a great tournament and the Kings sled hockey team is hungry to go back next year.

Several team members pose with the statue in front of Consol Energy Center. Note the sling on Pedro's arm, courtesy of the game he played the night before.

There are so many people who need to be thanked who made this tournament happen. It took a lot of planning, fundraising, and some outright gifts from people.

First, the Mighty Penguins sled hockey program put on a great tournament. Thank you for all of the help on your end to get the Kings out to represent the West Coast. The planning and coordination that has to go into a tournament like this must be massive, and it was smoothly run. In addition, USA Hockey staff, including JJ O'Connor and Norm Page (who was especially helpful at 1 AM after our athlete got back from the hospital) were fantastic.

Second, the LA Kings have been super in supporting this team. From fundraisers, to helping us get the word out about our program, to allowing us to do demos, to donating jerseys and socks and so many other things, Chris Crotty, Lauren Wiedmeier and the rest of the Kings staff deserve a huge THANK YOU! Every athlete at the NHL Sled Classic got a pair of LA Kings sunglasses and an LA Kings bottle opener, so every time they get a cold one they will be reminded who the best NHL team is. In turn, the Kings can be happy with how their sled hockey team did at this tournament. It was from the newest program there, and they scored in every game, won one game, and forced a game to shootout against the division's strongest team.

US National Sled Hockey Team member Josh Sweeney shows the Twitter World his Kings sunglasses from this tournament. 

Third, we need to thank the people who, at their own expense, tagged along with the team. The team paid for a manager (Todd Jenkins) and an assistant (Kathy Swope) to travel. The rest of the fan club paid their own way. This includes Bud Swope, Jeremy Swope, Dave Hodge, Christie Jenkins, and Steven Jenkins. Nancy Hodge was also planning to come but had to cancel at the last minute due to illness. For their tireless efforts in helping this team, we salute all the helpers. It would have been a very difficult tournament without them.

Finally, we would like to thank everyone who donated money, bought a mug (, and helped us out in getting to the NHL Sled Classic. Our team definitely traveled the farthest to the event. We represented the Kings well, and represented this side of the country well. Glen Ivy Hot Springs also helped us with a great fundraiser, and the board members on the Junior Reign were very supportive of this vision. Of course, Matt Dunaev from LA Kings Icetown has been a huge help in catching the vision for this team, and the board of the Junior Reign have been very supportive and helpful. Also, a shout-out to Scott Hay, the rink manager in Bakersfield, for supporting sled hockey at your rink.

We are proud of what we accomplished, and all of the athletes agree that this was the first tournament, but it definitely won't be the last! There is business on the ice they need to take care of, and there is a fire in their hearts to go back next year and win. Go Kings Go!!

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