A quest for tougher competition found the Jefferson City Capitals in Chicago.
A league championship wasn’t enough for them; coach Matt Hart and his players wanted to test their skills against teams from the northern part of the country, where winter weather is synonymous with youth hockey.
So they entered a Sports Weekend tournament at the squirt select level, to compete against All-Star level teams during the weekend of March 12. Although they didn’t breeze through the tournament as easily as they did the regular season, the Capitals were on a steep learning curve. Jefferson City drove home after losing its first game 3-0, tying its second at 3 and winning a third 5-2.
“The tournament was good experience; it kind of let us know we were able to play with teams from the north,” Hart said. “We were not overplayed or way outplayed in any game, by any means.”
The Capitals also have their Missouri League Hockey Championship banner to hang in Jefferson City’s Washington Park Ice Arena. A team of 10-year-olds, they are the first Jefferson City team to hang a championship banner at Washington Park.
On March 8, Jefferson City won its league championship, defeating the Affton Americans 3-0 at the Ice Zone in the St. Louis Mills to finish 25-1.
Daniel Liu of Columbia plays left wing for the Capitals. As a left-handed player, he often catches goalies off-guard. Liu led his team in scoring with 33 goals, including one in the league championship game and one in the Sports Weekend Tournament.
“Daniel is a big part of our team’s offensive ability with his shooting and skating skills,” Hart said. “We kind of rely on him.”
Liu is the youngest of four children. An older brother and sister played hockey, and his parents come to all of his games. Their approach to their son’s success is as sparkling as his team’s record.
“Sure, winning is fun, but how you handle defeat and failure is more important,” Don Liu, Daniel’s father, said. “So we are happy our kid is on a winning team, but that’s not everything.”
The championship game against Affton was largely a defensive effort. The Capitals couldn’t break through the Affton defense until the third period. Jefferson City had 17 of its 26 shots on goal in the period.
“There were not a whole lot of shots on goal until the last period for either team,” Hart said.
Another Columbia player, Stephen “Hawk” Harris, played a key role as a defenseman. Hart said one Capitals player was so nervous he threw up before the game, but Harris was focused going into the championship match.
“I wasn’t nervous and I had pretty good confidence that we’d play good,” Harris said.
He got off two shots during the game, but made his biggest contribution on the other end of the ice, playing his favorite position, defenseman.
“Hawk is what we call a grinder,” team manager Bradley Scroggs said. “He’s always diving into the boards and into other people, not afraid to get in there nose to nose.”
Experience is rare in 10-year-old athletes; most of the Capitals had not played hockey on ice before this year. Hart said most joined the Capitals after playing with the Twisters, a Hallsville summer roller hockey league. Others had not played hockey at all before this season, making the sparkling season all the more unexpected.
“I figured we’d have a .500 season,” Hart said. “But they’re able to pull it off. I’ve never seen a group of kids where all of them enjoy each other this much; they mesh well and have fun. Plus, the parents are supportive.”
Parents are integral to the team’s success. A group stood for the entirety of all the games, stomping and yelling “Lets go Cap-it-als” for encouragement.
“Parents have to be really committed to support the kids who play such games,” Liu’s mother, Helen Liu, said. “There are many Columbia people who are interested in hockey, but because there’s no rink there and because of the driving, it hinders them. So, our heart is really for Columbia to come up with a rink, somehow.”
Players drive to Jefferson City from as far away as Centralia. Jacob Rickman’s mother spent 1 ½ hours every Tuesday driving her son to practice and plans to do it again next season.
Amy Rickman works in Columbia. Every Tuesday, she leaves work to drive home to Centralia, pick up Jacob and drive to practice in Jefferson City.
“Then on Wednesday practice is early, so we have my younger sister drive Jacob from Centralia to Columbia and meet me,” Rickman said. “Then we drive down here to make it to practice on time.”
She said that the driving pays off because Jacob’s hockey games are an event the family can enjoy.
“Jacob loves practice, and I think most of the kids on the team are all like that,” Rickman said. “It’s worth it because I get just as excited about going to games as he does.”
Characteristic of many traveling team coaches, Hart is the father of a player, Lucas Hart. In his sixth year of coaching, Hart is a doctor.
Next season, many of the Capitals will be old enough to move into the Pee Wee division. At that level they will have access to more seasoned coaches who will teach them the finer points of checking and full-body contact, both legal in the Pee Wee division. Hart says he is considering an assistant coaching position, but notes that the current team will necessarily be split apart.
“This is the last time for a while that these kids are going to be able to play together,” Hart said.