Local hockey players qualify for national tournament

Published 4:43 pm Friday, March 18, 2016

Quinn Pichel, left, and Logan Weber, right, are both headed to Anchorage, AK to take part in the USA Hockey Youth Tier 1 National Tournament. (Contributed)

Quinn Pichel, left, and Logan Weber, right, are both headed to Anchorage, AK to take part in the USA Hockey Youth Tier 1 National Tournament. (Contributed)

By BAKER ELLIS / Sports Editor

ANCHORAGE, AK – The Huntsville-based AAA Thunder hockey club is familiar with the national stage. Since the program’s inception 12 years ago, the Thunder have sent 16 different teams to National Tournament championships across eight age groups. One of the most successful age groups in the Thunder program in recent history has been the U14 group, which recently qualified for the USA Hockey Youth Tier 1 National Tournament for the fourth year in a row. The tournament this year is taking place in Anchorage, AK and will be from March 31-April 4.

The U14 Thunder team’s roster this year is made up primarily of players from Atlanta and Nashville, with one player from Florida and two from Alabama. Those two Alabama players are Quinn Pichel and Logan Weber, both of Shelby County.

Pichel, a freshman at Spain Park, and Weber, a freshman at Pelham, are both members of the U14 Thunder, called the AAA 01 Thunder Bantam Major. Roughly 50 kids try out for the team every year, and the Thunder only take 18 skaters. Pichel and Weber represent a very small percentage of hockey players not just across Alabama, but the southeastern United States.

The Thunder compete in the Southeastern District of the Tier 1 AAA Elite Hockey League, the premier amateur youth hockey league in the United States. Amateur hockey in the US and Canada is an exhaustive and complex web, but suffice it to say that at this age, Tier 1 AAA hockey is the apex. The Thunder is the only Tier 1 AAA program in the state of Alabama.

The Southeastern District, which the AAA 01 Thunder won to qualify for the national tournament, is made up of four affiliate associations: the Carolina Amateur Hockey Association, the Potomac Valley Amateur Hockey Association, the Southern Amateur Hockey Association and the Statewide Amateur Association of Florida. In all, the Southeastern District encompasses 10 states as well as the District of Columbia. The district as a whole sends just one team to the National Tournament, which has, in the U14 age group, been the Thunder four years running.

Keith Rowe has been the head coach of the Thunder’s U14 team for the past eight years. His current crop is just the latest in a line of nationally competitive teams the Thunder have produced, and the opportunity for this team to travel to Alaska represents a chance to play against the top talent in the country.

“These are the one-percenters,” Rowe said of the kids who make this team and kids who play in this tournament. “They are literally playing against the best kids in the world. That isn’t an exaggeration. The kid who is going to be the first pick in the NHL draft came (to the U14 National Tournament) several years ago when he was in this age group. The kids on these teams have NHL potential absolutely.”

Pichel has been playing hockey since he was four. Originally born in New York before moving to Michigan and finally to Birmingham, he is playing with the Thunder for the first time this season, and is excited about the opportunity to compete in the National Tournament.

“It’s exciting,” Pichel said of the opportunity to play on a national stage. “It makes me a little nervous, just the skill of the other teams, knowing how good they are, but I’m excited.”

Weber on the other hand has been with the Thunder for four years now. The U14 age group is the youngest age group that has a national tournament, and Weber is excited to finally get the chance to play in a tournament of this caliber.

“I’m very excited,” Weber said. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to go to Alaska. It’s going to be a lot of hard work. The teams are very prepared and very organized, but we have a chance.”

Erik Hudson, the director of hockey at the Pelham Civic Center, sees both Weber and Pichel weekly, as both take lessons weekly in Pelham. Hudson, originally from Washington state, comes from a rich hockey background, as does Rowe. Hudson played for Iowa State in college before spending time in the Central Hockey League as well as the Southern Professional Hockey League. Hudson knows hockey, and understands how talented Weber and Pichel are.

“Those kids are great, they’re awesome kids,” Hudson said. “They work hard. Working with them the past four months I’ve noticed they do have special skills as far as hockey skills and their work ethics.”

The Thunder have also had eight kids in the older age groups sign with Division I schools in the last calendar year, and a primary reason why is because of the exposure tournaments such as this one bring to the club and its’ players.

“Its not only a good experience that they’ll never forget, but its also a great opportunity because there will be scouts there,” Rowe said.

The tournament is taking place from March 31-April 4, and the Thunder are one of just 16 teams across the nation that will compete for the title.