Huskies hockey primed and ready
EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado ” When queried throughout the season about challenges his hockey team was facing, Battle Mountain coach Gary Defina has often responded, “They know. They know.”
How does the team get ready for the state playoffs, which begin tonight at 6 p.m. at Dobson against Chatfield? They know. They know.
The reflexive response comes from watching the his team grow the last three years. And it doesn’t hurt a coach’s confidence to have four seniors who have played since their freshman year, and now have a total of 16 seasons under their belts.
Barrett Chow, Jonny and McKenzie Stevens and Kodi Wyatt have been there with the Huskies through heartbreak their freshman year in a state-title game loss to Air Academy, through “rebuilding” the program the last two winters to Battle Mountain’s re-emergence as the Peak Conference champion and a No. 1-ranked program going into the playoffs this year.
The quartet has faced the challenges of injury, following in big footsteps, facing the expectation of potential and forging a new path.
The new Greaser
Barrett Chow knew all about Battle Mountain hockey in the sixth grade. His brother, Austin, started as a freshman during the that year.
As all four seniors said, though, nothing compares to being on the ice for the first time. Once Barrett got there in 2004, he ended up scoring on his first shift at the Mountain Tournament in Steamboat Springs.
Barrett’s freshman year in 2004-05 was the only year that both the brothers Chow played on the same team because of the three-year-age difference between the two.
“A big thing was just being able to assist my brother. Chow to Chow,” Barrett said. “I know it was easy. All you had to do was give him the puck and he would score, but that was a good feeling. It’s a small town and there are a lot of siblings who play and a lot of those kids ” Jason and Chris (Chase) Charlie and Connor (Tedstrom) and Jonny and McKenzie ” don’t get that chance.”
Of course, being the Austin’s younger brother was a challenge for Barrett. Austin racked up a stunning 43 goals and 29 assists in their senior/freshman year. Ironically, Barrett, who led the team in points last year and is in the hunt for the title this year, modeled himself on one of Austin’s teammates, Brad Myers.
Myers was the consummate garbage-goal scorer. If there was a rebound off the opposing goalie, Myers seemingly always was there and stuffed the puck home. By doing so, he earned the nickname of Greaser.
“I’ve always felt that Austin is more of the pretty-type player who gets the big goal ore the big slap (shot),” Barrett said. “I’m more of a Brad Myers grease monkey-type who’s pounded and pounded in front of the net. I’ll take my share and get up. I think I’m a little dirtier than Austin because I’m not as talented. It takes a little grease.”
Chow is a younger brother and so is Jonny Stevens, as his twin sister, McKenzie, likes it noted.
“I’m 1 minute older,” McKenzie jokes. “I just have to say that now that he’s so much bigger than me.”
Both have taken interesting paths as their high school careers have developed. Jonny thought his future would be tied to hockey, Although he is a first-rate defenseman, arguably one of the state’s best, his athletic career turned toward running his freshman year.
“(Teammates) Corey Wilson and Tyler Thompson told me to quit hockey after my first cross country practice,” Jonny said. “They told me I was a much better runner than I was a hockey player. I wasn’t ready to give up hockey.”
But it did force a decision. Both Jonny and McKenzie were doubling on hockey rosters with the former playing with Arvada and the latter playing with the Colorado Select U-19s. After his sophomore year, Jonny dropped Arvada hockey to concentrate on playing hockey for the Huskies as well as running cross country and track in the fall and spring.
As an extremely-accomplished athlete in all three sports ” he led the Huskies to two state titles in cross country and owns or shares in every distance school record in track ” Steven has a good understanding of living up to expectations.
And this was the challenge for these four seniors as sophomores. The previous year, the team had gone 22-1 and made the state finals. These four started varsity hockey when Battle Mountain still had not lost a game at Dobson and were perennially expected to stomp league competition.
After a 77-6-2 record in the first four years of the program, Battle Mountain “struggled” with records of 14-7-1 and 12-6-2. The Huskies did lose on Dobson ice and didn’t win the league title last season.
“It was tough. We had to play a completely different style, especially our sophomore and junior years,” Jonny said. “With Austin and the rest of the guys (freshman year), you just had to throw it up ice and they’d take it through the neutral zone. We weren’t quite as quick, even though we had Derek (Byron) and Casey (Kleisinger). We had to grind a little bit more in our zone and get used to our new defensive-zone system.”
While winning nearly two-thirds of your games is hardly considered a “disaster,” the Huskies are clearly comfortable in the system now with a 17-2 record and a 15-game winning streak.
Girls play hockey?
McKenzie Stevens is used to it. There is always a pause in a person’s voice when he finds out that Battle Mountain’s No. 27 is in fact, gasp, a female.
It’s been like that for McKenzie ever since she was practically born ” 1 minute before Jonny, to emphasize the point again. While she plays AAA hockey with the Colorado Select U-19’s and has played on other elite girls teams with that club, she’s known nothing different than playing with the boys in Vail circles.
She played with most of her former and current high school teammates at assorted levels from Mite to Bantam, but it was still a little bizarre once she tried out and made the Battle Mountain team for the 2004-05 season.
“At first it was awkward walking into the rink as a freshman girl,” McKenzie said. “It’s a small valley so a lot of people knew that I was the girl who played on boys teams. I think the guys learned to get used to playing with me.”
There is the matter of physical play. When McKenzie started Pee Wee, when contact becomes legal, she remembers being bigger than her male counterparts, so it wasn’t a problem. Throughout high school, the boys have now grown, so it’s more difficult, but she definitely holds her own.
“I think the first time I hit a kid and made him fall down was right by the other team’s bench,” McKenzie said. “He was coming down the boards and I was at the blue line. I don’t think anyone expected it.”
Ironically, against Battle Mountain’s long-time rivals like Summit, Aspen and Steamboat Springs, the hitting is not an issue. The Tigers, Skiers and Sailors have all seen McKenzie throughout their careers, so they treat her just like any other hockey player. Against Front Range teams, McKenzie acknowledges there is some awkwardness.
And when other teams do take license with McKenzie, payback follows according to hockey tradition.
“I don’t think I protect her more than anyone else,” Jonny said. “I think we’d do the same thing if (teammate) Sam Sterling got hit. If someone took a cheap shot at Sam, we’d protect our teammate.”
Wyatt played his freshman year, but did not see action in the Air Academy title game. His season was done in late January when he broke his collar bone during a Bantam club game at Steamboat.
He watched helplessly from the stands at the World Arena.
“It was not fun,” Wyatt said. “It got me angry.”
Wyatt started with lots of rehabilitation, but was still tentative when he returned the next year.
“I understand what it’s like not to play, the frustration, and I doubted myself once I came back,” Wyatt said. “You’re careful for a while. But eventually, you go all out as you were used to.”
Wyatt is part of a new trend in Battle Mountain hockey. The Huskies are no longer the prototypical “small and fast team.” They still have wheels. They also now aren’t afraid of mixing it up when necessary.
When the Huskies line up on their blue line for the national anthem, the size of players like Wyatt, Jonny Stevens, Chow, Ryan Maddux and Connor Tedstrom is noticeable.
“It’s played for our benefit because people aren’t used to (our physical play),” Wyatt said. “Now we can set people back on their edges. It’s been lots of team-building activities, and dryland three times per week.”
The quartert’s four years of the team has been building ” hopefully ” to these next two weekends. Battle Mountain’s made the Frozen Four five times and the state-title game twice in the first six years of the program, but has yet to capture the brass ring.
As Chow bluntly says, “It’s been too long. We’ve had six tries,”
Last year, the Huskies lost in the first round to Standley Lake. Wyatt pulls no punches by calling that exit “the tragedy.”
It’s the experience of all those seasons these four have put in that have them hoping that this playoff run is the one.
“It’s not, ‘We have to win the state championship.’ Instead, we have to worry about them not getting through the neutral zone,” Jonny Stevens said. “We’re focused on the little things we need to do to win.”
“It takes the breath out of you for two weeks. You don’t want to move,” Chow said, remembering the Air Academy loss. “You use that as motivation. You never want to feel that pain again.”
As Defina says, “They know.”
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