While a big part of youth sports takes place on the field, court or ice, one of the most memorable experiences takes place off the field of play.
Traveling with a team across the country and sometimes internationally to play in tournaments gives teammates and coaches a unique bonding experience that goes far beyond X’s and O’s.
The 2018-19 California Heat bantam hockey team got to experience just that, as they traveled to the Midwest to participate in the Chicago Midwinter Classic from Jan. 18-21.
The youth travel team’s home rink is based in Panorama City, but the 17-person team features players from all over the region, including Valencia, the San Fernando Valley and even Bakersfield.
For many of the 13- and 14-year-olds, the recent trip to Chicago was their first out of the state.
CA Heat head coach Smbat Defterderian was thrilled to be alongside his team as they experienced several firsts.
“It was definitely a first for a lot of these kids. We have kids traveling for the first time, traveling out of state to play in the tournament, first time in cold weather,” Defterderian said. “At the end of the weekend, a lot of the kids got to play pond hockey for the first time, which is awesome. It’s those moments that are what youth hockey and travel hockey is all about. It’s those experiences. One of the reasons why I coach is to share that with all the kids.”
While traveling to play hockey is a great experience in itself, winning helps add to the experience, of course.
After losing their first two games by a combined score of 11-2, the CA Heat rebounded to win their next two games, defeating the two local Chicago teams in their bracket by a combined score of 11-4.
They finished in second place out of five teams in the round robin portion of the tournament, earning a spot in the championship against the Northern Virginia Ice Dogs, a team that beat them 6-0 earlier that weekend.
The CA Heat were able to score a goal this time around, but ultimately fell 4-1.
Despite the final result, Defterderian was pleased with the way his team rebounded from the two earlier defeats with their grit and determination on full display.
“We may have lost that game, but win or loss, that game was a success to me. The kids battled hard all the way. We made it a pretty good hockey game and lost to a good team,” he said. “Our boys battled all the way to the end so it was cool to see. We showed a lot of character that weekend to start off on a rocky first two games and then just turn it around the way we did.”
For the kids, traveling out of state to play in a hockey tournament is an event they likely won’t forget anytime soon.
In addition to playing pond hockey, they got to catch an AHL game between the Chicago Wolves and Rockford Icehogs.
And who can forget about indulging in some of the finest cuisine Chicago has to offer.
“I personally was able to travel a lot growing up and playing in those tournament weekends, they make our seasons,” Defterderian said. “For all the kids to get to hang out with everybody at the hotel, it’s a real team-bonding experience. Getting away and going into negative-degree weather and going outside in the snow and then going to play hockey adds to the whole atmosphere.
“And having some deep dish pizza a couple days in a row was pretty cool.”