Stewart McKenna will spend the summer thinking about seven memorable minutes.
That opening stretch of the host team Davis Eagles’ game against the Mat-su Eagles of Alaska served as a reminder of why he was so driven to recover from a knee injury and play in the 2015 Toyota-USA Hockey Youth Tier II 14 & Under National Championship in Salt Lake City.
And even though his team lost all three games in his first National Championship tournament, for those few magical moments McKenna and his Eagles’ teammates knew they could compete at a high level.
“It felt pretty good to know we were beating a team that was pretty good,” he said.
The Davis Eagles ended up losing the game, 5-3, but in that early flurry that included Gavin Poulsen’s two goals, they discovered what was possible for them as hockey players.
In its own way, even a 10-1 loss to the eventual champions, the Scorpions Hockey Club of Florida, was just as motivating, going forward.
McKenna and his Eagles would love to have more to show for their efforts. Even though they were assigned to a challenging pool with the Scorpions and two other tough teams, they wish they could have enjoyed the success of the Utah Jr. Grizzlies, which won all three of its preliminary games.
Yet there’s nothing quite as inspiring as facing elite competition. The games were fast-paced and physical, McKenna said, and the Eagles discovered how quickly an opponent will capitalize when you take off even one shift.
“It was a good measuring stick,” said Jim McKenna, Stewart’s father and the team’s coach. “What are guys going to do individually to improve throughout the summer? That's what the boys came away with.”
His son, who stands 5-foot-2, knows that speed is his potential advantage against bigger opponents. He wants to develop that part of his game, and he also learned that he needs to make quicker decisions with the puck. That’s something he could have learned only by playing at the national level.
McKenna’s positive experience in his home state of Utah illustrated that the impact of a tournament like this extends far beyond the thrill of winning a national title. And while things may not have gone the way they had hoped, it was still an unforgettable experience.