Good Things Come to Those Who Wait: The 14U AA NYC Cyclones
By Scott Lowe - MYHockeyRankings.com
Sometimes, even when coaches have the best of intentions, it can be challenging to keep young athletes from focusing on wins and losses, especially when a team is competing for a national championship. That was not the case, however, for the New York Cyclones Tier 2 14U team when the players stepped onto the ice for USA Hockey Youth Nationals two weeks ago.
They simply were happy to be there.
The core of this year’s Cyclones team came together for the 2016-17 season as first-year squirts. That season they posted a record of 2-32-0. That’s not a typo. Two wins. Thirty-two losses.
They added a few new players and coaches in the seasons that followed. Then, like many of us, the team had to endure the Year of COVID, during which the Cyclones played no games.
“The kids never stopped trying, never stopped competing, never stopped having fun and never stopped loving the game,” assistant coach Pat Manocchia said during the team’ recent trip to Michigan for Nationals. “To this day, they have not stopped, and it is without question why they are here right now in Kalamazoo, Michigan.”
There was still more to overcome when the team got back on the ice this year to secure the opportunity to play for the 14U Tier 2 national championship. The Cyclones played 68 of their 70 games this season on the road. That’s also not a typo, yet they somehow managed to compile a remarkable 57-8-2 record heading into Nationals despite their nomadic plight.
From 2-32-0 to 57-8-2 in just a few short years – with a little pandemic hiatus mixed in – is a script that even Disney couldn’t write.
“The first hint that this would be an extremely special group was the fact that during that two-win season the kids continued to actually have fun and improve where it would have been very easy to become so completely demoralized that they simply stopped caring,” Manocchia said. “A team that beat us 20-0 in September at home we lost to on the road in January, 11-9. This was the case with every team we played until in late January when we finally won our first game, which to us might as well have been the Stanley Cup.”
That quote brings back memories of the 1974-75 Washington Capitals, who set the professional sports standard for first-season futility by winning eight games during their initial NHL campaign. Only one of those victories came on the road, a 5-3 late-season decision against the also hapless California Golden Seals. After the game, one of the Caps’ players convinced his teammates to sign their names on a locker-room trash can, which they then took turns carrying around the room.
“That was our Stanley Cup,” Washington goaltender Ron Low recalled.
Fortunately for the Cyclones there would be much more to celebrate than that one January win over the course of the next few years, and it wouldn’t take nearly as long for them to raise their trophy as it did for the Capitals, who waited 44 years to carry the real Stanley Cup around the ice.
Just three years after that initial challenging campaign, the Cyclones won their league championship as major peewees (12U). Just eight days later, while that achievement still was fresh in their minds, the world was shut down by COVID-19.
New York City was one of the initial hot spots for the spread of the disease that would claim the lives of so many, and the restrictions imposed there – some of which finally were rescinded in recent weeks – were as stringent and unyielding as any in the United States. The Cyclones would not be permitted to host or travel for any games for an entire year.
Players located in districts as nearby as three miles away – and countless others in different parts of the country – at some point were able to get back on the ice with their teams. While some teams only were able to practice or played modified schedules, many others found a way to complete full seasons while trudging through an assortment of restrictions that varied from city to city, county to county and state to state.
“So, for more than an entire year, our team had to sit by and watch as kids all around them got to play,” Manocchia said.
Of course the Cyclones’ coaches, like adults everywhere, were concerned first and foremost about the physical and mental well-being of their players. But another concern for them was that the 13U season the team was missing out on was going to be the players’ introduction to full-body contact.
“Players all over the country were allowed not only to play games, but also to learn how to deal with the most significant, game-altering element to be introduced to players for the rest of their playing lives: contact,” Manocchia said.
Like so many coaches around the U.S., the Cyclones’ staff made the most of a difficult situation and did the best they could to keep their team together and provide an outlet for the players to continue developing. Zoom “practices” were held after school three times a week during the first five months of the lockdown. These included dryland-training exercises, stickhandling and anything else they could think of to keep the players engaged.
By the fall of 2020 the team was allowed to skate as a group while wearing masks and maintaining social distancing. That continued until the spring of 2021 when the Cyclones were able to play their first games – as part of a tournament in New Jersey – in 13 months.
Tryouts would take place a few weeks later, and the players were excited to be back on the ice and preparing for their comeback season. The coaches had big plans to make sure the team would get to do everything it had missed out on the previous year. They wanted to travel to compete in top tournaments, play the best teams and play for championships.
There would be more obstacles to overcome, however.
A few days prior to tryouts, Cyclones goalie Nico Goia, an original member of the team, told the coaches that he would be giving up hockey.
“This was a serious blow to our group, which had become over these extremely difficult years, a family in the truest sense of that word,” Manocchia said. “We literally have four coaches, all of whom have children on the team.”
Finding a goalie to play for a team in New York City in time for tryouts proved impossible, so the coaches and players prepared to deal with the situation the same way they had approached the COVID shutdown.
“We kept our heads up and kept moving forward,” Manocchia said. “Until our other goalie informed us after the first day of tryouts that he would be moving to another team and not be returning.”
This would prove to be another devastating blow to a resilient group of young men, but how much more could they take? The Cyclones had two other spring tournaments scheduled, so they begged Goia to come back to the team so they at least could get through the spring.
That was the short-term plan; the coaches just wanted to get the kids back on the ice playing games again. How they would field a team for the 2021-22 season without a goalie remained a mystery. Goia returned to the team for the spring and asked to speak with the coaches after they won the championship at one of the tournaments.
“We stood with our fingers crossed behind our backs outside the locker as he approached us and let us know he’d like to stay with the team for the season, literally making the greatest save of his life,” Manocchia recalled.
Knowing they definitely would be able to field a team in the fall, the coaches began developing an ambitious set of team goals for the 2021-22 season that included winning at least three tournaments, capturing the Long Island Amateur Hockey League (LIAHL) regular-season and playoff championships, finishing first in the Eastern Junior Elite Prospects League (EJEPL) and winning the EJEPL postseason title, winning their regional Silver Sticks tournament, competing for the New York State championship and becoming the first New York City team to qualify for Nationals.
Amazingly, the team accomplished almost every one of those goals. The Cyclones won three tournaments, won the LIAHL regular-season and postseason championships, captured the regional Silver Sticks title and lost in the state-championship final after skating to a 2-all tie through two periods.
Most important, though, they ultimately achieved the biggest goal of all and were invited to USA Hockey Nationals by posting an incredible 57 wins despite playing all but two games on the road. New York City vaccine mandates prohibited most of their opponents from traveling into the city to play.
The Nationals qualification process presented one more obstacle for the Cyclones to overcome, however. Coaches had assumed that both New York state finalists would receive bids to the National Championship, but that turned out not to be the case.
At the state tournament, the Cyclones defeated the Binghamton Freeze, 3-2 in a shootout, in the semifinals and were tied at 2 with the state’s top-ranked and the nation’s No. 9 team, the Power City Bruins, after two periods. The grueling semifinal game, which included a full 16-minute overtime period before the shootout, 3-1/2 hours earlier had taken its toll, though, and Power City skated away with a 6-2 victory, the state title and an automatic bid to Nationals.
“It was like watching a marathon runner stop at mile 20 with leg cramps and then try to begin running again,” Manocchia said. “We simply did not have enough gas left in the tank and ended up losing both that game and our opportunity to do something no New York City team had ever done.”
Or so they thought.
The locker room was full of sadness and disappointment as the team pondered the defeat and agonized over what the players and coaching staff thought was a missed opportunity. The reality that many of the Cyclones’ players were likely to move on to Tier 1 organizations or different teams next season hit hard. They thought this would be the last time this group, which had endured so much, would compete together as a team.
“On the bench with about 1:20 left in the game, one of the players choked out the sentence, ‘This is going to be our last shift together,’” Manocchia said. “And the tears began to flow.”
The players lingered in the locker room for almost an hour, savoring what they thought would be their final moments together as a team. A parent tried to move them along and one of the players responded, “There’s no other place in the world I want to be right now.”
But as has been mentioned in this space before, good things often come to those who wait.
A few days later while out to dinner on a family spring-break trip to Florida, Manocchia got a text from head coach Danny O’Brien asking if his family was interested in going to Nationals because they had received an at-large bid from USA Hockey.
The Cyclones competed in the 14U Tier 2 3A division in Kalamazoo, Mich, and opened play with a thrilling 6-5 overtime victory against the 24th-ranked Boston Jr. Eagles. They held a 3-1 lead entering the third period but were outscored 4-2 in the final frame before rallying for the win.
The Cyclones overcame a game-tying goal with 54 seconds remaining in regulation to win thanks to Ayden Heron’s goal 57 seconds into OT. As you might expect from this group, six different players scored, with Colin Jennings, Erion Milla, Noah De Clair, Samuel Silver and Alec Fayn also recording goals. The new netminder, Max Hausman, made an incredible 52 saves to earn a heart-stopping victory.
Maybe the Cyclones finally had won their Stanley Cup.
They dropped a hard-fought 1-0 decision to the Tampa Bulls, the nation’s top-ranked team, in their second contest before falling to the 20th-ranked Santa Clarita Flyers, 7-3, in their third and final outing.
That left the Cyclones with a 1-2-0 record for the tournament, a sparkling 58-10-2 overall mark and a national ranking of No. 29. De Clair led the team in scoring at Nationals with three goals and two assists, followed by Heron with 1-2-3, Pierce Hamblin with 0-2-2, Silver with 1-1-2, Anthony Manocchia with 0-2-2, Fayn with 2-0-2, Kody Ng with 0-1-1, Milla with 1-0-1, Jennings with 1-0-1, Jack Herringer with 0-1-1 and Henry Lepri with 0-1-1. Hausman backstopped the team in all three games, making 105 saves.
Other team members included Alexandra O’Brien, Charlie Davis, Robert Callender, Grady Miller, Max Miller, Charles Eginton, Alex Kloor and Gioia.
As for the coaching staff, Manocchia and assistant Jon Herringer have been with this Cyclone group since Day 1. They joined O’Brien as squirt major coaches the following year, and Chris Heron became part of the staff the season after that.
Neither the wins and losses nor the statistics really matter, though, since for the Cyclones it truly was all about the long, winding journey to Kalamazoo and getting the opportunity to play at Nationals.
“Through all of the adversity this team has had to endure,” Manocchia said fondly, “they have shown a resilience, a willingness to work and commitment to the game that is nothing short of astounding.”