NATIONAL RECOGNITION: Conrad Denise controls the puck in action this winter for the Princeton Day School boys’ hockey team. Last week, Denise helped the Princeton Youth Hockey Association (PYHA) Tigers 18AA midget team advance to the quarterfinals of the USA Hockey Nationals in the boys’ 18-and-Under Tier II 3A division. Denise tallied three goals and five assists in Princeton’s four games at the tourney. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)
Conrad Denise has plenty of experience being around the USA Hockey National Championships.
“I have watched nationals four times when my older brothers played,” said Denise, whose older brothers, John Garret and Will, starred for local club teams and the Princeton Day School boys’ program. “I felt like I was part of their teams.”
Last week, the younger Denise hit the ice for the first time at the nationals as his Princeton Youth Hockey Association (PYHA) Tigers 18AA midget team competed in the boys’ 18-and-Under Tier II 3A division in the Hartford, Conn. area.
“Just getting to the nationals is a huge success for any team,” said Denise, a PDS senior star forward and Princeton resident who helped PYHA sweep the Freeze in a best-of-three series to earn the organization’s first-ever berth in the nationals.
“Our goal was to go up there and enjoy ourselves and do the best we can. There are lot of variables, you have no idea about the teams you might play. We could control our effort. We focused on ourselves and representing the team, Princeton and the PYHA.”
Denise showed his focus right from the start of the tournament as the Tigers topped Weymouth (Mass.) Wildcats 6-2 in its first game of pool play.
“I scored on my first shot, that was a huge confidence builder,” recalled Denise. “I got loose on a breakaway, it was a great pass from Rob Colton. That set a tone.”
PYHA kept up its determined play, losing a 5-4 overtime thriller to Team Ohio and then blanking Milwaukee Phoenix 2-0 to qualify for the national quarterfinals.
While the Tigers ended up falling 9-5 to the Chicago Bruins in the quarterfinals, Denise believed the squad represented itself with aplomb to the end.
“We were sitting in the locker room after second period, down 6-2,” said Denise, who ended up with three goals and five assists in the tourney.
“We had so much support, for the time our parents put in to text messages and e-mails, we said we had to give everything for those people. We scored three goals in the third period; we made it exciting. We had to pull our goalie so they scored two late goals. It was closer than the score indicated. I was proud of everyone.”
The squad developed a closeness over the winter as it made its run to the nationals.
“There was certainly a bond, we had 10 guys from PDS, that helps,” said Denise. “All the guys connected and pulled together. It was one of the closest knit teams I have ever been on.”
For Denise, pulling his weight as a leader became a major focus. “I am not a huge goal scorer; I am lucky to be on a line with [Sean] Timmons and Colton, I know if I grind I will get points,” said Denise, who has previously played for the Mercer Chiefs and Team Comcast club programs.
“I thought I could contribute something else with all of the different experiences I have had with PDS and other club teams. I have had difficult losses. I understand the different emotions you feel. Losing is the worst feeling but you have to lose to win.”
PYHA head coach Ian McNally credited Denise with helping to spark the team’s run to the national quarters.
“In the Freeze series and the nationals, he was the catalyst on the ice, on the bench, and in the dressing room,” asserted McNally, a former player at Princeton University who is also the coach of the Hun School boys’ hockey team. “He took it upon himself to put the team on his shoulders.”
McNally realized last summer that he had a special team on his hands. “It was the very first practice in August, I blew the whistle to end the practice and guys went down to one end of the rink to pick up pucks and I saw them in a mass huddle, telling jokes and laughing,” said McNally.
“It was indicative of how the year would go. It was a special group of kids. They noticed it and their parents did too. They felt like they did this together. I have never been a part of a group that was together like that, most teams have some small factions.”
The Tigers were also fueled last week by the support they received from friends and family.
“There was a buzz; people were really taking interest in how we were doing,” said McNally.
“People were coming into town and people were watching on line. I told the players everyday that this was bigger than us. I had them share the texts of support they were getting.”
While PYHA didn’t get the big prize of a national title, it gained special satisfaction from its run.
“It was a great experience,” said McNally. “We lost that last game and there were some long faces in the dressing room. It was tough to take the jersey off for the last time. But afterward, it was all smiles. They realized that we made it past the first round and that was a great place to be. There was red carpet treatment afterward, 40 parents, grandparents, friends taking pictures.”
In McNally’s view, the 18AA team has made an impact that will be felt at the PYHA long past this winter.
“When I started with this group four or five years ago, the goal was to get into the state playoffs and be in the top 4 in the state,” said McNally. “We opened the doors to something bigger. Now the kids are saying let’s go to the nationals.”
Denise, for his part, leaves PYHA with indelible memories of his big week at nationals.
“Coach said to us afterward you will always remember this experience,” said Denise, who is headed to Babson College where he will be playing for the men’s hockey team.
“The nationals patch is sewn on your jersey. You will never forget each other, all the kids’ jersey numbers and who scored the goals. Our motto became champions walk together and we are still state champions. It was great to accomplish so much for the team and PYHA.”
Meanwhile across the country, another local hockey club team, the Princeton Tiger Lilies (PTL) 16U team, was creating some unforgettable moments of its own as the squad competed in the girls’ Tier II 16-and-Under nationals in San Jose, Calf.
For PTL, which finished third in the regular season standings before winning the Atlantic District tournament, getting the chance to head west was special.
“It was a complete shock that we won at the districts,” said Katie Alden, a goalie for the Tiger Lilies (and this reporter’s daughter.)
“That was always the goal but we couldn’t believe that it actually happened. We went from having four girls at tryouts to making the nationals.”
While the Tiger Lilies didn’t make it out of pool play, losing to the San Jose Junior Sharks, the Potsdam (N.Y.) Icestorm, and the Chicago Bruins, teams that all advanced to the quarters with Potsdam making the national title game and San Jose going to the semis, being on the ice with such competition was meaningful.
“At nationals, it was surreal how many good teams there are in the country,” said Alden, a PDS sophomore who also plays for the Panther girls’ hockey program.
“It was uplifting to see how the sport is expanding. Although we might not have done as well as we wanted, it was great to compete against those girls.”
Like the PYHA team, the Tiger Lilies were carried to the nationals by a special team chemistry. “There are often divides among teams, but we didn’t have that,” asserted Alden.
“We all respect each other and play for the person sitting next to us in the locker room as much as we play for ourselves.”