Before the season began, Little Caesars AAA Hockey Club’s 19U Girls head coach Rocky Thompson and his players made it their goal to win a national title.
And on April 4, that season-long objective was finally fulfilled.
The Little Caesars 19U Girls beat the Philadelphia Jr. Flyers, 4-1, in Pittsburgh to secure their first-ever Chipotle-USA Hockey Tier I Girls 19U National Championship.
“At the end, when (the final horn) did go off, it’s hard to put into words how they felt,” Thompson said. “You had to look at them, in that moment, to know what I’m talking about because there was just excitement.”
Little Caesars never trailed against Philadelphia. After a scoreless first period, it raced out to a 3-0 lead on second-period goals from Elyssa Biederman, Kaia Malachin and Jenna Nikles, before the Jr. Flyers broke the shutout shortly before the second intermission.
“We were able to take the lead, then control it,” Thompson said. “As we got into the third period, we were playing responsible, controlling the blue lines really well, not turning pucks over or shooting ourselves in the foot.”
Less than a minute into the final period, Ella Blackmore scored for Little Caesars, which held Philadelphia scoreless the rest of the way. Goalie Bailey Callaway made 31 saves in the victory.
“You could see the pride of all the hard work at the end,” Thompson said. “A lot of these girls have been together since they were 12 years old. This was also the last time a lot of them were going to be able to play together. That was something we talked about, leading up to nationals, that we wanted to draw on for inspiration.”
For captain Clara Yuhn, holding the national title banner is a memory she will forever cherish.
“It was amazing, something I’ll never forget,” Yuhn said. “It was emotional because this was our last year together as a team, so to be able to go out on top and win our last game was a big deal. It was a goal we set since the beginning of the season.”
Yuhn said the dedication her teammates brought to the ice every day made the victory possible.
“Our true character came out in the most important tournament of the year, and we were able to step up to the plate,” Yuhn said. “We all competed as hard as we could. We wanted to be the best teammates that we could be for each other all season.”
Yuhn admitted her team faced plenty of obstacles since their journey to Pittsburgh began. A demanding practice schedule, extensive weekend travel and balancing high school coursework could have worn the team down during the season.
According to Yuhn, learning how to manage adversity prepared them for the biggest stage.
“A lot of us have been part of the program for so long, so when we were traveling or had a bunch of games, we knew what to do,” Yuhn said. “I knew how to prepare my body, how to recover correctly and keep my training schedule on track. All those things add up, so when you’re in the last game of the tournament, you’re playing off the will to win and you’ve done what you’ve needed to do.”
Yuhn, who will play for the Boston University women’s ice hockey team this fall, doesn’t see the lifelong relationships she’s made with her current teammates fading away anytime soon.
“I’ve literally grown up with these girls,” Yuhn said. “We’ve gone through life changes together, winning championships, losing championships and all different things that build character. That helps you deal with adversity and being a better person. Even though we’re going off to different colleges and starting different journeys, we’re going to have those character-building moments and friendships to lean on wherever we are.”
Manon Rhéaume, Little Caesars AAA Hockey Girls program director, said being part of the players’ success means a lot.
“As the year goes on, you just see those special players not just on the ice, but off the ice,” Rhéaume said. “You think to yourself, ‘I just can’t wait to see where that person is going to be next,’ because hockey and sports give you so many great tools to become successful in life.”
And as the first and only woman to play in the NHL, Rhéaume views organizations like Little Caesars AAA Hockey Club helping young women achieve more than just national title dreams.
“Women’s hockey has grown so much since I played,” Rhéaume said. “So the way that I approached it when I took over this program six years ago, I’ve tried helping these girls get the same opportunities to get scholarships and to play on the national team like the boys have. Also, just helping them see they can still be involved in the game after they finish playing it.”