By Garrett Andrews
Herald Staff Writer
He was unmistakable.
The Steamers each recognized Joe Sakic immediately and swarmed him when he entered their locker room in the Edge Ice Arena in Denver before the Colorado Amateur Hockey Association championship game Sunday.
One of the sport's all-time greats, the 13-time NHL all-star and Olympic gold medalist congratulated them for making it so far and he signed shirts and sweaters.
The Durango Squirt Steamers made it to the state finals last year but lost in the championship game. They were about to face the dominant Arapahoe Maize, playing on their home ice.
"You guys need to step it up now," Sakic told the team in a short pep talk.
Gunter Steffler's third season as head coach of the Steamers was memorable throughout, unforgettable in the end.
Because youth hockey teams are so rare and well-dispersed in the Western Slope, the Steamers play in a division that makes little geographic sense. In fact, the Rocky Mountain Youth Hockey League is probably the only thing linking the communities of Craig, Kremmling, Crested Butte, Vernal, Utah, and Durango.
"We're basically the hillbillies of Colorado," said Steffler of his team's relative isolation.
But hillbilly hockey's been catching on. Referees at the finals told Steffler they've been glad to see new blood at the highest level of youth hockey. This was the third consecutive trip to the finals for the Steamers.
Other teams showed up wearing ties and shined shoes on game day. Steffler was excited this year to get his players' last names printed on their sweaters.
Durango hockey dad and fan Rick Kerns, whose son plays in the 15-to-18-year-old Midget division in Durango, went to several Steamers games this year. He saw in the players a new appreciation for the fundamentals - puck-control, passing, skating - each time they took the ice.
With mediocre conference opponents, Steffler and his assistant coaches looked outside their league for challenges. They signed up for as many competitive tournaments as they could fit in their schedule and played in older divisions when permitted.
He estimated Steamer parents traveled more than 3,000 miles this year for more than 40 games.
A cohesive group
With his team getting comfortable with the basics, Steffler started to use strategies to win.
Many of the Steamers have been playing together since they were the 4- and 5-year old mini-Mites. Center Devin Steffler was on the ice at 3.
Most of the team is enrolled at Needham Elementary. With the team so close, Steffler said everybody has found a productive role.
Sophia Quick doesn't mind being the team's only girl.
"It's really good for me," she said. She sat across the table from the rest of the team, between two of her coaches, and rolled her eyes whenever she was interrupted.
"But they do outnumber me," she said.
Loud music in the locker room and bad dancing are the worst parts of life on the road with 12 boys, she said.
But she loves hockey, she said, and getting the chance to hit.
Maybe not as much as Benji Mickel, who led the team in penalty minutes this season and is the only Steamer - ever - involved in an on-ice fight. Judging by the laughter of his teammates, it wasn't much of a fight, either.
He's excited for next season in Peewee League, where checking and slap shots are finally legal. This summer, Benji and most of the team will go to a camp specializing in these skills.
This season, defenseman Caleb Carpenter got the hang of frantic lines changes every one minute or so. Coming out of the game is a part of life, he said.
"You don't get frustrated," he said.
A state championship
After Sakic's surprise visit, Steffler saw a change in his team as they took the ice.
"You could see it in their eyes," he said.
Kele Steffler got things started. Taking a pass from Sophia, Kele saw Arapahoe Maize keeper Nicholas Donakowski on his knees in the butterfly position and stuck it in the five-hole to put the Steamers up 1-0 three minutes into the first period.
"His butterfly was open a little bit so I took the shot," said Kele.
The Steamers battered Nicholas for the rest of the period. A huge second period settled the matter and all Maize could muster was a consolation goal by Robert Gandini late in the third period.
It was 8-1 when the dust settled. Kele was his usual, productive self, with three goals and two assists. His younger brother, Devin Steffler, and Derek Pansze put up two goals each. Assistant captain Benji got a goal in as well.
As he's done all year, Spencer Capdevielle kept the back of the net immaculate and his team in the game. They'll miss him next year when he moves with his family to Boulder.
The outcome looked certain early in the third period, but Steffler preached concentration as the large Durango contingent chanted "Stea-mers" at full throat. The crowd banged the boards, rumbled their feet and shouted a countdown when one minute was left on the game clock.
When the final buzzer sounded, protective equipment flew off of arms and up in the air. Kids and their parents screamed and ran and jumped on the ice.
They had done what no other hockey team from Durango or the Rocky Mountain Youth Hockey League had ever done - they stepped up and won a Colorado state championship.
"It was like the best thing in the world happening to you," said Kele.