MORGANTOWN — If the movie “The Mighty Ducks” had been set in West Virginia, you wouldn’t need long to find the ideal candidates to play the roles of the underdog, thrown-together hockey team and a coach that leads them to victory against the odds.
The Morgantown Blades 10U hockey team, coached by Paul Mangold, competed in the Pittsburgh Amateur Hockey League (B division) for the first time after forming the team less than a year ago, in August 2022. Despite only one team member at the start of the season having any experience playing full ice hockey and losing their home practice facility in the middle of the season, the Blades overcame the obstacles thrown at them and took home the gold.
“When the team was formed, we had a single kid who had played full-ice hockey the year prior. About half of the team had played 8U Mite hockey; Mite hockey games are played on 1/3 ice,” Mangold said. “None of the other kids (almost half of the team) had played hockey previously. Practices were focused not only on fundamentals of skating and passing but also on learning the game of hockey.”
When it came to practicing, Mangold and his assistant coach Justin Byers, along with others, had to focus more on the fundamentals and rules of hockey itself before they could really dive into practicing for specific games or opponents.
“By the spring, we had developed a team of hockey players from a group of kids who were brand-new to the sport in the fall,” Mangold said. “Due to some families choosing to play on other teams, we had a short roster; we were not even sure we would have enough kids show up to games that would allow us to play and not forfeit. We recruited emergency backup players, parent-coaches, and volunteers to man the penalty box.”
Mangold, his assistants, the players and their families did whatever it took for the Blades to be able to skate and compete. Then, Mangold said, just when his team and players had started to gain momentum as a team and earn some wins, the team learned that their home ice rink would be taken away from them just three weeks before the playoffs.
“We learned on New Year’s Eve that the rink was planning to close for 18 months. Most parents on our team chose not to tell their kids for fear that they would be crushed as we were having a successful season and they did not want the kids to know that it could possibly be their last in Morgantown for more than a year,” Mangold explained. “Of the kids who knew, most said that they only wanted to continue to play if it was with their friends and teammates.”
Mangold knew his team would do whatever it took to be able to continue playing and despite having to sacrifice time and effort, the Blades wouldn’t be denied.
“The kids have been extremely resilient. We spent a month practicing at the Ice Mine in Connellsville (Pa.) while preparing for our final games against our toughest competition, as well as playoffs,” he said. “Late nights, driving an hour each way, on school nights. This year, our team rose to the challenge, playing eight games after the Morgantown Ice Arena closed on February 26th.”
The Blades entered the PAHL playoffs in division B and seemed as though they had been playing and practicing together for years with a dominating performance.
In game one, the Blades downed Steel City by a score of 8-1 in the quarterfinals. Game two was another convincing performance with a 5-1 win over the Allegheny Badgers, a team the Blades lost to in pool play, 6-5.
Finally, the Blades defeated the Beaver Badgers 3-1 in the championship final of the PAHL division B 10U playoffs.
Byers, whose son Daxton plays on the team, says this year was all about the team dynamic.
“The kids themselves helped their newer teammates so much when sometimes at this level you get kids that are all about ‘me,'” Byers said. “This team was different, they were just as happy playing great defense or getting an assist as they were a goal.”
Daxton says he enjoyed being able to play for his dad as his coach and with his friends.
“Making friends, having my dad as a coach, and having fun,” Daxton said when asked about his favorite thing about the sport. “This season was so cool. We passed the puck and played as a team and worked really hard this season.”
Mangold hopes the recent success that the city of Morgantown has seen recently will speak volumes so that the kids may have their own place to call home.
“We hope that this is a signal to City Council and BOPARC that Morgantown is a hockey town and that against adversity our teams have been successful because of the dedication and passion of the hockey community,” he said. “While it has been said that the hockey community is not representative of the Morgantown community as a whole and that resources should be dedicated elsewhere, hockey is the world to some of these kids. They spend five or more days a week at practices and games; they demonstrate a level of commitment that the community should reciprocate. Our kids deserve a facility that allows them to develop their skills and nurture the lifelong friendships that can form from being on a hockey team.”