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Junior Thrasher team wins Silver Stick tournament

Duluth, Minnesota?

No. Duluth, Georgia. It's a suburb of Atlanta.

Once Rick Emmett gave that answer, his Junior Thrashers mite team was primed to be overlooked in the International Silver Stick hockey tournament two weeks ago in Detroit.

Maybe that element of surprise worked to their advantage at first, but after a couple games it was clear, these kids could play.

And win.

The 7-and 8-year-olds, who nearly all live in Gwinnett and are coached by a former Gwinnett Gladiator, became the first Junior Thrasher team to claim the title in the international portion of this prestigious tournament. They're also believed to be the first team from the Southeast to do it. And they did by going 3-0-1 against all Canadian teams.

"A couple teams had outstanding players, but our guys worked their little hearts out," said Emmett, who played three seasons for the Gladiators before retiring from pro hockey.

Watching this group, which includes his son Parker, progress has helped keep Emmett from missing his playing days.

"It's a very dedicated group," Emmett said. "You want to push them, but you can't break them. It's amazing what you can get out 7-, 8-year-olds. I get enjoyment from seeing them develop."

Some of that came at the tournament itself.

The team skated to a 1-1 tie in the first game.

"That got the rust out," Emmett said. "They were a little intimidated because it's hockey in Canada. But after that first game, they realized they could play.

"It was basically a blur, but they had a good time."

They won their second game 4-2 and the semifinal later that afternoon 2-1. Which set up a rematch against the same team they tied in the opener. The Junior Thrashers won that one going away, 4-1.

"I'm sure we surprised people," Emmett said. "It was good to play the team we had already played, because then there's no excuses.

"They knew these southern boys can play."

The victory is indicative of the strides hockey is making in the South, since these kids were all born about the same time Emmett came to play for the newly relocated Gladiators in 2003.

"I think it definitely speaks volumes how far the programs have come around here," said Emmett, who grew up in Ontario.

Finding the best coaches and having the commitment of the parents, in both time and money, has been a big key to the growth of youth hockey in this non-traditional market. Unlike the top half of the U.S. or most of Canada, there aren't more than a handful of rinks in easy driving distance. So playing in the South means a great deal of travel.

"It's a big financial and time commitment," Emmett said. "And then you have kids with a love and passion for the game, because they've grown up with the Gladiators or the Thrashers.

"You also have Yan (Kaminsky) and Hoops (Patrick Houlihan, who run the Junior Thrashers programs at the Ice Forum in Duluth) involved and doing the right things to develop these kids. To be able to go up there and do that against Canadian teams speaks volumes."

Just qualifying for the Silver Stick was a major accomplishment.

"It's the biggest tournament of the year -- if you qualify for it," Emmett said.

At the qualifier in Huntsville, Ala., the Junior Thrashers suffered their first loss of the season at the hands of a team from Tampa Bay. But they bounced back from that narrow 3-2 defeat and rolled past the same Tampa Bay team 5-2 in the finals.

"They're a bunch of resilient kids," Emmett said. "Not much phases them."

On the team are Davis Goukler, Trenten Heyde, Davis Mortland, Matt Derosa, Charlie Pritchard, Nathaniel MacNeill, Logan Stein, Parker Emmett, Garrett Gawronski, Ryan Gordon, Owen Larson and Casey Newel. Emmett's assistant coaches are Grant MacNeill, Keith Gawronski and Kevin Larson.

The news of the team's win spread quickly.

"A team from Florida

e-mailed me to congratulate us," Emmett said. "They said they'd been up there couple times and never gotten that far."

LACROSSE

Gwinnett players propel national title

Five future Gwinnett County lacrosse players contributed to the U-17 Georgia Copperheads winning the national champion Tampa, Fla.

Cory Hall (Peachtree Ridge), Gary Heusel (Peachtree Ridge), Harrison Cheeley (Wesleyan), Scottie Smith (Greater Atlanta Christian) and Joshua Lowery (Hebron Christian Academy) contributed 31 goals during the tournament.

To win the national championship, the Copperheads defeated teams from Florida, New Jersey, Colorado, upstate New York, Canada and Maryland and took out an Ohio team, Burning River, 6-4.

The Copperheads are a metro Atlanta travel team under the direction of Tom Debole. The U-17 team was coached by Mike Muetzel.