New kids on the ice
Special to the daily
This weekend, the highest level of hockey ever seen in Summit County hit the ice when the Breckenridge Bucks opened their season against the Aspen Leafs. It’s the inaugural season for the Bucks, a junior-level hockey team comprised of talented post-high school players looking to attract the attention of college coaches.
“This level’s a very unique and interesting level… . Junior hockey’s completely exclusive to any sport,” Bucks director of sales and marketing Kelly Gee said. “These are young men that can play the game at a hard-hitting, fast pace, but their skill development and learning curve is still very raw. It makes for a really exciting brand of hockey.”
The Bucks are one of six teams (others include Aspen, Colorado Springs, Littleton, Grand Junction and Monument) in the newly founded Rocky Mountain Junior Hockey League (RMJHL). It’s hard to predict how the Bucks will fare in a brand-new league, but head coach Jesse Davis has a positive attitude — even if he’s a little sarcastic.
“Our execution on our passing and shooting is pretty good,” Davis said. “We’re undefeated in practice right now.”
Players from across the country and world represent the Bucks as they vie for the first RMJHL cup. Swedish forward Milou Lofstrom had never even been to the United States before this season.
“I’m loving it,” Lofstrom said. “It’s a lovely place to live in.”
The Swede will be a leader on the team, coming to the Bucks after a season in Sweden’s highest junior league (also the third-highest professional league) last year. He notched a goal and an assist in the Bucks inter-squad scrimmage on Sept 27.
“I’ve been training for this all summer, all year,” Lofstrom said. “I’m one of the older guys, so I’ve probably got more routine. It feels like I’m ready.”
Austin Oyler and Anthony Flores may not be internationally bred, but the two speedy forwards also join the Bucks from far beyond Colorado. Flores, a Chicago native, spent last season with the Chicago Fury U18 AAA team. He helped lead the Fury to the Eastern Hockey League playoffs, with two goals and seven assists on the season.
Oyler hails from Detroit and played for the EHL’s Detroit Belle Tire U18 AAA squad.
“I want to make a couple moves, bury a couple in the net, but my main thing is get the puck in front, get it to people’s tapes, and just bury,” Oyler said. He did just that at the scrimmage, earning one assist.
For Colorado natives, look to Jake Wener and Jesse Reller. Centennial native Wener was one of the Bucks prize signees this past summer, and he proved his skills at the scrimmage with two goals. He brings winning experience to the ice as a member of 2015 National Championship runner-up U18 AAA team, the Littleton Hawks.
Reller is a Summit local who brings a strong defensive presence. He was one of the state’s top high school players in 2015, playing in the Colorado Senior All-Star Game.
The full team has been practicing for about three weeks, with a few joining as late as last weekend. However, chemistry was already visible at the Sept. 30 practice, and the Bucks are starting to pick up the style of hockey Davis wants.
“I’m not trying to throw too much at these guys because I want to see what they can do on their own, and what they kind of already know, and we want them to be creative,” Davis said. “We want them to think for themselves and not be robots on the ice.”
Yoga on the ice
Davis brings over 15 years of minor league coaching and playing experience to the Bucks helm.
In addition to honing fundamentals, preventing injuries is especially important at the junior level because of a hefty game schedule.
Starting on Friday, the Bucks embarked on a 40-game slate, with only a one-week break until the regular season finale on Feb. 20. At this level of hockey, its’ not particularly easy to bring in new quality players, so a significant part of the season is spent battling attrition and depth.
To build endurance and flexibility, the team has been working with Blue Lotus Yoga Studios in Breck for yoga instruction two days per week.
“It’s a great tool for any sport, especially for hockey,” Davis said. “These guys are on the ice a lot, and we’re working out the other two days. We get a little tight, a little tense. Yoga is a very great tool for injury prevention as well, so (we) make sure it gets their muscles stretched out the right way, and the highest thing to do in hockey is stay healthy.”
Since the team’s pre-season press conference this summer, Breck’s first junior hockey team has won a healthy following, with residents buying season tickets and local businesses like Blue Lotus helping the players. When that puck drops tonight against classic mountain rival Aspen, a hockey show like no other is sure to follow.
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