Shattuck-St. Mary's showing strong at Circle K Classic

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For Shattuck-St. Mary’s, Calgary feels a lot like the friendly hockey surroundings of Minnesota.

So the team that’s turning heads at the city-hosted Circle K Classic has fast gotten comfy here.

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Yes … Tom Ward’s troops are making themselves at home by dominating their games during the 18-and-under international tournament.

“It is like being at home,” agreed Ward, the long-time boys’ prep coach for the school in Fairbault, Minn. “This is just like home for us. It’s like back in Minnesota. This is a fun event for this age of kids.”

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Don’t they know it.

“It’s a lot like back home,” declared Will Zellers, Shattuck-St. Mary’s leading goal- (28) and point-getter (55) through 29 games on the season. “Everyone here is so competitive and wants to win badly. Up here, it’s all hockey — just like back home, which is really cool.”

Helping to make it even more cool is that the results are falling their way — again — in a bid to become the first program to earn five championship titles at this tourney.

Late Saturday, they hoped to get one step closer to that goal by scoring a victory over surprise pool-winners Airdrie CFR Bisons in the event’s A-side quarterfinal action (6:15 p.m., Max Bell 2).

“We came all the way up here to try to do our best and put our best foot forward,” said Ward, of trying to turn a 20-hour bus ride into a trophy take in Monday’s championship final (3 p.m.). “We’ve been lucky — we’ve got some good players, and they like to go play when there’s something on the line.

“We’ve put our best foot forward here a few times.”

And how.

From 1999-2001 — then called The Mac’s — Shattuck-St. Mary’s won three straight of these heralded events. The school then won it again in 2003 to cap an incredible run of four crowns captured over five years.

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“It’s been at least a decade since we last played in this tournament,” Ward said. “We’ve always enjoyed our time here. The town supports it. We love this tournament. The kids get excited to come out here. It’s a big deal for our school and our program, so I’m happy that it’s still that way, because it should be that way. And the kids are proud when they win it.

“We’ve been up here to Calgary to play in the sport-school challenge before and played the Edge School, so it’s not like we haven’t been to Calgary. We just haven’t been in this tournament — they just didn’t let us come for a while. So they’ve been asking us to come for the last couple of years, and we’re happy to come back.”

Their lengthy absence was in part because of a push-back against having 18-year-olds compete in the event, which has long been a sticking point for tourney organizers.

For instance, eight of their rostered players are turning 19 in the coming calendar year, giving them a perceived leg up — age-wise — on most of the other teams participating in this tourney.

But this year’s committee felt having Shattuck-St. Mary’s as one of the 32 competing for this year’s title was in the event’s best interest.

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And it’s hard to argue against that when you watch Ward’s wonders execute like they do.

Their game is simply sublime.

“We try to get the kids prepared for the next level and get them to play the right way — play a 200-foot game,” said Ward, whose roster includes as many as 10 kids already committed to play puck in the NCAA Division 1 ranks and the coach expecting that all eventually move on to some level of college hockey. “Playing an honest brand of hockey is something we try to preach to our kids.”

It’s true … the school’s Hockey Center of Excellence does boast quite the reputation.

Its programs have counted 25 USA Hockey national championships over the years, including nine collected by the age-group coached by Ward and those fellow coaches before him.

And the future looks good for this year’s bunch — which has won most of its games — as well.

Here at The Circle K, Ward felt that bus-legs threatened his squad in its first round-robin contest, but Shattuck-St. Mary’s still prevailed in 6-3 fashion over B.C. sport-school OHA Penticton.

Then came a feature match against Alberta’s hottest club team — the Calgary Flames — in a 7-0 home-side stinker, after which Ward proclaimed his boys feel like they’ve still “got more in the tank.”

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And with that, they went out in their third and final round-robin test and rolled over the Prince Albert Mintos 12-3 to secure a spot in the playoffs.

“It means a lot coming to this tournament and having the success we are having,” Zellers said. “We prepared a lot before this tournament, and it’s good to see it’s paying off.

“We practise very hard every week — never take a day off — so that helps us a lot. We all live together in the dorms, too, which helps us a lot with chemistry on and off the ice.”

Ward likes this edition of his crew, too.

“We’ve got a good group,” he added. “I really like our kids. They try hard. They really show up every day to skate, practise and sweat.

“I like our chances. At our level, I think we’re as good as anybody. I don’t know if we’re any better. But we’ve got a good team. We’re lucky.”

LOOSE PUCKS

The only other program to sport four Mac’s/Circle K titles are the Buffaloes, who play the Phoenix Jr Coyotes in another A-side quarter-final late Saturday (6:45 p.m., Max Bell 1) … The other quarters pit Edge School against defending two-time champion South Alberta Hockey Academy (6:15 p.m., 7 Chiefs 2) and the Calgary Royals versus the Northern Alberta Xtreme (6:45 p.m., 7 Chiefs 1).

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