Thursday was a banner night for the Long Island Royals hockey team.
The players and coaches, including Hockey Hall of Famer Pat LaFontaine and his assistant, former Islander Steve Webb, gathered with friends and family at Superior Ice Rink in Kings Park for one final team skate and the unveiling of their 16-and-under state and national championship banners to be hung on the arena's walls.
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"It's really the greatest feeling in the world, there's nothing like it," forward/defenseman Joseph Anile (Chaminade) said. "Holding up the banners, you feel like you're in a fantasy. You always watch the Stanley Cup get held up and there's nothing like getting to do that yourself."
The Royals beat the Dallas Elite Stars 5-1 April 1 in Buffalo to win the Tier I USA Hockey National Championship, earning the highest honors at the highest level of youth hockey in the country.
"Winning nationals is the best thing that's happened in my life," forward Mike Marnell [St. Anthony's] said. "It's been a dream for us since we were little [kids] and for it to come true is incredible."
The journey to the national championship started three years ago when LaFontaine took over as head coach of the team, and put the then-14-year old players through a hockey "boot camp," in Massachusetts. As 15-year olds, LaFontaine challenged the team by playing a difficult schedule against older youth teams, and by the time they began this season as 16-year olds, the Royals had earned the right to compete at this level and created a bond that would carry them to a championship.
"They committed themselves and came together, and to win a National Championship is a tremendous feet," LaFontaine sad. "If you put your mind to it collectively, work as hard as you can as a team, sacrifice, and do all the little things that add up to a team commitment, they now know they can achieve amazing things."
In the state championship game, the Royals defeated the Amherst Knights 7-1 to clinch a berth at nationals and avenge an earlier loss to the Knights in tournament pool play. There, the Royals survived pool play again and advanced to the semifinals after beating the Rhode Island Saints, 5-2, in the quarterfinals.
The semifinal game against the top-ranked Chicago Mission went to overtime, with Marnell scoring the game-winner less than a minute into extra time for a 5-4 victory. In the national title game, the Royals scored five unanswered goals after trailing 1-0 early in the first, with Nick Hutchinson (St. Mary's), Marnell and Justin Bailey each scoring three points.
The Royals finished with a 61-7-3 record, capping a season that began with the first team practice a year ago this week. A large portion of the team now plans to attend prep schools next year to further their hockey careers. Bailey, who moved from Buffalo to live with LaFontaine and play for the Royals this season, has been drafted by the Indiana Ice of the USHL and the Kitchener Rangers of the OHL, and is leaning toward skating for the Ice next season before playing for Michigan State University.
LaFontaine hopes to "get back into the game," sometime soon, but for now is done with coaching since his son, Daniel, will also move on from the Royals to play elsewhere next season. LaFontaine said the youth team he played for when he was a teen helped shape the rest of his life and career, and he is proud that he was able to pass on those experiences to the next generation of players.
"You teach them, work with them, train them, and you don't know when it's going to happen but then all of a sudden they hit that next level, and our team did that at the right time," LaFontaine said. "They kept getting stronger and better and they'll remember this for the rest of their lives."