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(August 2, 2001)
By WILL GRAVES
ESTERO - As he stood to address his team before its North American Rollerhockey Championship Gold Division Junior (18-and-under) semifinal against the Arizona Stars on Wednesday afternoon, Florida Junior Everblades coach John Hayes didn't remind his team what was at stake.
He didn't have to.
Sure, he could have mentioned this was the Everblades' last best shot at taking home some hardware from the largest roller hockey tournament in the world. He could have added that no other Jr. Everblades team had gotten as far.
But his players knew what they were playing for, a berth in the finals and more importantly, respect, not just for themselves but for the Jr. Everblades program as a whole.
A thrilling 3-2 win over the Stars pushed the Blades into the Junior Finals, where they won the title with a 3-2 victory over the Tour EPH Oilers. Quite an accomplishment for a local team.
"This is huge," Hayes said after the semifinal. "We won the AAU title last year with pretty much the same kids, and this is right up there with that. This is the biggest thing going, and for us to play like this against some of the top roller hockey programs in the country is something. This is a true national tournament. Other 'national' tournaments draw a bunch of local teams and a few teams from out of the area. This thing has people from all over."
As the NARCh finals wound down to a close late Wednesday night - after 285 teams played 765 games in 12 days - the Junior Blades' performance put a proper coda on a week and a half of madness, mayhem and hockey. Lots and lots of hockey.
"It's going to be nice to see something different, like the back of my eyelids," said Mike Shields, director of youth hockey at TECO Arena. "It's been great. Our local teams have done really well.
"Other teams, like ones in California, are select. They can draw kids from anywhere in the Western U.S. Our kids are all home-grown. It's been a learning experience for them to play against the best in the world."
By Wednesday most of the 10,000 fans who swarmed TECO at some point during the last two weeks were back on their way home to various parts throughout the Western Hemisphere.
The Junior Blades' run through the Gold Division gave the final day a distinctive local flavor.
Not bad for a program barely four years old in a state where roller hockey was just a rumor 10 years ago.
"I think the Florida teams have done very well," said NARCh co-founder Paul Chapey.
"They're getting better. Florida is behind the curve a little bit when it comes to roller hockey because they didn't really start to see the boom down here until a few years ago, which is much later than places like California." Florida was well-represented in the tournament. After California, which sent over 65 teams to the NARCh finals, Florida was second with 42, followed by Michigan with 40.
Chapey credited the exceptional relationship between TECO Arena officials and members of the NARCh staff in making this year's tournament the least problematic in the event's eight-year history.
"This one went the most smoothly in terms of the team effort between our staff and their staff," Chapey said. "The problems we had were small. The referees had trouble with hot water in their showers and the maids waking them up early. If that's the biggest of your concerns, then you've put on a heck of a tournament."
TECO officials have said they'd like to bring the tournament back in 2003 for NARCh's 10th anniversary. Chapey said a decision could be made by as early as November.
"Our message board on our Web site has been extremely positive," Chapey said. "Still, you have to account for how many teams would come back here. There've been a couple of messages about the weather, which kind of makes you laugh.
We'd love to come back. Things really couldn't have gone better."
For the local teams, the end of NARCh is just the beginning of a hectic August schedule. The AAU National Tournament comes to town next weekend, with several other prominent roller hockey tournaments on the calendar. Shields, however, isn't worried about player burnout.
"They live for this month," Shields said. "Players, especially the ones who just play in-line, they eat, sleep and live for July and August. They know this is their time to shine and it lets you know who really loves the game. We're already off to a great start."