A stick salute to the 11th-ranked Denfeld boys hockey team, which earned a Heritage Holiday Classic championship with three straight victories to improve to 9-2-1 over the weekend.
Below are a few quotes collected from head coach Dale Jago and star players Kade Shea and Griffin Lehet immediately after the Hunters’ 2-1 overtime win against previously once-beaten Owatonna in the championship Saturday afternoon:
Jago on winning the tourney: “Really happy for our kids. They’ve played really well the last two games, including in tonight’s final against a big, physical team. We were the quicker team tonight. We were able to get pucks behind their defensemen, and we received great goaltending and a gutty effort from our top four healthy defensemen.”
Reporter: What did you learn about your team and what did the kids learn about themselves tonight?
Jago: “We had two key guys out of the lineup tonight (elite sophomore forward Cooper McClure and burly junior defenseman Joe Udd). And, our top player played hurt. The guys dug deep, found some character and played hard with heart against a team that had won nine of its first ten games and allowed only 15 goals in its last eight games. Owatonna is big, physical, structured and got good goaltending. But our kids stuck with it, took some big hits and kept their feet moving. We actually out-chanced our opponent tonight and it paid off at the end.”
Reporter: How key was Lehet’s leadership and six goals in the team’s success this weekend?
Jago: “Griff’s found his game. There are guys who set the table and then there’s guys who stir the drink. Griffin plays hard, and finally is getting pucks to the net and earning second and sometimes third chances. That’s his game, getting to the greasy areas to get goals. That’s what he’s done in the last four or five games.”
Reporter: How does this holiday tourney win, in the final, rank in terms of your biggest wins in your brief coaching career at Denfeld?
Jago: “I mean, it’s finally something that we had to play for, right? It’s our tournament, and it’s the first time we’ve won it since I’ve been here. So I’m really happy for the kids that they finally got some hardware and will get some good headlines. We won it as a team, despite all the injuries and sickness we’ve had. That’s the biggest thing that I’m most proud of.”
Hunters Players’ Reactions
Shea on the tourney sweep: “We had guys sick and banged up, but we battled through it. Good teams find ways to win. We’re just taking it shift by shift, game by game, trying to get better each and every day to prepare for playoffs.”
Reporter: How big of a confidence builder is this game — this tournament — for the guys in this locker room?
Shea: “Yeah, it’s great for the guys, but also for our fans and the community that continue to rally with us. This is a building-block holiday tourney championship in our own barn, for sure.”
Reporter: And, what about the amazing fan support?
Shea: “We all love it, and it’s satisfying to win for our fans. They invest so much into us, so it’s important to repay them with our best efforts every night and hopefully continue to reward them.”
Reporter: What’s the mindset of the guys moving forward?
Shea: “The coaches just reminded us to be thankful for tonight, and to enjoy it. We’re focused on not looking too far down the line, just trying to take it slowly and focusing on the next game.”
Reporter: But make no mistake, the quiet captain Lehet steers the Good Ship Hunters, eh?
Shea: “Absolutely, Griff’s our guy, the leader of our team. He’s showing all of us the way, including the young guys who are so amazingly talented. As veterans, we’re trying to teach the young guys that we can’t back down in tough situations, that we must continue to play physical and not shy away. Once we get the young guys all fired up, they’re so fun to watch and play with.”
Lehet on winning the tourney: “Special, yeah, for sure. The boys deserve all the credit ’cause it’s a team victory. Nice to be winning. We’re buzzing and playing with a lot of confidence, but there’s still a lot of work left to do as we continue to prepare for the stretch run here in the regular season and into the playoffs.”
Reporter: Your assessment of the Hunters as you approach the midway point in the regular season?
Lehet: “We’re really quick, strong and move the puck fast. I mean, we can always work harder, but I think we’re pretty solid in where we’re at right now.”
Reporter: And, how’s your game?
Lehet: “Coach challenged me to get to the net harder, to stop trying to be so cute and fancy and work to manufacture some greasy goals. That was my approach starting in this tournament, and it worked out great.”
Reporter: How important are these three wins, winning your tournament, to the confidence of the players?
Lehet: “Very, very important. Our confidence is sky-high, and we’re already looking forward to getting back at it next week to continue to improve even more. We’ll stick to the master plan, and I really do believe we’re taking it all the way.”