By: Eric Morken, Alexandria Echo Press
Alexandria Blizzard players Alex Altenbernd, Steve Zierke and Brent Bain all had the same reaction when head coach Doc DelCastillo approached them with a rare opportunity last Wednesday.
None of them could believe it when DelCastillo talked to them before practice and presented them with a chance to play one game with the USA Under-18 team on Saturday. The opponent for that game happened to be one of the top five teams in the country in the University of North Dakota.
“At first when he told me, I was like, ‘Say that again,’ ” Bain said. “I couldn’t believe it. I mean, I never thought I would be playing against UND this season.”
They did not take long to accept the offer. They joined their U-18 teammates in Grand Forks on Saturday after the team had played the Fargo Force of the United States Hockey League (USHL) the night before.
The U-18 team is a part of the USA Hockey National Team Development Program. The squad is based out of Ann Arbor, Mich., and plays a 50-plus game schedule against organizations in the USHL and top competition from Division I and Division III conferences. The team won gold at the 2010 IIHF World Under-18 Championship in Belarus this past April.
The group is currently shorthanded because of injuries and the fact that forward Rocco Grimaldi is with the junior national team preparing for the World Junior Championships. That opened the door for the three Alexandria forwards. They were thrilled to take advantage of a chance to wear the Team USA jersey.
“It means a ton,” Zierke said. “Just putting on that jersey, not many people get to do that. It was really awesome to represent the USA.”
The nerves that were running through each of them before the game were replaced with adrenaline once they hit the ice. They all played on the fourth line together and got around 12 or 13 shifts.
All three felt they made an impact, even if it did not show up on the stat sheet. Bain was the only one credited with a shot on goal. That came in a third period that started in a scoreless tie before UND scored twice and went on to win 2-1.
“I thought we held our own,” Altenbernd said. “We didn’t get scored on, and we were in their zone a lot, too. I thought we played well. Bain almost had a tip-in goal. That would have been pretty cool, but we did our job out there.”
Playing toe-to-toe with the Sioux should help their psyche going into the second half of the NAHL season. All of them said being able to skate with one of the best teams in the country was a confidence boost.
“You’re playing against some guys that might be going to the NHL,” Zierke said. “It’s just a faster pace. I thought that would be a problem, but I thought we kept up with them. We got a couple chances, could have scored. It just helped get that confidence in our goal scoring that we [can bring back to the Blizzard].”
Playing in Ralph Engelstad Arena also offered them a glimpse of the kind of venue they want to play in every night. DelCastillo said he feels all three have the talent to play Division I hockey. They are still trying to prove they deserve that opportunity. Playing against the Sioux for one night gave them an idea of what it takes to play at that level.
“It helps all three of us kind of see what it takes physically,” Altenbernd said. “You got to make plays. It’s a lot faster, but it definitely helps us. If we’re going to play Division I, this will do nothing but help.”