Hockey is growing up in the South

Junior Canes' ranks are increasing and are competitive on national level

Staff writerApril 7, 2010 

— Charlie Flynn of Raleigh has a pressing engagement that will take him out of the country early next week. Afghanistan awaits.

But first, Flynn has gone to Chicago. His son, Sean, is the captain of the Junior Hurricanes Under 16 team that is competing for a national junior hockey championship, and Flynn said he couldn't miss it.

"It's such a good group," Flynn said. "They've been playing together for a number of years and they enjoy being around each other. They have that great camaraderie.

"It's fantastic what these kids have done. They've put so much work into it."

What the Junior Hurricanes have done is advance to the USA Hockey Tier I Under 16 Nationals. They begin play today in the 12-team event in Woodridge, Ill., a suburb of Chicago, and will be the first Tier I AAA team to play their way into the nationals from the three-year-old junior program sponsored by the Carolina Hurricanes.

And they say they're not going just to experience it.

"We want to bring it home once and for all to Raleigh to show people that kids down South can play hockey with kids up North," defenseman Trevor Owens said.

Owens, 16, helped do that this season. In December, he was called up to play a few games for the Chicago Steel of the U.S. Hockey League (USHL), the country's top junior league.

"It was awesome just to play at that level," Owens said. "Being from Raleigh, I had some kids ask, 'Is there even a rink there?' "

Not only a rink or two, but a Stanley Cup banner in the RBC Center. The Carolina Hurricanes, the 2006 Cup champions, have created a surge of interest in the sport since relocating from Hartford, Conn., 13 years ago.

"Ten years ago there might have been 200 kids in Raleigh playing hockey," said Paul Strand, coordinator of youth and amateur programs for the Carolina Hurricanes. "There are 1,500 now in Wake County and more than 6,000 in North and South Carolina."

The Carolina Hurricanes are partnered with the Raleigh Youth Hockey Association and Raleigh Hockey Club, which recently merged under one umbrella to provide a more compact organization. As Strand said, "We're getting more pull on the same rope."

In addition to the Under 16 AAA team, four other Junior Hurricanes teams qualified for the USA Hockey nationals: Under 18 AA, Under 16 AA, Under 16 Girls and Bantam AA.

"Now we have players like Trevor Owens who are showing you don't have to leave home and your family at 13 or 14 to play in a top junior league and get the recognition and (NCAA) Division I scholarship. You can stay with your local team and do it."

Clay Cotie once coached 13-and 14-year-old junior players in Western Canada, including Luke Schenn, now of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Moving to Raleigh from Saskatoon, Alberta, three years ago, he quickly jumped into the Junior Hurricanes program, saying he had a "hockey addiction."

Cotie coaches the Under 16 team, which has a 38-15-4 record, and said it fits his hockey philosophy - good goaltending, physical defensemen and balanced scoring. "Being a Canadian, I like the defensive side of the puck first," he said, smiling.

Sean Romeo and William Christopoulos have been a dependable tandem in goal. Forwards Mitchell Eisenberg and Bryan Moore each have 33 goals, and Daniel Blue a team-high 35 assists. Thayer Universal, used at both forward and defenseman, was named to the North American Prospects Hockey League all-star team.

Owens, a rugged type, has 147 penalty minutes in 53 games, which speaks to his toughness. Flynn has been a solid defenseman and a team leader as the captain.

Some of that may be in his genes. His father, Charlie, is a U.S. Army colonel who commanded the First Brigade of the 82nd Airborne in Iraq. After a 10-month assignment at the Pentagon, he was sent to Afghanistan.

Col. Flynn, who moved his family from Fort Bragg to Raleigh a year ago, is home on leave. A day after the nationals end, he will be going back to Afghanistan.

Two other players, Jared Chinn and Chris Bentley, also have military fathers and commute from Fort Bragg.

"These so-called 'army brats' are very mature kids for their age," Cotie said. "They have a calming influence about them."

Chinn said he misses not having his father at home, at the games, although saying DVDs of the games are sent to Afghanistan.

"It's definitely hard on me," he said. "I want to grow up and mature since I'm the only man in the house."

But it is his team, he said, that he leans on for support.

"Everyone is really close," he said. "Everyone is together and has each other's backs."

That bond has taken the team a long way - for the first time, a shot at a national title.

chip.alexander@newsobserver.com or 919-829-8945

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