Ron Francis says his first championship ring in hockey came when the Pittsburgh Penguins won the Stanley Cup in 1991.
But a ring at any age is special. So it was Thursday as the Junior Hurricanes’ first national champions received their rings at PNC Arena. Pretty big rings, too.
Francis, the Carolina Hurricanes’ general manager, was on hand to present the rings as the 18 & Under AA players and coaches came forward and were recognized. It was a big moment for them and further evidence of the growth of youth hockey in the Triangle in the 20 years since the Hartford Whalers were moved to Raleigh and renamed the Carolina Hurricanes.
“It’s a heck of an accomplishment for these young men to be able to do this,” Francis said. “It’s something they should be extremely proud of, and it’s something they will carry with them the rest of their lives. The friendships they formed will be with them a long time.”
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The Junior Hurricanes’ team topped the Delaware Ducks 3-1 in the Tier II title game in April in the USA Hockey National Championships held in East Lansing, Mich.
“It’s great for these kids given all the hard work they’ve put in and the commitment their families have dedicated to the Junior Hurricanes program,” said Shane Willis, the Carolina Hurricanes’ youth and amateur hockey coordinator. “For them to get to that point and really put on a show, put Raleigh on the map and win a national championship is really icing on the cake for the program.”
The team captain was defenseman Devin Halko, the son of former Canes defenseman Steve Halko, who attended Thursday’s ring ceremony.
“We’ve had some great alumni stay in this area to help our youth program, which is always great to get those guys on the ice,” Willis said.
While the Carolina Hurricanes will be celebrating their 20th year this season, it will be the 30th year for Raleigh Youth Hockey Association and its 10th year affiliated with the Canes. There will be about 350 players this season on the 19 boys teams and four girls teams in the program, said Dan Hollis, president of the Junior Hurricanes/Raleigh Youth Hockey Association.
“When you win a (Stanley Cup) championship that goes a long way,” Francis said. “In Pittsburgh we won the championships in the early ’90s and all of a sudden you fast forward and you see kids coming out of that market and getting drafted into the NHL, and it’s sort of happening here as well. You have some success and the kids see that and then they start having success, and you see more and more kids getting drafted.”
Defenseman Josh Wesley and forward Skyler Brind’Amour are former Junior Hurricanes who were drafted – Wesley by the Canes and Brind’Amour this year by the Edmonton Oilers. They’re the sons of former Canes stars – Glen Wesley and Rod Brind’Amour – but the Junior Hurricanes program could produce others.
“There are goals for these younger players to shoot for,” Willis said.