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Team USA Prepares for 2016 FIRS World Championships in Italy

Team USA Prepares for 2016 FIRS World Championships in Italy

The smallest headline of the 2015 summer inline hockey season was “Team USA wins Bronze in Rosario, Argentina.”  What isn’t found about the inline hockey game on the international level could fill a book.  For the story, this writer was asked by American Inline Hockey League National Director Jeff Haze to speak with AIHL veterans Joe Mazzie (Empire State Legends), Jon Mosenson (Long Island 495ers) and Blake Ducker (Northeast Uprising), as well as coach Charlie Sgrillo (Philadelphia Liberty) about the experience in Argentina at the World Inline Hockey Championship June 16-21, 2015.

 

Some background: Federation Internationale de Roller Sports (FIRS) is the official Governing Body for International Roller Sports.  It was the organization which sponsored Roller Hockey as a demonstration sport in the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, Spain.  To this day it is the entity that oversees the sport’s annual Official World Championship.  In the United States the team parent is United States of America Roller Sports (USARS).  To understand the difference between FIRS and the International Ice Hockey Federation –IIHF – International competitions, realize that FIRS is the Official World Championship for Inline Hockey, whereas IIHF conducts an annual tournament, at nearly the same time, but it is an invitation only tournament, their Champion is the tournament winner.

 

In January of 2015 preparations for Rosario, Argentina began.  A selection process was outlined, resumes were collected and a team was chosen in May.  In June U.S. four players from the East Coast, five from the West, and three from the Midwest flew – some as many 30 hours - to gather in the Rosario, to compete for the World Championship.

 

Rosario is located in central Argentina, 186 miles from Buenos Aires.  It is the third largest city in Argentina, encompassing 70 square miles, with a population of  1.25 million.  It is the birthplace of revolutionary Che Guevara and international soccer star Lionel Messi.  Located in the Southern Hemisphere, June there is Winter.  Fans seen in photos of the games are huddled in winter jackets; the American players were comfortable in long sleeve t-shirts and shorts.

 

The International game of inline hockey features a few distinctive differences.  To start, the nets are smaller 3’high x 5’ wide.  The rinks were 82’ wide, only164’ long (for reference an NHL rink is 85’ x 200’) and played on the hosting nation’s flooring of choice, here Stilmat, a perforated tile manufactured in the Czech Republic (2012 & 2013 was played on Ice Court.)  The South American games played in Futsal arenas (like indoor soccer, with a smaller, underinflated ball; the rink itself is temporary). According to Jonathan Mosenson, “Everywhere you go the rink is a little different, the boards are a little different.” (The puck itself, also made by Stilmat, is standard for International play.)

 

As a member of USARS Hockey Committee, Charles “Charlie” Sgrillo Sr. knew early on that there were challenges for this years’team.  A decision was made to take 12 players (ten skaters, two goalies) instead of 14.  Later in the process, Charlie was asked to coach both teams, Women AND the Men. This was the first time in history a coach was selected to do double duty.  The fact that Sgrillo had coached teams for 25 years had something to do with the selection, but so too did winning three world championships in five years with the women, and coming off back-to-back victories.

 

Sgrillo was also part of the selection committee. “The selection process has much to do with the future, it has to be a consideration of committee, part of goal -  to identify future players.”  He continued “AAU is an Alliance Member of the (NGB) National Governing Body of USARS, so it makes sense that the AIHL (who is a license organization by the AAU and USARS) is one of the feeder programs for Team USA.  I think the AIHL should be a springboard for Team USA, and the minors should help fill the junior team.  It’s a legitimate league where the players are monitored, they have to follow rules. Ken Murchison at the Corona rink, Jeff Haze, myself… to me, we are scouts for Team USA.  Unlike other leagues or tournament teams, AIHL season concludes right before FIRS, other formats have been idle. Their festivals should be looked at as tryouts.”

 

The final team was composed an equal balance of returning players and new ones.  Of the ten skaters, three were from California, three from Michigan and four from the metro New York area, with two California goalies.  Coach Sgrillo believes the blending of elements was part of a successful formula; “The West Coast guys are high speed, skill guys. The East Coast players are hard headed, hard-nosed, they come out of the corners with the puck. And the Mid West guys are a combination of both aspects.” 

 

In 2014, Team USA squad won Gold in Toulouse, France, with a team that won easily. According to Forward Joe Mazzie, that team had “a stacked roster, scoring from everyone, we were expected to win” This year’s team was to be much different, which was evident from the start.

 

After spending nearly 30 hours traveling, veteran of eight World Championships, defenseman Mosenson arrived in Rosario and within two hours found himself lacing up skates and meeting teammates on the fly for a “friendly” skate against Team France. The team was, in his own words, “half rookies” – players who had never skated for Team USA.  But, that’s not a negative, “The ‘element of the unknown’ makes it intriguing” he went on to say. Mazzie admits “2014 we had a better roster on paper.  This year everyone could play, played their role, and character made this a better team.” 

 

Team USA would go out and take their lumps in their first skate as a team, losing 8-0 to France.   

 

“The ‘friendly’ with France taught them they have to bring their game up, can’t bring B game,” Coach Sgrillo pointed out. Only afterward were players and coach able to sit down together, meet and talk. “I bring a team-oriented concept; the team was lead by example.  Let’s face it, there’s a generational gap.  The game has changed; the players, the way the game is interpreted has changed since I first became involved with the game.  The team blended together, there was no ‘we’re just gonna do what we want to do.’” The team had set lines, “roles were accepted and performed,” according to the Coach.  “We agreed on everything, made a few changes for more fire-power or made adjustments on the fly,” according to Mosenson. “Charlie did a great job,” said Mazzie. “He’s a straight shooter, he presented his ideas, but he listened to all of us and adapted to suit our team.” Throughout the series Sgrillo relied on both goalies, most games were split.  “In every game the back-ups have to stay ready, we had two good ones, why not use them?” Sgrillo asked rhetorically.

 

Before their first official game, Mazzie and his coach talked.  “This year was special, last year I had the ‘A’and I realized I was the only returning player with a letter.  So I wasn’t surprised when I sat down with Charlie, but…all of a sudden I realized this is happening.”  Mazzie was named Captain of Team USA.  “It’s an honor, I lead by example, less talk…Do the right thing, keep everything positive.  Hey, I know mistakes happen – everyone makes them.”  At practice when the subject came up “I raised my hand and admitted ‘We all do it, I’m going to’ but what’s important is to follow it up with ‘Let’s go… Don’t worry.”

 

Before the first faceoff Mazzie made a habit of focusing his teammates by encouraging them in the huddle and encouraging them to “look at the name on the jersey, it’s an honor and a privilege to play for Team USA.” The Red, White and Blue officially kicked off the tournament with Columbia, a game they won 2-0.“Coming together took time” according to Mosenson.  In Argentina, Team USA would be “Everyone’s Super Bowl” according to Mazzie.  Next up was Italy, a game USA won 6-3, where, according to Mosenson, the team “found its stride.”  Round robin play would end with Team USA defeating Spain, 5-1. It was, according to the youngest returning player, goalie Blake Ducker, “a team came together so much easier.”

 

The playoff opener was to be against the home team, Argentina. According to Mazzie it was “Too loud, you couldn’t talk to your line mates.  Horns, drums, trumpets, whistles… Flags were waving, people cheering. And their goalie was outstanding.” According to Ducker it was “Ten times louder than France!” Argentina scored first, but Team USA tied the game on a power play goal by Mosenson.  In the second Mazzie put the team up, “Me and Tristan (Gardner), give and go, bar down.”  Team USA prevailed, 2-1.  “Those guys (Argentina) played the game of their life!” according to Ducker.

 

“We had everyone up for breakfast, go see sites, eating, laughing, stretching in the locker room,” according to Mazzie.   “It was ‘group discussion’ and time to eat!”  He continued “Argentina was great, the food was great, their team was great, the people at restaurants, at the hotel, they either spoke English or they tried.  We loved them.”  There were, according to Mosenson “two or three teams per hotel, we stayed same place as China-Tapei.  The French they kept out of the city” Blake Ducker, only 20,  with memories of Toulouse, France fresh in his mind described what he experienced. “Rosario had incredible night life, so affordable. Our translators were our tour guides.  We were told ‘be careful’ but there are parts of town that are hard to believe you’re in a third-world country. I have to give props to the Argentinians.  The tournament, the team, the fans, the people… I couldn’t be more swept away.”

 

France was their next opponent. “They had all the bells and whistles, water boys and equipment managers, matching gear from shorts and shirts to bags and gloves; they practice and work out together six months of the year” according to Mazzie.  For all they had going for them, Team France failed to make a positive impression on the American Captain. “I didn’t care for their antics, act like you’ve been there before” said Mazzie. 

The game started off even, “we had good flow, then some penalties you wish weren’t called…” said Mosenson.  At the end of the first France lead 3-0, and would never look back, pushing the lead to 5-0 in the second, before late goals by team USA made for a 6-2 final score.  With “three penalties on three defensemen in the first half,” said Mosenson, “we exerted a lot of energy with small roster.”  To their credit, in a game that was out of reach Team USA scored with four seconds left. “That showed the fight in our team, not to give up,” Mazzie said.

 

After being beaten soundly, it would have been easy for the team to pack it in and go home.  Some might think that having failed to defend the gold medal, that there was no reason to continue.  And that thought was expressed. “After losing we all came together ‘we have the opportunity to play for a medal.’  You don’t want to be that guy that doesn’t bring home a medal,” encouraged Mosenson.

 

Before the puck drop in the Bronze medal game versus Lativia, Mazzie asked “everyone look around.  Faces change on this team year to year. Let’s make sure the last memory we make is of a medal” Charles Baldwin scored a natural hat trick and Team USA roared to a 4-0 lead before Latvia stormed back and tied the game at four, six minutes into the second.  Sam Nixdorf broke the tie, Gardner and Mazzie would add insurance goals, and the Bronze Medal was secured, 7-4. 

 

In the end a familiar lesson rang true for Mazzie “Character is more important than talent.”  It was, in the words of Charlie Sgrillo “A well-deserved, honorable Bronze Medal, only one loss. Not all the best players play Team USA.  But every player who plays Team USA is an ambassador to the game, an athlete, a player, a citizen.  Maybe this was not all the best skill players, but they represented the USA as well as anyone. I am humbled, its a tribute to the commitment level, both teams gave all they had (Women brought home the Silver medal). For Mosenson, this experience ranks right up there with his other successes.  “This team came together more than any other.  On and off we had great chemistry, had we not, I don’t think we had the success we did.”

 

It comes as no surprise perhaps to the people who know Mosenson and Mazzie, teammates and neighbors, fierce competitors and respected veterans in their prime, that they would both conclude our conversations with the same sentiment, in almost the very same words.  In summing up Joe Mazzie offered “Every time I put on the jersey, I get chills. ‘United States of America’ it’s an honor and a privilege to wear.”  His Long Island counterpart, Jonathan Mosenson said “There is no better honor or feeling than putting on that jersey and representing your country in a sport that you love.”

 

The 2016 TEAM USA FOR MEN, WOMEN & JUNIOR MEN are posted online at the NGB’s website www.usarolersports.org  and Grassroots member at www.aauhockey.org

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