Huge Lift for Southern Hockey

By Darren Lowry

In what could only be a huge boon for Southern hockey, one of the Southeast’s own was chosen to be among the 20 players that represented the United States at the recent Under-17 Five Nations Tournament held in Huttwil, Switzerland Aug. 13-18.

Chris Darnell, who lives in Canton, Ga. And will attend Culver Academy in the fall, was selected to the final team after participating in the 2005 USA Hockey Select 16 Festival from June 25-July 1 in Rochester, New York. Before that, he advanced through the Southeast District Festival Tryouts, which were held at Southern Ice Arena, in Franklin, Tenn.

He is only the second player from the Southeast District to be selected to either the Under 17 team or Under 18 team. Blake Geoffrion from Nashville, Tenn. was the other.  Part of the reason for this may have been the perceived long-standing bias from evaluators from the North against players from the South.

Darnell’s father, Darrel, compared the stigma of Southern hockey players to characters from a popular Disney movie.

“People treat them like the Jamaican bobsled team.”

Regardless, Chris was not selected because of where he lives. He was chosen because of his legitimate skill.

However, Darrel says that it didn’t hurt that the USA’s coach of the Five Nations tournament, Stan Moore, also coached Chris at Rochester.

“He was already familiar with him, so I think that helped his chances a lot,” the elder Darnell says.

Indeed, Chris says that when some of the other players on the team heard he was from Georgia, they couldn’t believe it.

“At first, some of the players were uneasy about it,” Darnell admits.
“But once we had our first practice, they started showing me respect and treating me like the other Northern players.”

In addition, Darnell says that the long hours of travel helped his teammates get to know him better.

“When you spend nine hours on a plane with a group of people, you tend to get to know them very well.”

Darnell had plenty of time to get to know his teammates during the long hours of travel the team went through.

“Everything started out with me flying from Atlanta to Washington, D.C. Then as a team we flew eight hours to Switzerland and took a five hour bus trip to Austria,” Chris recalls.

“We had four practices at the Olympic Center in Innsbruck, Austria before driving two hours to Germany and beating a club team there 7-6. After that, we rode seven hours back to Austria before finally going back to Switzerland to start the tournament.”

While all of the travel seems like it would tire out players, it actually was designed to have the opposite effect. In years past, USA teams would arrive at international tournaments a day or two before they began. However, players often had trouble adapting to the sudden time zone change so quickly.

Chris says he didn’t feel tired from all the travel, and adds he enjoyed all of the amenities during the trip.

“They had everything planned down to the minute. Our team leader was really great. We also had the trainer from the Tampa Bay Lightning, Jason Serbus, and the equipment manager from the Minnesota Wild, Brent Proulx.”
Shockingly enough, the USA was not apparently the favorite team to win heading into the tournament.

“They took a poll before it began, and the Czechs came out as the favorite,” Darnell says.
Of course, the Czech team looked a little less like the favorite after the USA crushed them 9-4 in the first game of the tournament on Aug. 15.

Darnell netted his only goal and point of the tournament in that game, banging in a rebound at 2:37 of the third period for the USA’s seventh goal.

“From that point on, everyone obviously set their sights on us.”

Even then, it didn’t matter.

USA rolled over Slovakia 8-2 on Aug. 16, came back from a two-goal deficit to tie Switzerland 2-2 on Aug. 17, and clinched first place in the tournament on Aug. 18 with a 6-4 victory over Germany.

“The other teams had good skill, but they didn’t have our speed,” Darnell recalls.
Darrel could not say enough about USA Hockey’s role in setting everything up.

“They were just tremendous,” Darnell says. “It was a bit of a trying time for our family, but we felt very safe with him over there.”

Although USA Hockey footed most of the bill, Chris did have to raise some money to help pay for expenses.

“The Cooler [Chris’ home rink in Georgia] helped out a lot, and the local golf course set up a fundraiser for him and let him keep all of the proceeds,” the elder Darnell continued.
Also not overlooked by the Darnell family was the fact that Chris became one of the select few to ever wear the USA hockey sweater.

“To think about your son or daughter wearing that jersey, it’s pretty special,” Darnell says. “It doesn’t really strike you until later. He is one of only 20 players in the country that went over there.”

“The first time it hit me was in Austria, when we got that white jersey,” Chris recalls. It was pretty intense, like out of the movie Miracle.”

Darnell says he still stays in touch with the players and coaches on the team.

“The opportunity to play for my country was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had. It also let me compare myself with some of the best players in the country, and see what I need to work on,” Darnell says.

“It is a great story for hockey in the South,” Darrel beams.

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