More than 300 teenagers from across the country have descended on the Easy Street Arena here to compete in the USA Hockey Junior B national championships today through Tuesday.
The Ventura Mariners, a team based at the Easy Street facility that features 10 Californians on its 24-player roster, are hosting the five-day, 12-team, 21-game event. They hope to redeem what has been a miserable season.
The Mariners, playing in their fourth year, advanced to the semifinals of the national tournament two years ago in New Jersey. Last year in Toledo, they were eliminated in the pool-play round and this year received an automatic berth as the host team.
After struggling to a 15-23 record and finishing fifth in the eight-team Western States Hockey League Southern Division, Ventura (18-35 overall) must face the powerful New York Apple Core, a team from Brooklyn that eliminated the Mariners in 1996 en route to winning the national championship.
Working in Ventura's favor are the recent arrivals of several talented players and the return of others who have battled injuries.
"This was our most difficult season but we are probably better positioned now than all year to make a successful run," Mariner general manager Sean McGillivray Sr. said. "And I think there's a rivalry there with the Apple Core, so that will be an intense game right away."
The Apple Core (34-1-1 in league) won the Metropolitan Junior Hockey League title. Teams from Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Ohio, New Mexico, New Jersey, Arizona, Alaska and Michigan will also compete.
Ventura is led by center Matt Bothwell, a 16-year old Colorado native who overcame cancer to score 27 goals and add 30 assists in 33 league games.
His older brother, right wing Buddy Bothwell, missed much of the season with a staph infection in his hand but has been impressive in the Mariners' past 10 games.
McGillivray, a Simi Valley businessman who built the Easy Street Arena and founded the Mariners in 1994, said the facility and team were selected in June by USA Hockey to host the championships and merely hope to break even.
"It was time for [the championships] to be held out west and because of our record the last two years we had an interest in hosting," McGillivray said. "It gives the community a chance to see something that has never been held here before and it drives interest in kids wanting to skate and play hockey."
John Parks, public relations director for the arena and the Mariners, said more than $200,000 in improvements have been made to the facility in preparation for the championships.
Parks and his staff have scrambled to match players, coaches and parents with more than 200 hotel rooms, arrange rental cars, print programs and order championship merchandise.
"We haven't been getting much sleep but it's going to be a great event and it will all be worth it," McGillivray said. "A good performance by [the Mariners] will make it even better."
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USA HOCKEY JUNIOR B NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIPS
* Where: Easy Street Arena, 131 W. Easy Street, Simi Valley.
* Directions: Take 118 freeway. Exit Madera St. Go south to Easy Street. Go west two blocks. Arena on right.
* Ticket information: Tournament passes are $25 for adults and $15 for children 12 and younger. Individual game tickets are $7.50 for adults and $5 for children 12 and younger. Available at the arena.
* Who: Ventura Mariners, Flagstaff Mountaineers, New York Apple Core, Motor City (Mich.) Chiefs, Fairbanks Ice Dogs, North Metro (Minn.) Owls, Toledo Cherokee, New Jersey Jr. Devils, New Mexico Ice Breakers, East Metro (Minn.) Lakers, Suffolk (Penn.) PAL, Syracuse Stars.
* When: 10:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. today, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, 4-10 p.m. Monday and 7-10 p.m. Tuesday.
* Who to watch: The Mariners' leading scorer is center Matt Bothwell, a 16-year-old Pueblo, Colo., native who scored 27 goals and added 30 assists in 33 league games. Goaltender Sam Skoryna, a 19-year-old native of Elgin, Ontario, must be in top form against an expected barrage of shots. Evan Wax is the Apple Core's top scorer with 28 goals and 30 assists.
* Fast Fact: Last season's national champion, the Minnesota Kodiaks, failed to qualify for this season's tournament.