Ford City hockey team's future on thin ice
The long-term fate of Ford City's hockey program is unclear. No Open Class will exist after this season, so the Sabers will compete against unfamiliar competition — that is, if they don't merge with Kittanning for the 2013-14 schedule.
“This could be the last year for Ford City,” coach Glen Kilgore said. “We could combine next year. So why not go out on top?”
Ford City, a contender for the Open Cup the last two seasons, enters the season with an unprecedented urgency to claim a second title and the collective talent to win it all. The Sabers' schedule begins Thursday with a game against Carrick at the Ice Castle in Castle Shannon.
Kilgore, a former assistant who replaced coach Doug Anthony during the offseason, considers this group of Sabers the second-most talented he's supervised since the program's revival in 2007. The top spot, Kilgore said, belongs to the 2008-09 team that lost just once on the way to a Chiefs division championship and the Open Class title. But there's time and room for a revision of that list.
“That (2008-09) team was ridiculously special,” Kilgore said. “It had the talent to compete anywhere in the PIHL. This team has the potential to be like that.”
The Sabers' offensive centerpiece is senior center Jesse Valasek. A season ago, Valasek and his older brother, Kevin, provided Ford City a one-two punch few Open Class challengers matched.
Defenseman Kevin Valasek graduated after a 28-goal, 34-assist regular season. Jesse Valasek, responsible for 29 goals and 28 assists last winter, hopes to maintain his reputation as an elite scorer as he moves forward.
“I try to follow in his footsteps and lead the team how he did,” Jesse Valasek said. “I think definitely when he graduated we lost a huge goal scorer, so I feel I have to take on that role and produce as he did.”
Said Kilgore: “Jesse, the way he's played so far, in my eyes, he's unstoppable.”
Without the elder Valasek in his lineup, Kilgore searched for a new star blue-liner during the preseason. He acknowledged that no one on his roster can match Valasek's particular combination of offensive skills and defensive intelligence. But he's confident a few candidates — namely junior John Phelps and sophomore Marcus McCall — will allow Ford City to remain among the Open Class' most aggressive teams, one that's ready to attack in its own end as well as up ice.
“We don't like to stay in the defensive zone,” said Phelps, who finished with five goals and 19 assists. “We try to get it out as fast as possible, sometimes just by flicking it off the boards. We're looking to get the guy as he's going down the ice, kind of like a Hail Mary.”
Valasek's graduation stripped Ford City of one key goal scorer, but the Sabers remain stocked with gifted offensive playmakers. Eric Lindey scored 25 goals to go with 22 assists a season ago as a sophomore. Sophomore Josh Oliver (14 goals, 23 assists) and Eli Thompson (5, 10) also bolstered the offense, which finished second among Open Class teams in regular-season goals (140). And freshman Luke Gross thrived as a linemate of Valasek and senior Joe Cippel this preseason.
Senior Adam Cogley steps in as the goaltender again. He split starts with other netminders the last two seasons, but this winter, he's the sole guardian of the goal.
The Sabers refuse to get ahead of themselves — thinking about titles might've contributed to Ford City's Chiefs division semifinal-round loss last winter and its Chiefs Cup setback the year before. But they admit there's an aspiration to write an unforgettable final chapter for their program's history.
“If this is the last year for Ford City hockey, it'd be awesome to go out and win everything,” Jesse Valasek said. “When it dies off, it'd be a great way to remember this team.”
Bill West is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at email@example.com or 724-543-1303.