The bleachers at Loudy-Simpson Ice Arena were filled Saturday and spectators huddled against the sideboards. There was a hush in the crowd as the organizer of the Rocky Mountain Youth Hockey League (RMYHL) tournament, Jim Woods, proclaimed over the loudspeaker, "Hockey is alive in Craig, and it was proven today."
With that, bedlam broke out in the crowd, and the first- place trophy was awarded to the 2001 champions the Craig Cougars' midget team.
The Cougars took a one-year hiatus from the tournament championship after losing the title last year in an upset game against the Kremling Cattle Kings.
The title game this year found the number-two seeded Cougars, 9-4-3 for the season, beating the first-seeded Gunnison Blades (12-2-2) 6-3. It was a game that looked like it would keep the RMYHL championship from Craig for another year until a third-period clutch performance by junior center Alton Simones.
With the game tied at three midway through the third period, Simones was able to come away with the puck during a Gunnison assault on Cougar ice, speed past two defenders, and put a hard shot left of the Blades' goalie, scoring the third of five unanswered Craig goals in the final period.
"The goal felt good. I'm happy with it," Simones said of his game-winning score.
The game was sure a sure win with 3:34 left, when defenseman Cole Neilson, who was stationed at the blue line, fed Cody DeGuelle the puck for a backdoor goal. The puck was taken firmly out of reach when Jordon Anthony hit the Blades' unprotected goal when clearing the ice.
"After the first two periods, we really felt that we had to step-up our play to beat these guys and that's what we did, turned it up a notch," Simones said.
The game started out quickly for Craig in the first period. Travis Menge beat one defender to score a short-handed goal in the first minute of play, but that was it for the Cougars until the third. Jayson McMurren came back a minute later to score the initial goal for the Blades, off a Chris Bemis assist. Blades player Evan Bunt put Gunnison up 2-1 with his goal a 1:59 left in the opening period.
The second period was a scoring drought for both teams until the last ten seconds, when an unassisted Bemis goal put the Blades up 3-1.
It was in the third that the Cougars turned up the heat on the ice, scoring five unanswered goals, starting with an unassisted Menge goal at 14:36, followed by the right wing Jason Philips' brake-away goal for the tie, and Simones' goal to put the championship away.
"Gunnison kind of owned us the last three games, so it was a really big win for us today," Phillips said about the tournament win, the Cougars having lost two and tied one game against the Blades in their last three meetings. "To be the best, you have to beat the best."
The Craig Cougars made it to the championship game by beating the Eagle Valley Devils 5-4 earlier Saturday. Travis Menge led the Cougars back from a two-point deficit, scoring all of the team's goals in the third period, including the game-winner with a 1:30 remaining.
The Cougars will only lose three seniors from this year's team Cole Neilson, Casey Kilpatrick, and Jeremiah Hill. They feel confident their hockey team has a good chance to repeat this year's success, much of their motivation being drawn from Saturday's championship.
"The tournament win will only draw the team closer. We'll end up being a tougher team, and there is no doubt in my mind that we'll do it again next year," head coach Josh Magnason said.