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Craig Red Dogs hope to overcome big-city teams in home tournament

If you go …

What: 18th annual Yampa Valley Invitational men’s hockey tournament

When: 5:30 p.m. Friday, 6:45 a.m. Saturday, 8:30 a.m. Sunday

Where: Moffat County Ice Arena, 600 S. Ranney St.

— Admission is free

If you go …

What: 18th annual Yampa Valley Invitational men’s hockey tournament

When: 5:30 p.m. Friday, 6:45 a.m. Saturday, 8:30 a.m. Sunday

Where: Moffat County Ice Arena, 600 S. Ranney St.



— Admission is free

Greg Neal remembers when the Yampa Valley Invitational men’s hockey tournament only included three teams.



Neal, along with Craig Red Dogs teammates Blake Abdella and Eric Schille, are the only three men hockey players to have competed in every home tournament.

Now, in the tournament’s 18th year, Neal, still a Red Dogs player and now manager, is excited to compete with some of the best teams in the state.

“We started the tournament with three teams and now I have to turn away teams because the rink can only handle 10 teams,” he said. “We use to have to play the game at midnight because there was no refrigeration, but now we go basically from Friday afternoon to Sunday afternoon non-stop.”

The tournament, which includes 10 teams ranging from Denver to Grand Junction to Casper, Wyo., starts at 5:30 p.m. Friday and ends after the first-place game Sunday at 9:45 a.m.

Each of the teams is guaranteed four games and the top two teams from both brackets advance to the third- and first-place games.

Grand Junction is the returning champion and Neal said it is difficult for the smaller teams to compete with the bigger squads.

“These bigger teams include college players and they can play 12 months out of the year,” he said. “The Rock Springs team has a former New York Rangers player and a lot of youth, so it is tough to keep up.”

Still, Neal said the Red Dogs would have home-ice advantage at Moffat County Ice Arena, 600 S. Ranney St.

“This rink is a little smaller than what some of these teams are used to playing on,” he said. “We practice here, so we do a better job of moving the puck around a smaller rink.”

The Red Dogs are 4-3-1 in the Steamboat Sunday Night League and currently sit in third place.

In last year’s tournament, Craig went 0-2-2, but Neal said the team and record are better this year.

“We were in last place last year in our league and struggled,” he said. “We had younger players come back this year and they are able to forecheck a lot faster than the older guys.”

The bigger team has allowed the Red Dogs to run three lines instead of two like previous seasons.

Neal is the team’s leading scorer with nine goals and centers Mike Armstrong and Colt Criswell are tied for second with five goals apiece.

Neal said his team’s greatest strength in the tournament is going to be the ability to break the puck out of their zone with a young defense line, including Nick Bulla and Andrew Bilski.

“We are allowing the second fewest goals in our league and (goalie) Jim Reiman is playing excellent,” he said. “We have been able to play very physical and our dry-land training is going to pay off against the bigger teams.”

At 8:15 p.m. Saturday, there will be a skills competition with a player form each team.

Armstrong will represent the Red Dogs.

Neal said the competition would consist of four drills — passing accuracy, shooting accuracy, shootout goals and long-distant shot.

The winner will take home $100.

With a tradition of good hockey in the tournament, Neal said it is going to take the Red Dogs’ best to make it to Sunday.

“It is going to be difficult, but it is still obtainable,” he said. “We have to out-hustle our opponents and get good shots on goal.

“We have only played in the top four once out of all the years, and that is definitely our goal this year.”

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