Cherokee hockey team seeks to extend 20-year playoff streakWritten by Jason Mack | | email@example.com
One of the best-kept secrets in local sports is the Toledo Cherokee junior hockey team, which has made the playoffs every year since it formed in 1992.
“That’s a fantastic feat at any level in any league, to position yourself to make the playoffs every single year,” sid associate head coach Chris Tarsha. “That’s another drawing point for kids that want to come play here. They know what they’re going to get when they come to the Cherokee. It’s a first-class organization that is well-coached and disciplined.”
Head coach Scott Syring is in his second stint with the Cherokee after leading the team to a national championship in 1998.
Before he started coaching, Syring played defense at Ohio State from 1985-88.
“I was a take care of business type of guy,” he said. “I killed a lot of penalties for the team. I didn’t play a whole lot my sophomore year. I chipped away and worked my way into the lineup. I ended up playing more than half the games my junior and senior year. I learned the defensive side of the puck. We coach in a defensive manner. We put a lot of emphasis on taking care of our defensive end and knowing that will be a benefit to us in the offensive end.”
The Cherokee hired Syring as an assistant coach for its inaugural season in 1992 and promoted him to head coach the following season. He led Toledo to an appearance in the title game in 1997 and the team returned to win the title in 1998.
“The team we were playing in the championship the previous year had the experience, so our guys were real nervous and we struggled in that game,” Syring said. “We had a lot of veterans returning, so we were loose and did well to win it.”
Syring left the Cherokee in 1999 to spend more time with his family.
“I had newborn triplets, a boy and two girls,” he said. “In 1999, I had basically had enough. My kids were 2, so I stepped down. I knew eventually I would continue to coach youth hockey. I took a hiatus from coaching until my son was 5. Once my son got involved, I pretty much threw my energy at him and his teams. I followed the Cherokee at a distance.”
The time spent coaching younger players helped Syring redefine his coaching style.
“I stepped back to youth and really enjoyed my time,” he said. “Kids are different. There are less distractions. They really want to learn. They are very astute and listen well. When you talk with them, you can’t bark as much as you can with the older kids. You have to be a little more politically correct with how you talk with them and correct their errors. It helped my coaching because I learned how to communicate at a different level. Hopefully I’ve brought a lot of that into my second tenure with the Cherokee.”
Syring became head coach of the Cherokee again in March 2010. While he enjoyed his time with youth hockey, he’s happy to be coaching in the juniors again.
“The majority of the kids you have at this level are pretty serious about what they want to do with the sport,” he said. “Very few kids will come to this level and put up with the expectations of the coaches and the team if they don’t want to move ahead. The majority of kids here are trying to play at some level of college hockey.”
According to Syring, one of the main goals of the Cherokee is to help advance players to college or higher levels of junior hockey.
“We really focus on talking to the kids about continuing to play for another four years once your junior eligibility was up,” he said. “I always tell the kids that nobody ever asked me in a job interview how many shifts of Division I hockey I played. They are primarily interested in were you able to balance being a scholar athlete. I took care of my grades, and they would see I got awards for being a student athlete.”
One of the main goals for the Cherokee is also one of the main setbacks to coaching junior hockey.
“We only expect to have kids for a year,” Syring said. “This year we only have three returning veterans. The biggest challenge is meshing all of the attitudes in the locker room in a very short period of time. We’ve always been fortunate that our reputation has allowed us to get a group of kids who are willing to accept the direction that we want to take them.”
One of the returning players is forward Joe Skrzynski, whose 14 points lead the Cherokee this season with eight goals and four assists. Forwards Ryan Kelly and Patrick Smiatacz are tied for second with 13 points each, and Smiatacz is third on the team with 28 penalty minutes.
“We don’t have anybody leading the league in scoring, but we have a lot of balance from top to bottom,” Syring said. “We have a lot of Cherokees in the top 25 of the league. We try to stress we are going to win games through balance. That is throwing four strong lines out there and wearing teams down. We have a lot of depth from top to bottom.”
The Cherokee play junior hockey in the North American Tier III Hockey League (NA3HL). Junior hockey consists of players ages 16-20. The team is 5-4-1 this season through Oct. 13 and is in first place in the North Division.
Syring recruits players from around the world, but the Cherokee roster has plenty of ties to Toledo.
Defensemen Donnie Nagle (featured in this issue’s cover photo) and Brad Wadsworth, both seniors at Northview High School, have been reunited after years of playing for different teams. Both players spent last season playing Triple A hockey in Michigan. Wadsworth played for Sault Ste. Marie and Nagle for Culver.
“We played together a while back when we were real young,” Nagle said. “He moved up to Michigan playing Triple A, too. It was kind of crazy having him come back and be teammates again. Most of the time he’s my penalty kill partner.”
“I played with him on my very first travel team in Toledo,” Wadsworth said. “We kind of went separate ways. We’re reunited here our senior year, probably our last years in Toledo. It’s nice playing with him again and playing in Toledo again. It’s the town I’m from and grew up in. I’ve always known about the Cherokee organization. I used to live two doors down from coach Syring, so I know him pretty well.”
The step up from Triple A has been welcome challenge for both players.
“There is a lot more hitting in this league,” Wadsworth said. “It’s a lot of 20-year-olds trying to make it to the next level. Triple A was a lot of guys under 18 still trying to learn the game. This is a big step.”
“It’s a great experience right now,” Nagle said. “It’s a whole different experience to what I’ve been playing. I was up in Triple A. This is so much faster and so much more physical than any other level I’ve played at.”
The speed of the game has also been an adjustment for goalie Austyn Roudebush, a 2011 Whitmer High School graduate.
“It’s a little faster and some harder shots, but I’m used to it,” he said. “I play Triple A in the springtime, and it’s about the same.”
For defenseman Mareks Kepals, his first season for the Cherokee has been a different level of adjustment. He is originally from Liepaja, Latvia and is still getting used to playing in the United States.
“I was playing in Sweden and I couldn’t play anymore because I was getting older,” Kepals said. “I got a call from the Boston Junior Blackhawks. The coach wanted to see me play in the United States at a higher level. I went to Boston to try out and they took me to play there.”
Kepals came to Toledo to try out for the Toledo Walleye. After they told him he was too young, he came to play for the Cherokee. Just like Nagle and Wadsworth, he is adapting to the physical level of play and has missed time due to bruised ribs. The 19-year-old is the largest player on the Cherokee at 6-ffot-5-inches and 225 pounds. Kepals put his size to use in a 6-3 loss at Queen City on Sept. 11, racking up 27 penalty minutes.
“There is a lot of hitting here,” he said. “Europe is more about the skating.”
For players like Kepals attempting to make it on a professional hockey team, Tarsha serves as an example and an inspiration.
Tarsha graduated from Waite High School in 1988 and played center at Ohio University from 1988-93. The team finished third in the nation twice during his career and won the National Championship the season after he left.
“The experience of playing there was fantastic,” Tarsha said. “It’s nice now that we have three kids who have come through the Cherokee program who are down there now. If we can continue to fill their roster every year, it only helps the Cherokee name.”
The Cherokee host Battle Creek Oct. 21-22 at the Ice House, located at 1258 W. Alexis Road. Both games start at 8:30 p.m. and tickets are available for $5. Toledo outscored Battle Creek 23-1 in their first two games this season at the Ice House.
“Our kids work extremely hard,” Tarsha said. “It’s very physical hockey. It’s good hockey. It’s a great bargain for anybody in the city of Toledo who is looking for something different to do on a Friday or Saturday night. You get to see a good product on the ice.”