The Northern Kentucky Norsemen have won state high school hockey titles before.
The team of local skaters have been to national tournaments, including the Division II portion of the Chipotle USA Hockey Championships beginning Thursday in Plymouth, Minnesota.
What the Norsemen have never done: finish in the top two in pool play and advance to the single-elimination quarterfinals.
“The team’s goal, our first goal, is just to win the first game; that would be a huge win for us,” said Luke Kirby, a right wing and senior at Covington Catholic. “I think our big goal is to get out of our pool (and) win a couple games and show people we’re ready to compete up there.”
Regardless of what happens in Minnesota, the 2022-23 season has been memorable. The Norsemen captured their third state title. (They also won in 2017 and 2019.)
What was better: the Norsemen’s 3-1 win over Owensboro March 5 in Louisville broke a three-tournament finals losing streak to the Daviess County squad – a rivalry Norsemen head coach Eric Kathman said is as fierce as North Carolina-Duke in college basketball and college football’s Auburn-Alabama and Ohio State-Michigan.
“I think just winning state and going to nationals, I think that alone, we proved we were able to do that,” Norsemen goalkeeper Coleman Clausen, a junior at Cooper, said.
To Kathman, Kirby and Clausen, taking the newest title is another reason they love hockey – a sport they took up when they were barely able to identify more than a few colors.
Kathman laced up his first pair of skates when he was 3. Monday, he reminisced about the days going to the old Dixie Gardens Ice Bowl and Drive-In at the corner of Kyles Lane and Dixie Highway in Fort Wright, which was torn down in 1989.
“It was an outdoor rink that had a drive-in movie theater,” Kathman said. “… I played forward, center. I played in Kentucky until I was 10 or 11. The better I got, the farther north I started playing.”
Clausen wasn’t sure about the exact age he took up hockey, except that he was “very young.” Retired Chicago Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford and Montreal Canadiens net-minder Carey Price are his favorite players; he still has a Crawford No. 50 replica jersey.
“I fell in love with (hockey), the physical aspect,” Clausen said. “Being on ice is so cool. The whole game can really rest on my shoulders. I get nervous a lot.”
Jack Peirol, a center from Mariemont, said his dad Nick, grew up in Toronto.
“My earliest memories, around 3 or 4 years old, when we first moved to Cincinnati from Switzerland, he kind of pushed me a little bit to play the sport,” Jack said. “But what really got me into it was watching the Boston Bruins with him when I was little.
“He loved (Hall of Fame defenseman) Bobby Orr.”
Kathman said the Northern Kentucky Hockey Association is one of four in the Tristate; the others are in Indian Hill, Cincinnati and Oxford. He believes hockey is becoming more popular for two reasons: the NHL’s Nashville Predators and Columbus Blue Jackets are less than six hours away; and the emergence of stars such as Toronto Maple Leafs star Auston Matthews, who was born in San Ramon, California and grew up in Scottsdale, Arizona.
“You’re seeing these guys who aren’t from Canada or the northern United States that are playing in the NHL; I think that is helping the game as well,” Kathman said.
Peirol had a goal and two assists against Owensboro. His score came with about three minutes left in the first of three 15-minute periods off assists from Kirby and Peyton Bray.
“We hadn’t scored in the state championship in three years,” Peirol said. “… One of the reasons why we lost so many state championships in the past was, we couldn’t score first.”
Around a minute later, Dakota Brown, a senior at Simon Kenton, scored on assists from Bray and Peirol. The third score, by CovCath’s Noah Hodge, completed a 2-on-1 with Peirol passing.
“That was something we’d been trying to do a lot at the end of the season, and it hadn’t been really working,” Peirol said. “But the fact that it worked that time was really cool.”
To Kathman, the experience of playing at nationals is as important as the results.
“It’s just so special to go there,” Kathman said. “I’m not going to be upset if it doesn’t turn out the way we want it to. I just want them to go and compete, and I want them to play as hard as they can.
“They will be surprised just how well they can do.”
Clausen agreed – sort of.
“But if we were to go and lose all of our games, if we played well, I wouldn’t be mad at that,” Clausen said. “If we didn’t play well, I might be a little upset.”