Catholic Central wins 2019 league hockey championship — already — with win over Eaglets

Catholic Central sophomore forward Kyle Gaffney, right, protects the puck against an Orchard Lake St. Mary's forechecker during the Shamrocks' 7-2 victory on Dec. 8, earning them the Catholic League championship in a tournament played months ahead of its usual schedule. Gaffney registered a hat trick (three goals) in the contest. (Gregg McIntosh | Special to Detroit Catholic)

NOVI — Want to impress someone with your hockey savvy? Tell them that Novi Detroit Catholic Central is winning the 2019 Catholic League hockey championship.

Although that might sound like a bold prediction on your behalf, it’s actually happened by now. The Shamrocks, the state’s top-ranked team, defeated third-rated Orchard Lake St. Mary’s Prep 7-2 on Dec. 8 to hoist the league trophy.

It might sound odd to have a traditional late-season tournament two weeks before Christmas break, but many of the Catholic League teams preferred setting up the schedule that way this winter.

“It’s early in the season and obviously it’s far off from our end goal, but it’s nice to enter into a tournament and win it,” said Shamrocks coach Brandon Kaleniecki, a 2000 CC grad.

The Shamrocks were dominant in defending their 2018 title, winning the Dec. 5 quarterfinal 7-0 over Dearborn Divine Child and the Dec. 6 semifinal 8-0 over Riverview Gabriel Richard.

“It’s a unique time for the tournament by any stretch, there’s no question about that,” Kaleniecki said. “We talked about that before and told our guys ‘Let’s approach it kind of like the end of the year.’ It’s three games in four nights, you might have to do the same come playoff time; let’s start preparing for that. You’re going to think about preparing for one game, but that’s going to roll right into the next game and then roll right into the next.”

The tournament timing also provides the schools some flexibility in scheduling. Catholic Central, St. Mary’s, Bloomfield Hills Brother Rice, University of Detroit-Jesuit, Warren De La Salle and Catholic League affiliate member Bloomfield Hills Cranbrook also belong to the powerful Michigan Interscholastic Hockey League, along with four public schools. Seven of those 10 teams are state-ranked.

“The MIHL was certainly part of the discussion, and we were trying to find the right time (for the Catholic tournament),” Kaleniecki said. “It didn’t make a ton of sense to have the Catholic League final be three days before the first round of the (Michigan High School Athletic Association) playoffs, when sure enough, you may play the same team a week apart. I think everybody wanted to have it earlier in the season; that way you don’t run into each other with a little bit of a gap between games.”

The Catholic League tournament seeding was based on last year’s finish, but it held true-to-form when the Shamrocks and Eaglets met in the final. Although the first half of the contest was close, the turning point came late in the second period when the Shamrocks were down a man due to a roughing penalty.

With St. Mary’s on the attack, CC senior captain Mitch Morris stepped in front of an Eaglets’ cross-ice pass near his own blue line and rushed toward the opposing net with linemate Rylan Clemons for a two-man breakaway.

“I just heard Rylan screaming in the back of me,” Morris said. “My first reaction was just to make it as difficult as possible for the goaltender, then I passed off to Rylan at the last minute and he finished. I couldn’t have been happier for him.”

“It was a very even game; I felt like we weren’t executing great — we were OK, but we knew we could play better,” Kaleniecki said. “For that short-handed goal to put us up 3-1, that certainly gave us a lot of momentum for the third. I was really happy the way we started the third; we just rolled that over.”

The Shamrocks got even more dominant down the stretch, outshooting St. Mary’s 17-4 over the final 17 minutes when Dylan Dooley, Brock Swindall and Kyle Gaffney (twice) lit the lamp. It was a hat trick for Gaffney, whose goal midway through the second period gave CC a lead it would not relinquish.

Morris, who finished with three assists, said the Shamrocks are a very unselfish team.

“Our team is doing really good right now; I’m proud of everything we’ve done. We’ve still got lots of work ahead, but so far, things are going really good for our team,” he said. “We say a prayer before every game, and I just hope that God helps us out. We don’t pray for a win; we just hope that no one gets injured out there.”

So the Shamrocks are already the Catholic League Division 1 hockey champions … for 2019. And while it’s not the pinnacle of the season, Kaleniecki said it is likely to pay dividends in the weeks ahead.

“We know it’s not our end goal, but it’s nice to win the tournament and take some confidence from it, knowing that you can get the job done,” he said. “But it’s early in the season and we’ll see them again and we know they’re going to be a different team — so will we. At this time of year, you know there’s still a lot of season left and a lot of things could change.”