RED BANK — With every drop of the puck, every whistle and each new line change, the Liberty Bell Games ring synonymously with what’s great about hockey.
Close to 1,000 spectators mixed with 62 scouts and dignitaries as 120 of the finest amateur hockey players were on display at the 10th Annual Liberty Bell Games at The Armory in Red Bank. The weekend-long tournament, which raises the stakes every year, came down to the final seconds with the goalie pulled as Walt Whitman edged Freedom, 4-3, to cap off festivities at the milestone event.
“Since I came here way back in ’82, boy has the game grown,” New Jersey Devils’ three-time Stanley Cup Champion Ken Daneyko said. “It’s just great to see the growth of hockey. Some of these kids go on to Division-I and that’s not easy. That shows the growth, the talent pool and what’s going on here. It’s just fantastic to see all the young talent out there.”
From its humble beginnings in 2009 to what it has grown into today, over 10 players with D-1 commitments in their back pockets skated with another hundred more looking for their shot as scouts from the NHL, OHL, USHL, NAHL, EHL, USPHL and NCAA lined up with eager eyes to catch a glimpse of the action at the prestigious showcase.
“It’s a great chance to see the best kids from the Mid-Atlantic all in one place,” Bill Underwood, Director of Scouting and Scout for the Kitchener Rangers of the Ontario Hockey League, said. “We really do have a good smorgasbord of the top crop here and it’s tremendous exposure for the guys. A lot of junior teams, college teams and prep teams — a lot of guys get opportunities.”
On the ice, an 18-round shootout in the morning set the stage for a memorable finale on Sunday as Darion Benchich’s goal, assisted by Jeremy Ambrose with 4:55 remaining in regulation, snapped the tie and sent Walt Whitman to a memorable 4-3 victory over Team Freedom, which pulled its goalie in the waning moments in an exciting finish.
Andrew Eberling, Danny Colon and Joseph Sciabarra also scored for Walt Whitman, which built a 3-1 lead. James Cerepak and Michael Fairfax scored 4:26 apart to tie the game at 3-3, however, before Benchich delivered the game-winner. Michael Young also scored for Freedom, which utilized Cam Carroll and Ty Franchi in between the pipes. Frankie Petkunas and Dylan Ringheiser backstopped Walt Whitman to its second straight title.
“It was an absolute blast and I was just happy to be a part of it,” Benchich, a Westminster Prep forward from Dover, Pa., said.
“I saw Ambrose powering through like an absolute beauty — a nice play to block their defenseman out of the way and I was just able to tap it in,” Benchich described the game-winning goal.
Benchich said it was tough to see his team’s 3-1 lead evaporate but even sweeter to come back and win it late.
“It was pretty tight on the bench but I was like, ‘Guys, we’re going to get it back,'” Benchich said. “It was a great effort by everybody and a real pleasure to be a part of it with these guys.”
Freedom’s Nicholas Bernardo’s older brother, Anthony, played in previous Liberty Bell Games and the PAL Islanders defenseman from Hauppauge, N.Y. was proud to continue the legacy.
“My brother had been here the past few years so I had an idea of what it was — it was a lot of fun and a good experience,” Bernardo said. “Overall, it was hard but I liked it. I’m appreciative and it was a great experience.”
“The first year was so different. We had to make kids aware of the tournament. Now, all the top players make it a point to be here,” Underwood, part of a dedicated LBG staff that continues to raise the bar, said. “They know they’re going to be seen and get results.”
Ben Franklin defeated Team Independence, 7-2, in the third-place game after Team Constitution edged William Penn, 6-5, in shootout for fifth place that wasn’t decided until the 18th round.
“Everybody’s got a smile on their face and I think that’s what is most important,” LBG President and Devils’ scout Lew Mongelluzzo said. “The fifth-place game went to an 18-round shootout, all the other kids from the other games came out along the wall and watched — it was great.”
Written by John Christian Hageny / @JCCSPORTS
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