RED BANK, NJ — From players and coaches on down to each one of the six charities they skated for, it was a win-win for everyone involved as The Liberty Bell Games continue to ring synonomously with what’s great about the sport of hockey.
Partnering with The Play It Forward Foundation and six worthy causes for the first time — each represented by one of six teams in the tournament — the 11th Annual Liberty Bell Games helped raise over $10,000 while showcasing a number of prospects in front of the watchful eyes of scouts from June 7-9 at The Armory in Red Bank.
Over 120 rising stars from up and down The East Coast joined together in lacing ’em up for Athletes for Care, Collier Youth Services, the Wendy’s Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption, Hockey in New Jersey, the JBJ Soul Kitchen and the You Can Play Project, and when the ice chips settled a new team champion was crowned.
Ryan Schelling’s goal, assisted by Trevor Kruczek with 4:01 remaining in regulation, proved decisive as Team Independence, playing for Wendy’s Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption, skated away with an 8-6 triumph over Team Franklin in the Bob Crocker Memorial Championship game to cap off a whirlwind weekend on Sunday.
“It was a great team effort. We battled throughout. We kept scoring, but they kept coming back,” Schelling (Suffern, NY/NJ Avalanche), who finished with a goal and an assist, said. “Our goalie played great in net. We just beat ’em out there.
“(Kruczek) made a great pass, we came down on a 2-on-1 and I just hit it in,” Schelling said, describing his game-winning goal. “It was a fantastic weekend. The Liberty games were amazing. Throughout the weekend the team played great — a great overall experience.”
After Schelling made it 7-6, Kyle Contessa (Freehold, NJ/NJ Rockets) added an empty-net goal for Team Independence, which also got two goals from Nicholas Bernardo (Hauppauge, NY/PAL Jr. Islanders), a goal and an assist from Ryan O’Connell (Carmel, NY/NJ Colonials) and Kruczek (Nanticoke, Pa/Palmyra Black Knights), and goals from Zach Hahn (Huntington, NY/PAL Jr. Islanders) and Arthur Tsimerman (Fair Lawn, NJ/Don Bosco Prep/NJ Hitmen) en route to victory.
Michael Casey (Media, Pa/ISS Kings) added a pair of assists while Brett Cleaves (Summit, NJ/Delbarton/NJ Devils) and Luke Jaspan (Philadelphia, Pa/ISS Kings) preserved the win in between the pipes for Team Independence.
Bernardo opened the scoring 3:30 into the game before giving his team a 2-0 lead just 2:58 later.
“This is one of my favorite showcases to play in — a lot of scouts here,” Bernardo, who has committed to Brown University, said. “An unbelievable time.
“The first goal I had it at the point and just ripped it — one-timer — a great pass from my buddy (Boris Skalos),” Bernardo said. “The second goal I just found it in front and potted it in. It was great to get the team going.”
Colm Trainor (Hightstown, NJ/Princeton/Mercer Chiefs) slashed the deficit in half for Team Franklin, but Hahn returned the two-goal lead to Independence with an unassisted effort to make it a 3-1 game.
Just 20 seconds later, however, Zach Wagnon (Red Bank, NJ/NJ Devils) cut it 3-2 when he converted from Gabe Dombrowski (Great Falls, VA/ISS Kings). Jayden Sison (Paoli, Pa/Philadelphia Hockey Club) then tied it at three from Alexey Yarmulnik (Old Bridge, NJ/NJ Avalanche) and Brady Burke (Denver, Pa/Palmyra Black Knights) just 1:58 before intermission to send both teams into the locker rooms deadlocked at 3-3.
Independence went back to work in the second frame when Tsimerman finished the play started by Casey at 7:50, but once again Team Franklin battled back to tie when Ryan O’Connell (Moorestown, NJ/Philadelphia Hockey Club) hit from Declan Conway (Lido Beach, NY/Long Island Royals) to make it 4-4.
With strong puck possession in the offensive zone, Independence answered as Schelling and O’Connell worked the puck over to Kruczek who made no mistake going bar down from the side of the net to take a 5-4 advantage and a lead it would not relinquish again. O’Connell and Schelling scored 1:41 apart to make it 7-4 Independence.
“A lot of really good young players in the area. The Atlantic District has really stepped up their efforts. Players continuously get better,” Independence Team Coach and Connecticut Jr. Rangers Coach James Henkel said. “From our perspective, my team, we had contributions up and down the lineup, which just goes to show the amount of talent and depth at the Liberty Bell Games.”
Team Franklin put a scare into the Independence celebration plans when Wagnon and Sison connected again in a 46-second flurry to cut it to 7-6 — and pulled its goalie in favor of an extra attacker to send the game into overtime — but Contessa iced it with four seconds remaining.
The opening festivities, which continue next weekend with the Future Prospects Series June 14-15 at The Red Bank Armory, certainly set the bar high.
“Well, I think we had another excellent year here, some fantastic talent,” Bill Underwood, LBG Director of Scouting and scout for the Kitchener Rangers of the Ontario Hockey League, said. “The talent just keeps getting better. We’re getting more and more guys each year to the highest levels of hockey. An area that once was the backwater of hockey certainly is not backwater anymore.
“As we expand into the younger age group, some more of the boys will get opportunities as we get the 2005’s a chance to get on the radar screen next week,” Underwood said. “This business is getting younger and younger. We want to expand into the younger age group. It just keeps getting better.”
NHL alumni Ken Daneyko and Jim Dowd from the New Jersey Devils as well as Riley Cote from the Philadelphia Flyers who were on hand for a ceremonial puck drop echoed Underwood’s sentiments.
“You see the growth of youth hockey in this state, the growth of hockey in New Jersey over the years going all the way back to 1982 when I came here for the first time,” Daneyko said. “The amount of rinks, how it’s grown — it’s just fantastic. More and more kids playing — and going on to have success in college — kids good enough to go on to the National Hockey League. I’m a transplant to New Jersey — I’ve been here 36 years now — you’re proud to play in Jersey now… a lot of talent here — a far cry from when I came here in the early ’80’s. Some great young prospects.”
“I don’t know a ton of the history, but 18 NHL draft picks to come out of this program — it’s growing every year,” Cote said. “It’s a testament to what they’re doing. They’re developing players — elite players. For me, it’s just awesome to be a part of, getting charities involved, the whole bit — very happy to be here.”
Notable Liberty Bell Games alumni who have gone on to the NHL ranks include 2014 Hobey Baker Award Winner Johnny Gaudreau (Calgary Flames) and Kevin Labanc (San Jose Sharks). Two players — Mattias Samuelsson (Buffalo Sabres) and Mitchell Gibson (Washington Capitals) — were selected in the 2018 NHL Draft.
“We’re very proud of all the players that put in their time and effort and committed to be here,” LBG Event Coordinator Anne Yannarella said. “They all played exceptionally well with sportsmanship on and off the ice. We’re also very proud of everyone who contributed to the charity — it really makes a difference in the lives of others and we’re very proud to be able to do that.”
To make a donation to the Liberty Bell Games/Play It Forward Platform click here.
“It was a perfect fit for our foundation and our mission to allow people to use sports to help charities they care about,” Josh Romano, Vice President of Operations for The Play it Forward Foundation, said. “I’ve had a chance to be down here for a number of years now and watch as the Liberty Bell Games have grown and expanded. This is a great event every year. It’s such a great opportunity for these kids to come out here and get in front of some scouts — and now, to be able to help and give back to the community — it’s special to be a part of.
“I just got word we passed the $10,000 mark this weekend,” Romano said. “To have 120 players come together with their friends and family and be able to raise money for these six important charities is fantastic.”
“I’ve played with a lot of these guys during the season — it was fun going against them,” Casey, who finished with two assists for Team Independence, said. “You play with them during the season and now against them in front of scouts. It was a real cool experience.”
Written by John Christian Hageny @JCCSPORTS
Special to HockeyClan
Photos by Tom Smith / @TSPImages
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