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Ben Pherson: Ice Hawks became a team in Sauk Rapids

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The Rochester Ice Hawks work out at the Recreation Center for Friday's USA Hockey Junior A, Tier III national tournament.

Tears were flowing in the Rochester Ice Hawks locker room following their 4-3 overtime loss to the Granite City Lumberjacks in the deciding Game 3 of the Bush Cup finals.

That night in Sauk Rapids, the team lost a trophy it owned for six consecutive seasons. Yet, no matter how hard he tried, Ice Hawks coach Nick Fatis couldn't force himself to be upset.

Fatis hates losing as much as the next guy. Maybe more. But what the Ice Hawks did that weekend was far more important than any trophy.

The Ice Hawks, after almost two months of struggling, became a team. No, make that a family.

I rode along that Sunday afternoon to watch the team as it interacted and prepared for the biggest game of their season. And I was on the bus to witness the attitude after the setback.

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It was a thing of beauty.

On the ice, the Ice Hawks still made plenty of mistakes. But they played with a fire they'd lacked since early in the season.

When that final puck went in the net, the Ice Hawks showed more maturity than they've displayed all season.

Immediately, forward Shaun Walters raced over to the penalty box and embraced Jake Sikkema, whose kneeing penalty sent him to the sin bin about a minute before Minnesota Junior Hockey league MVP Bobby Chayka scored the game-winner for Granite City.

Walters was there to tell Sikkema it wasn't his fault. That's amazing on so many levels. First off, it wasn't Sikkema's fault. The penalty was questionable, and Sikkema simply was doing his job, flying around the ice and creating havoc.

This also showed how far a guy like Walters and the rest of the team had come in terms of developing that "family" mentality. Walters was upset, I'm sure of it. But he was mature enough to realize there were more important things on the horizon. Did he want to lose the Bush Cup? No way. But a national championship is far more important than a league title, and despite the loss, the Ice Hawks made themselves a better team by facing a new brand of adversity.

While Walters was taking care of Sikkema, the rest of the team rushed to the side of backup goalie Lawrence Dvorak.

Dvorak was down in the dumps. But he shouldn't have been. Had it not been for him, the Ice Hawks wouldn't have even been in the game. He made too many remarkable stops to mention. Dvorak came off the bench cold when starter Cory Simons went down due to injury, and he delivered in the most critical situation.

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In fact, it took a shot that hit the crossbar and trickled into the goal to finally beat Dvorak.

Dvorak's teammates were there for him, just like they were during the season, when Dvorak lost his mother. The kid didn't deserve to face more adversity, but he will be stronger because of it.

Fatis realized what happened that night in Sauk Rapids, and he couldn't be angry about losing the trophy.

Now, it definitely took a great deal of time for this collection of Ice Hawks to become a "family." In my five years with the program, I've seen teams become a family even before the season started. And sometimes, they never truly become a family.

But these Ice Hawks will need that family mantra this weekend at the national tournament, which begins for the Ice Hawks at 7 p.m. Friday at the Recreation Center against one of the country's best teams, the Helena Bighorns.

Helena is 60-2 this season. Let that sink in for a second. ...

Despite the gaudy numbers, the Ice Hawks have one big advantage: they're playing in their own barn. In front of their own fans.

And hopefully, the entire city of Rochester will join the family this weekend. Trust me, there's room on the bandwagon. And they'll save a seat for you in the Hawks Nest.

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