By Pete Chiodo
January 18, 2013 7:00 a.m. MEADVILLE —
The annual Meadville Bulldog Hockey Invitational is a perfect example of conflicting desires.
Of course, the Bulldogs’ chief aim going into the tournament is to make it to Sunday’s playoff round and, to take it a step further, to win the event’s championship.
Yet at the same time, Bulldogs head coach and tournament organizer Jamie Plunkett seems to do everything he can to make that goal really, really hard to accomplish by inviting the toughest bunch of cusses he can corral.
The 17th edition of this conundrum begins today when Meadville faces off against Cathedral Prep at 3:15 p.m. — the first of four games scheduled for this evening at the DeArment Ice Arena. Action continues all day Saturday and concludes on Sunday.
“The kind of philosophy we started with is to go out and get the best competition we really could,” Plunkett explains. “When you spend all that money to go to a tournament — the entry fee, transportation and hotels — you would rather go and play the best competition possible and at the end of the day feel that you’ve improved your program.
“If you want to go out and find teams you can beat, yeah, you can add three wins. But people come to our tournament with the same philosophy. They want to be pushed. They want to improve their team.”
The high level of competition at the Bulldog Invitational is evident in the, well, lack of success by the tournament’s namesake.
The Bulldogs have won just one tournament title over the previous 16 years. That was back in 2003 when the ’Dogs beat Ohio’s St. Ignatius 3-2 in a double-overtime barn-burner.
In the decade since, Meadville has made it to the semifinal round just three times. The team’s most recent Sunday skate was in 2011. It was eliminated by eventual champion Ignatius, 6-0.
In last year’s tournament, Meadville didn’t notch a victory, going 0-2-1 in division play and watching the playoff rounds from the other side of the glass.
So, that tournament was a frustrating one for the Bulldogs. But it still doesn’t mean Plunkett was about to line up a bunch of palookas for this year’s go-round. The 2013 field is as competitive as ever.
“Anything we get this weekend we’re going to have to earn,” said Plunkett “There won’t be any free passes.”
In fact, two originally scheduled teams voluntarily bowed out of the tournament over concerns that they weren’t going to measure up.
“McDowell contacted us a few weeks back,” said Plunkett. “They’ve got a very young team. They’re having a long year. And they felt they weren’t going to be competitive enough and said they would not come in.”
Plunkett found a quality replacement in North Allegheny. The Tigers will enter the tourney with the best record in the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Hockey League’s triple-A classification at 12-2
“North Allegheny is really a very good team this year,” said Plunkett. “In triple-A, they are one of the top two or three teams to represent the west for the state championship.”
After he got that settled, Plunkett then found out that 2006 tournament champion Mt. Lebanon would not be participating.
“Lebo’s down this year,” said Plunkett. “Unfortunately, they made a board decision not to come and failed to tell the coaches. So on Jan. 5 I was informed that their board said, ‘No, we’re not coming to the tournament,’ for pretty much the same reason (as McDowell).”
Plunkett scrambled to net a replacement. He found one in Lakeshore Hockey League foe Jamestown (N.Y.).
Those two replacement teams will join a tournament field that also includes St. Ignatius (16-4-1) and St. Edward (8-8-2), both from Ohio; Pittsburgh-area squads Upper St. Clair (8-4-1 PIHL) and Bethel Park (8-3-0) and the aforementioned Cathedral Prep (8-2-0).
“Bethel Park lost in the state championship to LaSalle last year. They’re an outstanding program,” said Plunkett. “Upper St. Clair is having a real good year. Ray Shero, the GM for the Pittsburgh Penguins, has a son that plays for Upper St. Clair, Kyle Shero.”
As for St. Ignatius and St. Edward, neither team is a stranger to the Bulldog Invitational.
Ignatius is the No. 1-ranked team in Ohio according to the Ohio Ice Hockey Coaches Association. The Wildcats have won the last three Bulldog Invitationals, claiming last year’s title with a 4-0 victory over Peters Township, and have six total championships.
St. Edward was the Ohio state runner-up last season and has three Bulldog Invitational titles, the last coming in 2009.
Last, but of course, not least there is Meadville. The Bulldogs are 15-5-1 on the year and have shown the ability to play well in a tournament setting. Back in December, the ’Dogs went 2-2 against a tough field in the St. Edward’s tournament, even beating the host squad.
“So we have three of the top triple-A teams in the western part of (Pennsylvania) here,” said Plunkett. “St. Ignatius and St. Eds are always really good. And then you’ve got Erie Prep who is 8-2 right now in the PIHL. They’re having a good season.”
“I think that it’s going to be a good tournament.
A good tournament? Yes. An easy tournament for Meadville? No way.
But, that’s the idea.
“I’ve always been proud of the fact that we get a lot of teams returning,” said Plunkett. “I think it shows that the parents do a super job all weekend. We bring in great teams. I feel that it’s a good event. And I know people say, ‘Why don’t you bring in some cupcakes get a couple wins?’ I don’t think I can ever sell that.”