Bob Johnson is like many people involved with local ice hockey who can't wait for the new downtown Allentown arena and the Flyers-affiliated Phantoms American Hockey League team to begin playing its home games there this fall.
"The Phantoms and the new arena are going to be huge for youth ice hockey," Johnson said. "There's going to be a big explosion. You're going to see tremendous growth in the sport here. Whenever an AHL team comes into an area, there's just an explosion in interest."
In the interim, Johnson's Lehigh Valley Flames Midget 16AA team is creating its own share of interest.
The squad, featuring high school kids from throughout the area, captured the championship at the Eastern Regional Silver Stick event held in Columbia, Md., the weekend after Thanksgiving and will advance to the 45th annual Midget International Finals tournament in Newmarket, Ontario, Canada, on Jan. 17-19.
The Flames will be competing against 15 other regional champions from the United States and Canada in one of youth hockey's premier international events.
"It's going to be the experience of a lifetime for these kids to play this caliber of competition because the competition is off the charts," said Johnson, who has been coaching youth hockey for 20 years and has been at the Silver Stick championships three times before with teams he coached in New Jersey.
"For a lot of them, it's the first time they have played in a tournament of this magnitude. They're going to be in an international setting and will play in front of thousands of people rather than their parents and close friends. It's unbelievable exposure. You don't get this chance very often. It's great for the organization, the kids and their families."
The team is a member of the Delaware Valley Hockey League and has been hovering just above .500 in the league, owning a record of 6-4-2 entering weekend games.
"We haven't played as well as we should have in the league," Johnson said.
However, they put it all together in Columbia.
The Flames went 2-0-1 in the qualifying round, defeating the Reston (Va.) Raiders, and the Cap City Vipers from Pennsylvania and tying the NOVA Ice Dogs from Virginia.
They went on to defeat the Exton Kings 3-0 and the Northern Virginia Ice Dogs 4-1 in the finals.
"This core group of players has been together in one form or another since they were pee-wees, which means a long time," Johnson said. "They have been close a couple of times, but never have gotten to this level. It's a very talented group.
"We've got a little bit of everything. We've got really good goaltending, some size on defense and some speed on offense with our forwards. We've got all the key ingredients to put a really good team on the ice and in the regional, they played better and better with each game."
Flames president Sandy Seidel said the organization is very proud of the kids and coaches and involved.
"Our entire organization is so proud of our 16AA team for winning the Eastern Regional championship and we are so excited to be back in the finals, representing the Lehigh Valley," Steidel said. "It's the culmination of many months of hard work and dedication by our players and coaches, and endless sacrifices by our parents."
This is not the first time a local team has made it to this prestigious event. It happened three years ago when a Bethlehem Blast team won the international tournament in Forest, Ontario.
The Blast and the Lehigh Valley Comets merged as organizations in 2011 and are now the Flames.
Team members include (with hometowns): David Andrews (Emmaus); Jarrett Ballister (Easton); Connor Breinich (Allentown); Evan Dratch (Allentown); Sebastian Dziadowicz (Hellertown); Jackson Goodman (Lower Macungie); Lance Kernoschak (Columbia, N.J.); Scott Miller, Jr., (Bethlehem); Austin Mininger (Quakertown): Colin O'Donnell (Northampton); Joseph Ryan (Easton); Dan Rubin (Old Bridge); Simon Rybansky (Milford, N.J.); Ian Semon (Phillipsburg, N.J.); Justin Taylor (Center Valley); David Van Horn (Coplay); Stone Vassa (Catasauqua); Wyatt Weber (Allentown); Ben Zager (Allentown).
Three players — Dratch, Zager and Breinich — are all members of the Parkland High club team that reached the Flyers Cup finals last March. In all, 13 different high schools are represented by these Flames.