The GNASH playoffs begin on Monday. For the next few days, Michael Hackney, who has broadcast GNASH games for his own company, the Middle Tennessee Sports Network, since 2009, will contribute articles to Penalty Box Radio about the history of the GNASH playoffs, plus odd trends. He will provide a playoff preview tomorrow. The Middle Tennessee Sports Network is online at MTSNOnline.com. From there, you can find the network’s Twitter and Facebook accounts through the “Connect” page.

ashton-remax_NEWOn June 30, 2015, the Nashville youth hockey community was rocked by the sudden death of Mitchell Mielnik. Mielnik had been stricken with heart failure earlier in the month, shortly after a successful tryout for the Junior Predators U16 AA squad. Mielnik, who played for the Hume Fogg-Page co-op in GNASH, had many friends throughout the hockey community in Nashville, and his death hit everyone hard.

Just a few weeks later, GNASH announced a new postseason tournament to be named after Mielnik, officially called the Mitchell Mielnik Memorial Cup, or the Mielnik Cup for short. It would be contested for by the four teams that finished at the bottom of the standings in the regular season. When the season ended, those four teams would be Station Camp-Beech, Independence-Summit, Blackman-Stewarts Creek, and, appropriately, Hume Fogg-Page.

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The format for the Mielnik Cup would be one round of pool play, with the top two finishers going to a championship game. At first, I rolled my eyes at this format, since there can be a talent gap even between the team that finishes fourth-to-last and last. I thought that single-elimination would be better, since Station Camp and Indy would probably end up meeting in the final, anyway. They did, but I ended up being wrong about pool play. It was actually quite good.

The tournament began with a game between Indy-Summit and Station Camp-Beech that was nothing less than a classic. The game saw no goals in regulation, with both goaltenders – Tyler Grosse for Independence-Summit, and Jacob Shaw for Station Camp-Beech – turning away everything in sight. It was the first time I’d ever broadcast a GNASH game where the game was goalless after three periods. With less than two minutes left in the overtime, Indy’s Zach Householder raced down the right wing of the Bison’s zone. Cutting around Station Camp defenseman Jacob Titus, he got in on goal, and forced Shaw to make a save. Unfortunately for Shaw, Nick Molnar was right there to bury the rebound, and give Indy-Summit a 1-0 win with only 85 seconds left in the extra period.

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It was only the beginning of a spirited tournament.

Four days later, the second pool play game took place, pitting Blackman-Stewarts Creek against Hume Fogg-Page. Hume Fogg had finished the regular season 0-14, becoming the first team since Ensworth in 2008-09 to lose all of their games in a regular season. However, this was the tournament named in honor of their fallen teammate, and they were determined to win it. The PatriKnights struck first, Robbie Hart scoring just 25 seconds into the game. Just 64 seconds later, Tanner Viola answered for Blackman. It was the first of five consecutive goals scored by the Blazing Hawks, and they led 5-1 after one. It looked like Hume Fogg-Page was going to be run off the rink again, only for them to score three straight goals in the second period to cut the lead to 5-4. Goals from Viola and Colton Tincher put Blackman up 7-4, but Caden Gersky cut that to 7-5 with 41 seconds left in the middle frame. Jake Dickenson was put in the Blackman net for the third period replacing Cami Farr, but Hume Fogg still got to within a goal, Parker Adams making it 7-6 with 8:22 to play. But Dickenson held his ground, and Blackman-Stewarts Creek escaped with a win.

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The second round of pool play commenced two days later, with both games being played back-to-back on the North Rink at Ford Ice Center. First up, it was Blackman against Station Camp. After one period, the Bison led 1-0, thanks to a power play goal from Jacob Titus. Blackman tied things up in the second, thanks to Jackson Graham. Graham then gave Blackman the lead just 59 seconds into the third, only for Gavin Damewood to tie things up just under five minutes later. It looked as if the game would go to overtime, only for Alex Yarger to score the winner for Station Camp with 71 seconds left. Damewood added an empty netter nearly 30 seconds later to seal up a 4-2 win for Station Camp-Beech.

Then, Hume Fogg-Page and Indy-Summit took to the ice. On paper, this looked to be an easy win for the Eagles, and it started that way, as Conner Linkowski scored just 44 seconds into the game. Just over seven-and-a-half minutes later, though, Kyle Bartels, Mitch Mielnik’s best friend, knotted matters at one with a power play goal. With 35 seconds left in the first, Nick Molnar gave Indy-Summit the lead back. Brady Myers scored in the second, leaving Indy-Summit up 3-1 with 14 minutes of regulation to go. However, Zach Horton made things interesting, making it 3-2 nearly three minutes into the third. However, the Eagles managed to keep the puck out of their net, and they left with a one-goal victory. Both they and Station Camp-Beech had locked up the spots in the final (it would be the first GNASH tournament final for all four schools involved), with the last round of pool play only determining who would be which seed for said final.

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The following Monday, Station Camp-Beech took their one crack at being the home team in the championship game, facing Hume Fogg-Page. The PatriKnights again put up a fight, the game goalless after one period. But Steven Goodpaster scored what would be the game winner for the Bison in the second. It was only 1-0 after two, but Station Camp-Beech poured on five goals, three of them on the power play, to run away with a 6-0 win. Hume Fogg-Page put up a valiant fight in the Mielnik Cup, but their best still wasn’t good enough.

Four days later, Indy-Summit had to answer the bell, playing Blackman-Stewarts Creek in both teams’ pool play finale. And answer the bell they did. In what was truly the only blowout of the entire Mielnik Cup, the Eagles won 8-3, scoring five consecutive goals at one point. They would be the home team for the championship game just three days later.

The inaugural Mielnik Cup Final ended up being the best of the three championship games that postseason. Yep, better than the Hine Cup Final (won by Pope John Paul II 3-0 over Franklin), and even better than the Predators Cup Final (won by Ravenwood 3-1 over Montgomery Bell).

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Goalless after one period, the Eagles jumped out to a 2-0 lead near the game’s halfway point with Trenton Stewart and Conner Linkowski scoring both goals in a span of two minutes and nine seconds. However, with 1:54 to go in the second, Jacob Titus brought the Bison back to within one. When the second period ended, both teams made their way back to their respective locker rooms, thanks to a league-mandated ice cut between the second and third periods for all three championship games that postseason (doing ice cuts for championship games varies; some years, they do them, some years, they don’t; I don’t expect there to be any for this year’s playoff finals).

The Bison returned from the break, still feeling good after Titus’s goal. Just over two-and-a-half minutes into the third, Alex Yarger backhanded the puck from the bottom of the right circle towards the near post. A charging Gavin Clelland slotted it in the net, but the goal was initially waved off, as it appeared that Clelland had kicked it in. Both officials then talked it over, and decided to count the goal. Suddenly, it was 2-2. And regulation would end with that same score on the board. How appropriate that these two teams would need overtime to decide both the Mielnik Cup opener and the final.

Through the first half of the overtime, neither team could score the winner. Then, with just under five-and-a-half minutes to play, Gary Hix III banked the puck off the bleachers-side boards at center. Trenton Stewart then carried the puck down the right wing side of the Station Camp-Beech zone. He found Hunter Cherry breaking to the net on the left wing side, and made a cross-ice pass that Cherry buried in the net to give Independence-Summit the inaugural Mielnik Cup.

After much skepticism (including from me), the Mielnik Cup had paid off. In some aspects, it was the best tournament that postseason, because almost every game wasn’t decided until the final buzzer (or in the case of both games between Indy and Station Camp, until the puck ended up in the back of someone’s net).

The 2017 Mielnik Cup wasn’t as good as the first one. Thanks to the drop-down-as-you-lose format, teams that were far better than those at the bottom of the league were placed into the tournament. After blowout victories in the semis, it was Ensworth-Oakland against Hendersonville-Beech in the final. The Ice Tigers held a 1-0 lead after two, thanks to a Henry Hitt goal near the midway point of the first. But with 2:40 left in regulation, Adam Niederauer equalized for the Commandos. Just 26 seconds later, Evan Rench scored the game-winner, and Eric Hall buried an empty netter with 16 seconds to go, giving Hendersonville-Beech at 3-1 win. Longtime Hendersonville head coach Tim Rathert had finally gotten his hands on a GNASH trophy, but the game ended shamefully, with numerous players fighting at the final buzzer, some coming off the bench to join in. Numerous players were given multi-game suspensions (one player got nine games, two others got eight each, and two others got one game each), but all of the players were outgoing seniors, meaning the unserved suspensions turned into fines (it’s $50 per game in the case of unserved suspensions). The total of the fines was $1,350.

This past offseason, with the number of teams dropping from 18 to 15, GNASH decided to end the Mielnik Cup as a postseason tournament, and instead, give out a playoff MVP trophy named after Mitch Mielnik. That seems a more fitting tribute.

However, no one can deny how great the inaugural Mielnik Cup was. All four teams wanted it bad. If the tournament is ever revived, I don’t think it will be as good as it was the first time around.

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