Breaking the ice: South Lake Tahoe Vikings hockey delivers Northern California championship a decade in the making
SAN JOSE, Calif. — A decade of investment and dedication to hockey in Tahoe ultimately took the South Lake Tahoe Vikings to the ultimate prize. The Vikings won the Sharks High School Hockey League varsity championship for Northern California, rallying in dramatic fashion in the title game June 11 on Sharks Ice at San Jose.
“It was an awesome feeling for all of us,” Vikings coach Gary Gramprie said.
South Lake Tahoe delivered the championship with a 6-5 overtime victory over Tahoe Hockey Academy. The team avenged a pair of losses to the regular season champs en route to the crown, doing so despite fielding 11 players — less than two-thirds of its roster — and taking the ice without any seniors.
“I never doubted they could do it,” Gramprie said. “I’ve had most of these kids for almost six years, I know their comeback ability and their determination — and they showed it.”
With five minutes left in the third period, the Vikings trailed 5-3 and faced a tough task. Against an upstart Tahoe Hockey Academy team consisting of players throughout Northern California, South Lake Tahoe rallied for a dramatic victory in a contest that officially put Tahoe hockey on the map.
“I love every one of these kids,” Gramprie said. “We’ve been through a lot together, but we always manage to put a team together and be fairly successful. This one was the big one for sure.”
In the third period, the Vikings trailed 5-3 when a slash put them on the power play with 5:37 left in regulation. Both teams found a second wind for this five-on-four situation, and South Lake Tahoe ultimately found the goal to start its late comeback.
“With about six minutes left I called a timeout — I looked at their faces and could tell they were tired,” Gramprie said. “But I told them we were going to score on the power play, tie it up and win in overtime.”
With the puck behind the net, South Lake Tahoe’s Jackson Oleson decided to jump up from defense and commit to getting possession. Oleson gained control and fired the puck to Travis Wood — it eventually ended up on the stick of Mickey Sullivan, who scored to make it 5-4 with 4:29 to play in the period.
The rest of regulation played out in an exhausted battle, but not before the Vikings produced last-second heroics made possible by deciding not to pull their goalie. Sullivan found the puck in his possession in the last minute, and found a seam not much bigger than the rubber mass itself to tie the game with 24.9 seconds left.
“The tide definitely turned right there,” Gramprie said.
Both teams were physically spent in sudden-death overtime, and South Lake Tahoe turned to its altitude advantage to ultimately persevere. The Vikings living and training at high elevation gave them an edge, but the numbers were not on their side.
“I figured we didn’t have much time,” Gramprie said. “We had to win it quick.”
A minute into overtime, Tahoe Hockey Academy mounted pressure and attempted to end the game with a blast on net from the point. That’s when Travis Wood delivered a game-changing defensive play — he put a jump on the THA defenseman and blocked the ensuing shot to spark a two-on-none breakaway alongside Sullivan.
The two South Lake Tahoe products passed back and forth multiple times before Sullivan was in on net. The title game’s star then made an undefensable assist back across to Wood that he buried home.
The ensuing celebration sent 12 Vikings — 11 skaters and goaltender Brandon Couch — onto the ice in a frenzy. Sticks, gloves and helmets ended strewn across the ice as the South Lake Tahoe team produced the first championship of its kind for a local outfit.
“As tired as the kids were, they had enough energy left for a nice celebration,” Gramprie said.
The Vikings’ full roster of 19 featured 10 players from South Tahoe High along with Northern Nevada skaters from Incline Village, Carson City and Reno, and Northern California products from Roseville and Vacaville. The team’s South Shore players include Oleson, Sullivan, Wood, Zachary Dill, Matt Newberger, Ryan Brown, Carson Bailey, Zach Calderon, Lucas Demsar and Reed Lequerica.
“It’s a team built from our organically-grown hockey culture,” said Van Oleson, Vikings parent and owner of Tahoe Sports and Entertainment. “When you have the combination of the Tahoe-born athlete, elite athlete culture, fanatical parents and an unnatural quantity of ice access, you get good.”
In the regular season, the Vikings played 12 games in the Bay Area spread across four weekends from late March to late May — between two and four games over a two-day span. South Lake Tahoe went 9-2-1 in the eight-team league, finishing second only to the unbeaten Tahoe Hockey Academy.
“It was a team effort all the way through the season,” Gramprie said.
On the bench, Gramprie and defensive coordinator Ken Wood led the team — and the Vikings’ program. Both coaches had been around a majority of the kids since the days of playing pee wee for the Tahoe Grizzlies, so it was fitting they helped this group get to the top.
“They were a part in raising these kids as hockey players and as people,” Oleson said of the Vikings’ coaches. “They are a part of the fabric of the rink and our community — they and the other volunteers throughout the years have built an institution.”
An institution that now has a championship to bring back to South Lake Tahoe.