"Who's having fun?" the coach bellowed.
"Me!" came the high-pitched chorus from his players, watching black-jerseyed teammates skate in pursuit of a ping-ponging puck, trying to protect a late three-goal lead.
"You guys are playing awesome!" returned the coach.
A few minutes later, the 12 members of the Ashburn Ice House Youth House League's Black Mite A team swarmed together in celebration of a championship -- perhaps the first such celebration in their very young lives.
"They're thrilled. We set out to have fun this season, and we did, every game," said that coach, Matt Schneider, after his pupils collected their bobblehead trophies and posed for parents' photographs.
"It's about building that love of the game. If the kids are playing in adult leagues in 30 years, we've been successful coaches."
With a running clock, four-on-four skating on just over a third of the ice's surface, no penalties nor checking and mandatory shift changes every 90 seconds, the Mite game is a miniaturized version of the sport made for miniature people to learn it.
"All the kids have been coming along great," Blue coach Pat Palmer said. "At this level it's all about fundamentals and making better hockey players. It's been fantastic to see."
Palmer's top seed Blue team fell just short to the second-seeded Black team, 8-6, to earn runner-up honors. The teams split four meetings in the 18 each played this season.
Blake Groton led with four goals, Noah Bellis had three and Carson Breissinger had one, while Will Schneider was credited with four assists. For Blue, Jacob Koch and Ryan Palmer each put in two, with one apiece from Colin Kolb and Collin Kumpf.
Black's goalie Blake "Brickwall" Earles got the win over counterpart Jaime Manning.
But for a bunch of 6-, 7- and 8-year-olds, some who've been playing since age 3 and some who couldn't skate until a few months ago, it's truly about the joy of the game. For many of these players who spent the earliest daylight hours of a Sunday morning in the chill of an ice arena, hockey will continue to be in their future.
The oldest ones will graduate to the Squirt division, using the full length of the ice. A few will ascend to, or continue with, teams within the Ashburn Xtreme, the Ice House's accomplished travel club.
Players hail from nearly all the counties of Northern Virginia to participate in the Ice House's established youth hockey system, where all may play and some may be selected for elite teams.
"These house leagues are great feeders into the travel program. The Xtreme is recognized as by far the top youth club in the area, so kids really want to get in on the house teams when they're young," Schneider explained.
-All photos by Rick Wasser