Valley Jr. Warriors organization looks at years of success, pushes on with player development mission
Every night is like a giant housewarming party for the Valley Junior Warriors youth and junior hockey organization.
Five years since the Valley Forum III (also known as Valley Forum at Haverhill) opened, it is still the pride and joy of Valley Associates and the Junior Warriors, who are fielding no less than 20 Tier-1 elite teams over the course of the 2012-13 playing season.
These players range in age from 6- year-olds waving to their parents in the stands between plays, to 20-year-old junior hockey players … passing on a smile and nod to their parents in the stands between plays.
The highest level team wearing the Warriors’ Blue and Gold plays in the Eastern Junior Hockey League, and like all of the EJHL teams, prides itself on development for college hockey.
This year, alumni of the EJHL team can be found on the Division 1 rosters of Quinnipiac University (Loren Barron), UNH (Jeff Wyer), Bemidji State (Fabian Sivnert), Bentley University (Mark Meads), University of Connecticut (Jordan Sims), University of Maine (Conor Riley) and UMass-Lowell (goalie Doug Carr).
Shortly adding to that list will be current Warriors Devin Tringale (Harvard), Ryan Fitzgerald (Boston College), Brendan Collier (Boston University) and Justin Fialkow (Colgate).
Not to be overlooked are the scores of other Valley Jr. Warriors (VJW) products who have developed from the youth through midget ranks. Brian Pinho recently committed to Providence College, while Sam Kurker – the 56th overall pick of the St. Louis Blues in the 2012 Entry Draft – has taken his talents to Boston University.
The Warriors have – in more than 10 years – placed more than 100 alumni in various Division 1 and Division 3 college programs.
“We try to develop and bring in the best players and best coaches to our program,” said Andy Heinze. “In the end, our goal has always been to develop the best student athletes that we can from youth through midgets.”
Heinze is head coach and general manager of the EJHL team and also the Director of Hockey Operations for the Warriors organization.
“We have a great group of former NHL and former college players as coaches throughout the program,” Heinze said.
“These guys do a terrific job for us, developing the players. It’s been a good situation.”
Youth coaches include former NHL players Stu Irving (U18 Tier-1, Minnesota North Stars), Bob Sweeney (‘00 Elite, Boston Bruins), Steve Leach (’99 Elite, Boston Bruins). Ken Hodge (2000 Elite, Boston Bruins), Dave Sacco (’03 Elite, Toronto Maple Leafs). Irving and Sacco are also past U.S. Olympians – Irving won the Silver Medal with the 1972 team and Sacco skated in the 1984 Games.
Former college players turned Warrior coaches include Chris Driscoll (’02 Elite, Dartmouth), Jack Blaeser (’03 Select, Brown), Ron Pascucci (’02 Elite, Boston College), Will Winship (’04 Elite, Union), John Burke (’01 Elite, Connecticut College), Paul Sacco (‘00 Select, Northeastern), Frank Vana, Jr. (’05 Elite, Assumption), as well as Sweeney (Boston College), Irving (Merrimack) and Sacco (Boston University).
The result has been consistent success, which has translated into more 42 State Championships dating back to 1993. Instrumental in recruiting and working with coaches on a full-time basis are a formidable tandem in Fred Devereaux – a 25-year veteran NHL scout who serves as director of player development – and former Salem State standout Steve MacAdams, who joined the VJW team several years ago as the director of program development. Prior to that, MacAdams was an assistant coach at Saint Anselm College and a longtime instructor with Dynamic Skating.
“We are fortunate to have a talented group of coaches who are committed to this program year in and year out,” said MacAdams, who led the VJW ’97 Elites to the USA Hockey National Championship in two of the past three seasons.
“They believe in our mission and the kids respond to them.”
For his part, Heinze still holds the Merrimack record for most games played (144) and is 10th on the all-time points list (166). He is also a former captain of the Warriors. He joined the Warriors in 1998 and in the spring of 2000, he was named EJHL Coach of the Year, honors he repeated in 2001 and again in 2012.
A Good Home
He still views the 2007 opening of the Valley Forum in Haverhill as possibly the biggest crowning achievement for the program. It capped off what is a trifecta of Valley rinks, which includes the facility in Lawrence and a second one in Malden that was built in 2001. All three rinks are currently fully operational and host thousands of youth and junior games each year.
“In 1998, we were playing out of an older facility in Lawrence, but it was a little tight there,” said Heinze. “Now, we have the best locker rooms for our EJHL and Empire League teams [in Haverhill] and have the ability to provide these players with as much training as they need.”
Helping Heinze’s recruiting efforts even further was the addition of the Mike Boyle Strength and Training Center, which opened its doors on the mezzanine level of the Haverhill Valley Forum just one year ago. Mike Boyle has – for more than 25 years – worked with the Boston University hockey team and currently helps to train the United States Women’s Olympic hockey team and the Boston Red Sox. He manages the state-of-theart facility, which serves the strength and training needs of all VJW players who are squirt major and older.
“There’s plenty of room to get done what we need to get done,” said Heinze.
“That would be the biggest change I’ve seen in the program. We’ve also added teams, such as two at the Mite level and we try to bring those players straight through to the junior program.”
The youth program has its own flags to fly in terms of development and success. Chief among these is two-time Division 1 National Champion Chris Kreider, who helped the Boston College Eagles to the 2010 and 2012 titles. Kreider was also on two World Junior Championship teams (2010, 2011), with the 2010 team winning the world title.
From BC, it was on to the Stanley Cup Playoffs with the New York Rangers, scoring seven points in 18 games.
“Chris is one of those players who came here as a mite player and was committed to the program,” said Devereaux.
“Even after he moved on to college, he continued to come back and visit the coaching staff and work at our Jr. Warrior Summer Camp.”
Colin Blackwell, who scored 20 total points with Harvard University during his freshman season, was a similar product of the Warriors youth program. He moved on to play for St. John’s Prep in Danvers, Mass., and then to the Crimson in 2011.
Crafting a perennial winner
Given the depth and strength of the EJHL, the Warriors have continued to strive to reach the top of the standings each season.
“We were flying high for two to three years at the outset and then we hit a bit of a lull,” said Heinze. “Then, we climbed back up the ladder with guys like Joe Cucci [Merrimack], Conor Riley [Maine], Mark Roebothan [UMass- Lowell], Mark Pandolfo [UMass-Lowell] and Dave Strathman [Northeastern].”
Since that time, the Warriors have continued to battle and advanced to the quarterfinals of the EJHL playoffs in two of the past three years. Last season, the team posted a 27-16-2 record and exploded out of the gates this fall with a 10-4 mark which was tops in the EJHL Northern Division.
“The last two years, we have been able to add more elite-level players,” said Heinze. “Their experience not only strengthens our team overall, but they also help the other players develop and be better prepared for the next level.”
This year’s team is a case study on how the Warrior ties run deep. Many of the players on this roster played midget hockey together. So once Johnny Needham finished up the 2011-12 season, he passed the word along to his former teammates – Tringale, Fitzgerald and Collier – who followed suit.
“One of the biggest reasons why I came here was because of Andy and because I knew a lot of the guys who would be on the team,” said Fitzgerald, whose younger brother Casey plays for MacAdams’ 97 Elites team. “Andy is a great coach and we all wanted to play for him. We also knew that with the players coming in that we had a good chance to win it all.”
Fitzgerald has been the highest profile player thus far, sealing his NHL Draft prospect status by being named the MVP of the first-ever All-American Prospects Game in Buffalo, N.Y. (Read more about Fitzgerald in the Junior Warriors’ monthly column on Page 21).
“You have to identify the top players, and hope you have a connection with them through people you know, or have them in for off-season tournaments,” said Heinze.
In addition to a strong recruiting staff (Heinze is supported by his assistant coach Jeremy Tabb who is a former Division 1 player), word of mouth endorsements help the cause. John Jackson, in his third year with the Warriors, convinced his old friend from Shattuck-St. Mary’s, Blake Barnes, to join the team.
“We have had a bunch of guys who have stuck with us and gotten stronger along the way,” said Heinze. “For me, it’s not just about wins and losses, but how many kids we have helped get into college, and play, and not just be there.” Heinze added that it certainly helps that the EJHL is such an established brand, and that it’s become part of the hockey culture of the Northeast.
“The perception of the league has changed since I’ve been there. It’s much more solidified and the teams are much deeper overall. On the top teams, every one of their lines can keep coming at you,” said Heinze. “In the old days [circa late 1990s], we were hard-pressed to go past our second line with any quality players. Nowadays, if you are playing in the EJHL, you should be able to play college hockey at some level. In the past, if you were on a lower line, your career might be done after juniors.”
At the Empire Junior League level, head coach Denis Barrette is looking to craft the next group of Eastern Junior Warriors players.
“We’re trying to bring our players to a certain level,” said Barrette. “We want to give each of these players a chance to play with Coach Heinze for a full season.” Barrette, a former head coach of nearby North Andover High School, took over the Warriors Empire team midway through the 2011-12 season.
That team was led by another rising star – Ara Nazarian – who will begin his sophomore campaign at Malden Catholic this season.
“We have a lot of new players who came in with a new mentality and an objective to participate in the playoffs,” said Barrette.
After the young players acclimated to the speed and length of the game, the Warriors have won five out their last seven games.
“It was a lot of adjustment for players, playing 20-minute periods and 60-minute games,” Barrette said. “We pushed and worked hard and had some good wins. As long as we’re competitive and happy with the effort overall, it will be a successful season.”
Being a former Merrimack College player, Barrette was very familiar with owner Paul Gilmartin and the Warriors.
“I’m very happy to be a part of the organization,” said Barrette. “They have such a powerful team in the EJHL, and it’s always interesting to sit down and discuss hockey with former Merrimack guys Paul and Andy.”
This year, the Warriors also entered a Midget U16 team into the brand new Eastern Junior Elite Prospects League.
That team will no doubt help to produce prospects for both the Empire and the EJHL.
“This league will be a tremendous opportunity for our players to be exposed to high-level hockey in an environment that will prepare them for the next level,” said Heinze.
Getting deep into skills development
Blackwell has just started his second year at Harvard University. A San Jose Sharks draft pick (194th overall in 2011), he attributes a lot of his success to what the Warriors did in terms of skills development.
“Whenever I am home I try to show up and say hello,” said Blackwell. “I played with the Warriors all of my life. If it wasn’t for the support that my coaches gave me, I wouldn’t be where I am now.”
Blackwell skated with the Warriors from mites through midgets, before becoming the Robbie Ftorek Massachusetts High School Hockey Player of the Year in 2011 with St. John’s Prep.
Blackwell credits the coaching staff – including Fred Devereaux, Peter King, Andy Heinze and Mike Holubowich – for helping him grow over the years through competitive league and tournament play and the weekly team and skills practices.
“I went through a time when everyone else was going through a growth spurt,” said Blackwell. “Everyone was getting bigger and faster, but the Warrior coaches stayed with me and worked me hard and believed in me. Without them, I wouldn’t be where I am today. The weekly skills sessions with Coach Devereaux that I participated in from an early age were important. I still use those same drills and lessons to this day.”
Skills sessions are held every Tuesday for all of the Valley Jr. Warriors teams. It’s a chance for players to step away from systems and goal-scoring and just focus on the nitty-gritty of hockey – skating, puckhandling, skating, passing, and did we mention skating?
“I have been in the shoes of the younger players,” said Blackwell. “If I can do it, they can do it. The Warriors have the coaching staff and the facilities to allow those young players to do the same thing.”
Beginning with the 2012-2013 season, Stop It Goaltending – led by former Merrimack College player Brian Daccord – is handling all of the goaltending training for the Valley Jr. Warrior program.
This training company has helped groom 25 NHL draft picks and more than 75 goalies who have gone on to play college, junior and pro hockey.
Additionally, all Jr. Warriors goalies take part in 11 weeks of position-specific training sessions on the half-size surface at the Hat Trick Training Center in Middleton.
“From the facilities to the coaches, it is all about developing these players and creating a highly competitive and supportive environment,” said Heinze.
“From top to bottom, we want to maximize the their individual athletic skills to help them be competitive locally and nationally.”
With offerings from mites to juniors, the Valley Jr. Warriors are a wellestablished institution for everything from learning the game to finding your way to the next level.