Valley Jr. Warriors organization looks atÂ years of success, pushes on with playerÂ development mission
Every night is like a giant housewarmingÂ party for the Valley JuniorÂ Warriors youth and juniorÂ hockey organization.
Five years since the Valley ForumÂ III (also known as Valley Forum atÂ Haverhill) opened, it is still the pride andÂ joy of Valley Associates and the JuniorÂ Warriors, who are fielding no less thanÂ 20 Tier-1 elite teams over the course ofÂ the 2012-13 playing season.
These players range in age from 6-Â year-olds waving to their parents in theÂ stands between plays, to 20-year-oldÂ junior hockey players â€¦ passing on aÂ smile and nod to their parents in theÂ stands between plays.
The highest level team wearing theÂ Warriorsâ€™ Blue and Gold plays in theÂ Eastern Junior Hockey League, and likeÂ all of the EJHL teams, prides itself onÂ development for college hockey.
This year, alumni of the EJHL teamÂ can be found on the Division 1 rosters ofÂ Quinnipiac University (Loren Barron),Â UNH (Jeff Wyer), Bemidji State (FabianÂ Sivnert), Bentley University (MarkÂ Meads), University of Connecticut Â (Jordan Sims), University of MaineÂ (Conor Riley) and UMass-Lowell (goalieÂ Doug Carr).
Shortly adding to that list will be currentÂ Warriors Devin Tringale (Harvard), RyanÂ Fitzgerald (Boston College), BrendanÂ Collier (Boston University) and JustinÂ Fialkow (Colgate).
Not to be overlooked are the scoresÂ of other Valley Jr. Warriors (VJW)Â products who have developed fromÂ the youth through midget ranks. BrianÂ Pinho recently committed to ProvidenceÂ College, while Sam Kurker â€“ the 56thÂ overall pick of the St. Louis Blues in theÂ 2012 Entry Draft â€“ has taken his talentsÂ to Boston University.
The Warriors have – in more than 10Â years – placed more than 100 alumni inÂ various Division 1 and Division 3 collegeÂ programs.
â€œWe try to develop and bring in theÂ best players and best coaches to ourÂ program,â€ said Andy Heinze. â€œIn the end,Â our goal has always been to develop theÂ best student athletes that we can fromÂ youth through midgets.â€
Heinze is head coach and generalÂ manager of the EJHL team and also theÂ Director of Hockey Operations for theÂ Warriors organization.
â€œWe have a great group of formerÂ NHL and former college players asÂ coaches throughout the program,â€ HeinzeÂ said.
â€œThese guys do a terrific job for us,Â developing the players. Itâ€™s been a goodÂ situation.â€
Youth coaches include former NHLÂ players Stu Irving (U18 Tier-1, MinnesotaÂ North Stars), Bob Sweeney (â€˜00 Elite,Â Boston Bruins), Steve Leach (â€™99 Elite,Â Boston Bruins). Ken Hodge (2000 Elite,Â Boston Bruins), Dave Sacco (â€™03 Elite,Â Toronto Maple Leafs). Irving and SaccoÂ are also past U.S. Olympians â€“ Irving Â won the Silver Medal with the 1972 teamÂ and Sacco skated in the 1984 Games.
Former college players turned WarriorÂ coaches include Chris Driscoll (â€™02Â Elite, Dartmouth), Jack Blaeser (â€™03Â Select, Brown), Ron Pascucci (â€™02 Elite,Â Boston College), Will Winship (â€™04Â Elite, Union), John Burke (â€™01 Elite,Â Connecticut College), Paul Sacco (â€˜00Â Select, Northeastern), Frank Vana, Jr. (â€™05Â Elite, Assumption), as well as SweeneyÂ (Boston College), Irving (Merrimack)Â and Sacco (Boston University).
The result has been consistent success,Â which has translated into more 42 StateÂ Championships dating back to 1993.Â Instrumental in recruiting and workingÂ with coaches on a full-time basis are aÂ formidable tandem in Fred DevereauxÂ â€“ a 25-year veteran NHL scout whoÂ serves as director of player developmentÂ â€“ and former Salem State standoutÂ Steve MacAdams, who joined the VJWÂ team several years ago as the directorÂ of program development. Prior to that,Â MacAdams was an assistant coach atÂ Saint Anselm College and a longtimeÂ instructor with Dynamic Skating.
â€œWe are fortunate to have a talentedÂ group of coaches who are committedÂ to this program year in and year out,â€Â said MacAdams, who led the VJW â€™97Â Elites to the USA Hockey NationalÂ Championship in two of the past threeÂ seasons.
â€œThey believe in our missionÂ and the kids respond to them.â€
For his part, Heinze still holds theÂ Merrimack record for most games playedÂ (144) and is 10th on the all-time pointsÂ list (166). He is also a former captain ofÂ the Warriors. He joined the Warriors inÂ 1998 and in the spring of 2000, he wasÂ named EJHL Coach of the Year, honorsÂ he repeated in 2001 and again in 2012.
A Good Home
He still views the 2007 opening of theÂ Valley Forum in Haverhill as possiblyÂ the biggest crowning achievement forÂ the program. It capped off what is a Â trifecta of Valley rinks, which includesÂ the facility in Lawrence and a secondÂ one in Malden that was built in 2001. AllÂ three rinks are currently fully operationalÂ and host thousands of youth and juniorÂ games each year.
â€œIn 1998, we were playing out of anÂ older facility in Lawrence, but it was aÂ little tight there,â€ said Heinze. â€œNow, weÂ have the best locker rooms for our EJHLÂ and Empire League teams [in Haverhill]Â and have the ability to provide theseÂ players with as much training as theyÂ need.â€
Helping Heinzeâ€™s recruiting effortsÂ even further was the addition of the MikeÂ Boyle Strength and Training Center,Â which opened its doors on the mezzanineÂ level of the Haverhill Valley Forum justÂ one year ago. Mike Boyle has â€“ for moreÂ than 25 years â€“ worked with the BostonÂ University hockey team and currentlyÂ helps to train the United States Womenâ€™sÂ Olympic hockey team and the BostonÂ Red Sox. He manages the state-of-theartÂ facility, which serves the strength andÂ training needs of all VJW players whoÂ are squirt major and older.
â€œThereâ€™s plenty of room to get doneÂ what we need to get done,â€ said Heinze.
â€œThat would be the biggest change Iâ€™veÂ seen in the program. Weâ€™ve also addedÂ teams, such as two at the Mite level andÂ we try to bring those players straightÂ through to the junior program.â€
The youth program has its own flags toÂ fly in terms of development and success.Â Chief among these is two-time DivisionÂ 1 National Champion Chris Kreider,Â who helped the Boston College EaglesÂ to the 2010 and 2012 titles. Kreider wasÂ also on two World Junior ChampionshipÂ teams (2010, 2011), with the 2010 teamÂ winning the world title.
From BC, it was on to the Stanley CupÂ Playoffs with the New York Rangers,Â scoring seven points in 18 games.
â€œChris is one of those playersÂ who came here as a mite player andÂ was committed to the program,â€ saidÂ Devereaux.
â€œEven after he moved on toÂ college, he continued to come back andÂ visit the coaching staff and work at ourÂ Jr. Warrior Summer Camp.â€
Colin Blackwell, who scored 20 totalÂ points with Harvard University during hisÂ freshman season, was a similar product ofÂ the Warriors youth program. He movedÂ on to play for St. Johnâ€™s Prep in Danvers,Â Mass., and then to the Crimson in 2011.
Crafting a perennialÂ winner
Given the depth and strength of theÂ EJHL, the Warriors have continued toÂ strive to reach the top of the standingsÂ each season.
â€œWe were flying high for two toÂ three years at the outset and then we hitÂ a bit of a lull,â€ said Heinze. â€œThen, weÂ climbed back up the ladder with guysÂ like Joe Cucci [Merrimack], Conor RileyÂ [Maine], Mark Roebothan [UMass-Â Lowell], Mark Pandolfo [UMass-Lowell]Â and Dave Strathman [Northeastern].â€
Since that time, the Warriors haveÂ continued to battle and advanced to theÂ quarterfinals of the EJHL playoffs inÂ two of the past three years. Last season,Â the team posted a 27-16-2 record andÂ exploded out of the gates this fall withÂ a 10-4 mark which was tops in the EJHLÂ Northern Division.
â€œThe last two years, we have beenÂ able to add more elite-level players,â€Â said Heinze. â€œTheir experience not onlyÂ strengthens our team overall, but theyÂ also help the other players develop andÂ be better prepared for the next level.â€
This yearâ€™s team is a case study onÂ how the Warrior ties run deep. ManyÂ of the players on this roster playedÂ midget hockey together. So once JohnnyÂ Needham finished up the 2011-12Â season, he passed the word along to hisÂ former teammates â€“ Tringale, FitzgeraldÂ and Collier â€“ who followed suit.
â€œOne of the biggest reasons why IÂ came here was because of Andy andÂ because I knew a lot of the guys whoÂ would be on the team,â€ said Fitzgerald,Â whose younger brother Casey plays forÂ MacAdamsâ€™ 97 Elites team. â€œAndy is aÂ great coach and we all wanted to play forÂ him. We also knew that with the playersÂ coming in that we had a good chance toÂ win it all.â€
Fitzgerald has been the highest profileÂ player thus far, sealing his NHL DraftÂ prospect status by being named the MVPÂ of the first-ever All-American ProspectsÂ Game in Buffalo, N.Y. (Read moreÂ about Fitzgerald in the Junior Warriorsâ€™Â monthly column on Page 21).
â€œYou have to identify the top players,Â and hope you have a connection withÂ them through people you know, or haveÂ them in for off-season tournaments,â€ saidÂ Heinze.
In addition to a strong recruiting staffÂ (Heinze is supported by his assistantÂ coach Jeremy Tabb who is a formerÂ Division 1 player), word of mouthÂ endorsements help the cause.Â John Jackson, in his third year withÂ the Warriors, convinced his old friendÂ from Shattuck-St. Maryâ€™s, Blake Barnes,Â to join the team.
â€œWe have had a bunch of guys whoÂ have stuck with us and gotten strongerÂ along the way,â€ said Heinze. â€œFor me,Â itâ€™s not just about wins and losses, butÂ how many kids we have helped get intoÂ college, and play, and not just be there.â€Â Heinze added that it certainly helpsÂ that the EJHL is such an establishedÂ brand, and that itâ€™s become part of theÂ hockey culture of the Northeast.
â€œThe perception of the league hasÂ changed since Iâ€™ve been there. Itâ€™s muchÂ more solidified and the teams are muchÂ deeper overall. On the top teams, everyÂ one of their lines can keep coming atÂ you,â€ said Heinze. â€œIn the old days [circaÂ late 1990s], we were hard-pressed to goÂ past our second line with any quality Â players. Nowadays, if you are playingÂ in the EJHL, you should be able to playÂ college hockey at some level. In the past,Â if you were on a lower line, your careerÂ might be done after juniors.â€
At the Empire Junior League level,Â head coach Denis Barrette is looking toÂ craft the next group of Eastern JuniorÂ Warriors players.
â€œWeâ€™re trying to bring our players to aÂ certain level,â€ said Barrette. â€œWe want toÂ give each of these players a chance to playÂ with Coach Heinze for a full season.â€Â Barrette, a former head coach ofÂ nearby North Andover High School,Â took over the Warriors Empire teamÂ midway through the 2011-12 season.
That team was led by another risingÂ star – Ara Nazarian â€“ who will begin hisÂ sophomore campaign at Malden CatholicÂ this season.
â€œWe have a lot of new players whoÂ came in with a new mentality and anÂ objective to participate in the playoffs,â€Â said Barrette.
After the young players acclimatedÂ to the speed and length of the game, theÂ Warriors have won five out their lastÂ seven games.
â€œIt was a lot of adjustment for players,Â playing 20-minute periods and 60-minuteÂ games,â€ Barrette said. â€œWe pushed andÂ worked hard and had some good wins. AsÂ long as weâ€™re competitive and happy withÂ the effort overall, it will be a successfulÂ season.â€
Being a former Merrimack CollegeÂ player, Barrette was very familiar withÂ owner Paul Gilmartin and the Warriors.
â€œIâ€™m very happy to be a part of theÂ organization,â€ said Barrette. â€œThey haveÂ such a powerful team in the EJHL, andÂ itâ€™s always interesting to sit down andÂ discuss hockey with former MerrimackÂ guys Paul and Andy.â€
This year, the Warriors also enteredÂ a Midget U16 team into the brand newÂ Eastern Junior Elite Prospects League.
That team will no doubt help to produceÂ prospects for both the Empire and theÂ EJHL.
â€œThis league will be a tremendousÂ opportunity for our players to be exposedÂ to high-level hockey in an environmentÂ that will prepare them for the next level,â€Â said Heinze.
Getting deep into skillsÂ development
Blackwell has just started his secondÂ year at Harvard University. A San JoseÂ Sharks draft pick (194th overall inÂ 2011), he attributes a lot of his success to Â what the Warriors did in terms of skillsÂ development.
â€œWhenever I am home I try to showÂ up and say hello,â€ said Blackwell. â€œIÂ played with the Warriors all of my life. IfÂ it wasnâ€™t for the support that my coachesÂ gave me, I wouldnâ€™t be where I am now.â€
Blackwell skated with the Warriors from mites through midgets,Â before becoming the Robbie FtorekÂ Massachusetts High School HockeyÂ Player of the Year in 2011 with St. Johnâ€™sÂ Prep.
Blackwell credits the coaching staffÂ â€“ including Fred Devereaux, Peter King,Â Andy Heinze and Mike Holubowich â€“ forÂ helping him grow over the years throughÂ competitive league and tournament playÂ and the weekly team and skills practices.
â€œI went through a time when everyoneÂ else was going through a growth spurt,â€Â said Blackwell. â€œEveryone was gettingÂ bigger and faster, but the Warrior coachesÂ stayed with me and worked me hard andÂ believed in me. Without them, I wouldnâ€™tÂ be where I am today. The weekly skillsÂ sessions with Coach Devereaux that IÂ participated in from an early age wereÂ important. I still use those same drillsÂ and lessons to this day.â€
Skills sessions are held every TuesdayÂ for all of the Valley Jr. Warriors teams.Â Itâ€™s a chance for players to step away fromÂ systems and goal-scoring and just focusÂ on the nitty-gritty of hockey â€“ skating,Â puckhandling, skating, passing, and didÂ we mention skating?
â€œI have been in the shoes of theÂ younger players,â€ said Blackwell. â€œIf IÂ can do it, they can do it. The WarriorsÂ have the coaching staff and the facilitiesÂ to allow those young players to do theÂ same thing.â€
Beginning with the 2012-2013Â season, Stop It Goaltending â€“ led byÂ former Merrimack College playerÂ Brian Daccord â€“ is handling all of theÂ goaltending training for the Valley Jr.Â Warrior program.
This training company has helpedÂ groom 25 NHL draft picks and moreÂ than 75 goalies who have gone on toÂ play college, junior and pro hockey.
Additionally, all Jr. Warriors goalies takeÂ part in 11 weeks of position-specificÂ training sessions on the half-size surfaceÂ at the Hat Trick Training Center inÂ Middleton.
â€œFrom the facilities to the coaches,Â it is all about developing these playersÂ and creating a highly competitive andÂ supportive environment,â€ said Heinze.
â€œFrom top to bottom, we want toÂ maximize the their individual athleticÂ skills to help them be competitive locallyÂ and nationally.â€
With offerings from mites to juniors,Â the Valley Jr. Warriors are a wellestablishedÂ institution for everythingÂ from learning the game to finding yourÂ way to the next level.