By Mike Klein
Last month, we did a story on how the United States Premier Hockey League came into existence and what the goals were for that league, while focusing on the USPHL Premier Division.
We now turn our attention to the two USPHL Elite Divisions, the North and the South, for a look at the league philosophy, along with a preview of the teams and league structure.
The philosophy behind the USPHL Elite Division was to create a league that would mirror the old EJHL in its competitive nature, quality of play and professionalism while expanding the league structure to include the once affiliate members, the EJHL South, to full membership.
By doing this, the USPHL took the experience and quality of eight organizations from the old EJHL and created the USPHL Elite Northern Division. This division includes the Junior Bruins, Islanders Hockey Club, Jersey Hitmen, South Shore Kings, Bay State Breakers, Rochester Junior Americans, Springfield Pics, New Hampshire Monarchs and the Syracuse Stars.
The league merged them with a Tier-3 league from the south that includes the Florida Eels, Tampa Bay Juniors, Palm Beach Hawks, Junior Hurricanes, Hampton Roads Whalers, East Coast Eagles, Potomac Patriots and the 2011-2012 Tier 3 National Champion the Atlanta Knights to create the USPHL Elite Southern Division.
Together, they form the 18-team Elite Division of the USPHL.
The goal of this league is to place as many kids as possible into NCAA colleges and universities while operating as a critical arm of the USPHL development model.
The early success for the USPHL Elite teams when facing other local Tier-3 teams from outside the league should be a good indicator to the scouting community that this league is comprised of highly skilled players that can make the jump to the NCAA level.
The USPHL Northern Division
While the entire USPHL Elite Division includes many great organizations, all with deep history, itâ€™s the Syracuse Stars, Springfield Pics and Rochester Junior Americans that are out to a quick start in the Elite division of the USPHL. Collectively, these teams have won 15 out of their first 21 games played.
It should be of no surprise to those in the hockey world that these three teams would come out of the gate and announce their presence in the newly formed Elite Division of the USPHL.
These three franchises are operating their organizationsâ€™ top teams in this particular division with the hopes of moving to the USPHL Premier Division in the not so distant future.
The history of success for these three teams in the past is extensive and includes many NHL Draft picks, league championships, coaches of the year and a combined 171 Division 1 college placements between them.
Those stats, coupled with their terrific start and highly competitive USPHL Elite schedule, will undoubtedly show the hockey world that the USPHL Elite Division is for real and boasts a high caliber of play and player.
The coaching in the USPHL Northern Division is also very strong with Tony Maksymiu capturing the 2012-13 Coach of the year award in the old EJHL and Pat Tabb of the Springfield Pics grabbing the same honor back in 2010-11.
For the Rochester Junior Americans, Maksymiu has built an impressive coaching career on developing players for the next level. Success stories involve Ottawa Senators prospect Shane Prince and U.S. National Team Development Program forward Nathan Billitier, who will join the University of Notre Dame Fighting Irish next season. Both had standout seasons for the Junior Americans in the past.
Tabb and the Springfield Pics lost the teamâ€™s two leaders from last season as Dan Mele (28-24-52) and standout veteran defenseman Wade Schools both began their NCAA hockey careers at UConn and Alabama-Huntsville, respectively.
Five more players joined the NCAA Division 3 ranks. Goaltender Linus Lundin, the EJHLâ€™s Goaltender of the Year last season, recorded a 2.51 goals against average and .932 save percentage while playing every second of every game.
He decided to turn pro right away and landed an AHL contract with the Springfield Falcons. Even with such losses for Coach Tabb and the Pics, the season has started off tremendously well with returning players displaying veteran form and the rookies contributing as well.
Another real boost to the USPHL Elite Northern Division is the return of the longtime Syracuse Stars coach Don Kirnan.
Kirnan has been a force behind the successful development of so many Syracuse area players over the years and the USPHL is thrilled to have him involved.
True to their name, the Syracuse Stars developed an All-Star alumni list that includes Brian and Stephen Gionta, Tim Connolly, Matt Murley, and Ryan Callahan.
Kirnan is the architect of junior hockey in the Syracuse area. He has had a hand in junior hockey for nearly 30 years and has fielded teams in the EJHL, NAHL and Ontario Provincial
League, among others.
Furthermore, he founded the Empire Junior Hockey League, which currently operates as
the USPHLâ€™s Empire Division.
â€œI got involved with the old Northeast Junior Hockey League in 1985,â€ he recalled. â€œIt ended up folding, but I found ways to continue to serve the local player pool. My team joined the Toronto Metro Junior League, and that ended up merging with the Ontario Provincial League.
â€œI sold my franchise there in 2005 and joined the EJHL. I also started the Empire League in 1997, which was meant as the replacement for the Northeastern League,â€ said Kirnan.
Kirnan also coached the Rochester Jr. Americans during the 1999-2000 season in the North American Hockey League before they relocated to Pittsburgh.
Despite his affiliations with numerous leagues, his goal remained the same.
â€œThe purpose of my team was always to elevate local hockey. I always tried to pick as many locals as possible for my team,â€ said Kirnan. â€œNinety percent of the kids in Syracuse and Rochester who have had success in college and pro hockey have come through juniors. People started accepting that in the late 1980s and early 1990s.â€
It was that vision that led Kirnan to the EJHL and later, the USPHL. The move to the EJHL was a smooth transition and kept the flow of players moving to the upper levels of hockey, as evidenced by the success of Shane Prince (2011) and Jeremy Morin (2009).
Both were chosen in the second round of their respective NHL Entry Drafts and at one point played junior hockey for the Syracuse organization.
Aside from the style of play, the developmental structure of the USPHL similarly attracted Kirnan and the Syracuse Stars.
â€œThe USPHL is on the right track with the multiple divisions, and the age group structure is very user-friendly for the up-and-comer,â€ he said.
With that in mind, Kirnan entered teams in the Elite and 16-and-under divisions.
With all the changes in the junior hockey structure in the Northeast, the Syracuse Stars have continued to develop top talent, including current U.S. National Team Development Program players Alex Tuch and Luke Kirwan, both alumni of the Empire League team.
Regardless of the league, no scoutâ€™s travels would be complete without a trip to Syracuse.
The USPHL Elite Southern Division
When the National Hockey League began its expansion into â€œnon-traditional marketsâ€ such as the southeastern United States, an explosion in youth hockey took place.
With that came a preliminary attempt at starting junior hockey that failed to adequately serve the market and soon disappeared.
â€œThe first attempt at junior hockey in the Southeast was a disaster,â€ said Florida Eels owner Frank Scarpaci. â€œThe league was all fighting and gave the sport a bad name. It almost drove everybody out of the rinks. I knew there was a better way to do it, so [Space Coast Hurricanes founder] Rick Ninko and I had meetings to bring junior hockey down here.â€
Youth hockey had existed for some time, but like other underserved areas, players often left for greener pastures such as New England prep schools or other junior teams when they outgrew youth hockey.
Scarpaci and his current league partners had some success in sending kids on to college, but it was usually after they had played a few years of hockey someplace else.
Seeing how the more successful junior leagues operated, they determined that junior hockey offered a better opportunity for advancing players to NCAA colleges and universities.
With that in mind, Scarpaci and his partners created the Southeast Junior Hockey League (SEJHL), which originally was a Junior C league. It was mostly Florida kids and there were no teams from outside the state.
â€œWhen Rickâ€™s team won Nationals, we really put ourselves on the map. [Atlanta Knights Former owner] David Falkenstein saw how we ran our league and our teams and he adopted the same junior hockey model. This model also had roots in places like North Carolina with the East Coast Eagles and in Virginia with the Hampton Roads Whalers. Together we decided to form a league and affiliate with leagues up north,â€ Scarpaci said.
After their first affiliation program ended, the Southeastern teams copied the A and B team feeder model and partnered with the old EJHL and became the EJHL South. They also directly joined the Empire Junior Hockey League for a home for their feeder programs.
They had some tremendous success, including a representative of their league winning the Tier-3 national championship (Atlanta Knights).
Another change happened last summer with the dissolution of the Eastern Junior Hockey League, which again caused a change in strategy.
â€œWe founded the Southern Atlantic Hockey League to operate independently, but we knew the importance of going to showcases up north. Before we even played a game as
an independent league, we received a call from USPHL Commissioner Rich Gallant,â€ Scarpaci said. â€œAfter meeting with him and receiving his invitation to join the USPHL, we knew we would be treated as equals.
â€œI liked the USPHL model covering three age groups,â€ he continued. â€œIt allowed our top teams to develop talent from the Midget and Empire teams and got us into showcases in New England.â€
A great example of young players developing through the USPHL Southern division system is Potomac Patriots star forward Cam Smith, who was the first member of that newly formed division to commit to a Division 1 university. Smith will be attending Dartmouth College in the fall of 2016.
The major goal for the USPHL as a whole is the advancement of players into college hockey, and, with the formation of the USPHL Elite Southern Division, there is now a fit down south
that mirrors the highly competitive USPHL Elite up North.