Follow the Sun: Florida Eels Provide Pathway to College Hockey

By Joshua Boyd

When a hockey player becomes a Florida Eel, they’d better be ready to work.

The Eels, located in Fort Myers, Fla., have designed a program that general manager Frank Scarpaci modeled after NCAA Division 1 programs in terms of hours and structure.

The results of this work have seen nearly 200 Eels alumni from different levels of the organization rise to college hockey at various levels. Some have seen NCAA Division 1 ice, some have enjoyed success in the Division 3 realm and still others have found great college hockey homes in the American Collegiate Hockey Association.

The success these players have at these different levels can surely be traced back to their time on the sunny Gulf Coast of Florida, where each Eels player has gone through 800 hours of training, on and off the ice, during a given junior season.

“The key to the Eels is our training,” said Scarpaci.

The 90 minutes of on-ice training per day five days a week for 40 weeks is just the tip of the iceberg. Add in 90 more minutes each day of strength and conditioning at World Gym with S&C coaching. After these 180 minutes, Eels players return to the rink each day (five days per week) for an additional hour of shooting.

After playing with the Florida Eels for four years and leading the 2015-16 team in scoring, Josh Delezenne joined the Aurora University hockey team, and will next rejoin the Eels as an assistant coach.
Photo by Joshua Boyd

There is a minimum of one video session per week and two classroom sessions of “chalk talk” for 240 more hours on top of the 800 ice and dry-land training hours.

Joey Colatarci rode this training straight to a spot with Adrian College, a NCAA Division 3 Frozen Four team in 2016-17. He is just one example of the nearly 200 players who found their hockey fortunes in Fort Myers (Colatarci’s hometown).

“Players come from all over the U.S., Canada and Europe for this type of instruction and training. Why? Because we do as we say we will do,” said Scarpaci. “When you have approximately 10-plus boys each year moving on to play college hockey, it defines excellence.”

Four former Eels players have been drafted by NHL teams, numerous alumni have advanced to the United States Hockey League, North American Hockey League and the British Columbia Hockey League, and more than 40 have made the rosters of prestigious New England prep schools.

The Florida Eels have two junior programs that play within the United States Premier Hockey League, a multi-division independent league (not affiliated with USA Hockey).

The USPHL now has a tuitionfree division. The National Collegiate Development Conference is set to compete with the long-standing Midwestern tuition-free leagues by featuring Division 1-bound players competing over the same footprint as Eastern U.S. NCAA Division 1 hockey.

The Eels have aligned themselves as affiliates of one of the most successful USPHL organizations that are joining the NCDC, the Islanders Hockey Club.

“With the new NCDC and our affiliation with the Islanders Hockey Club, we see an even greater path for player development and advancement,” said Scarpaci. “Our top Eels players will have a chance to go to the Islanders’ NCDC team for a week and practice with them and see what playing with NCAA Division 1 prospects is like. They will get a feel for the next level and get to play in a game.

“This allows us to better treat our players and give them an even greater experience, and greater exposure,” added Scarpaci.

Mission success

The Florida Eels are tireless in the execution of their goals, in terms of making their players better athletes and people, but also in terms of making sure they are seen by the maximum number of college and higher-level junior scouts.

“Athletes on our USPHL Premier and Elite teams will have the unique opportunity to play a high level of hockey across the United States, as well as participate in numerous USPHL college showcases,” said Scarpaci. “The number one goal when coming to this franchise is not only to win games, but also to develop in such a way that our players can achieve their desired placement in the next stage in their hockey career.

Jordan Court, an eight-year Eels player, was the 2016-17 team captain and is committed to Neumann University for next year. Photos by Joshua Boyd

“As an organization, we are looking for exceptional hockey athletes, players that hold themselves and their organization alike with the utmost respect,” Scarpaci
added. “They must hold the highest character and competitive level. Furthermore, our players must not only be dedicated to their position in the organization, but feel privileged to put on the same sweater as those who had the opportunity in previous years. With these qualities, we can work with each player, and the teams as a whole, to mold a well finished hockey player, and moreover, a man.”

The Eels’ youth hockey organization, which runs from Bantam to Midgets, has produced some highly-skilled players who’ve achieved much. Mario Puskarich, of Cape Coral, Fla., moved from the Eels into the USHL and the British Columbia Hockey League.

He spent the last four years with the University of Vermont, being named the Hockey East Rookie of the Year, and a member of All-Rookie Team in 2013-14.

After serving as captain in 2016-17, Puskarich finished his time with the Catamounts and signed with the ECHL’s Manchester Monarchs. He scored seven points in his first 11 pro games.

Zac Boyle immediately springs to mind as the classic Eels player. A ’96, he recently committed to Neumann University, of Aston, Pa. Neumann won the 2009 NCAA Division 3 championship.

He traveled to Fort Myers four years ago from Wichita, Kansas, to pursue his passion for the game of hockey. This spring, he walked away as the Eels’ all time leading junior scorer, with 75 goals and 96 assists for 171 points.

Clayton Boyd was “the fastest player in the USPHL Elite,” said Eels Coach Frankie Scarpaci. Boyd, a five-year Eel, was an assistant captain this season, as well as a member of the Eels’ top power play and penalty kill.

He became the epitome of the “complete player” from 2013 to 2017.

“Zac is a hard-working forward who is always first in on the forecheck and backcheck,” said Eels Premier head coach Frankie Scarpaci. “Zac scores hardworking
goals and assists consistently. He blocks shots on the penalty kill. A hulking power forward at 6-feet-2-inches, Zac truly is a force on the ice. He holds such a heavy shot, goalies tend to think they have the angle on him, but it powers its way into the back of the net. He has a really active stick defensively that allows him to strip the puck from opponents.”

“Zac has the insatiable appetite to win and that is the way the Eels play,” added General Manager Frank Scarpaci. “He is an impact player and will make his mark at Neumann University. He is a true leader on and off the ice, as evidenced by him being selected by the team as assistant captain this season. This is a young man with unwavering integrity. He comes from a very supportive family that has made enormous sacrifices for Zac to reach and realize his dreams and goals of playing college hockey.”

Scarpaci has racked up lots of frequent flier miles in spreading the word about players like Boyle.

“As GM, I travel to Boston and the Midwest every month to visit with coaches and market my players,” he said. “I send out weekly reports and bi-weekly newsletters on players and the team. I also produce video clips and YouTube sites for all of my players for easy viewing and scouting. This approach is very unique.”

The complete hockey experience

The Eels set out “Points of Emphasis” by which they are guided every day. It’s a simple and, frankly, common sense approach to the game – simple, but requiring much hard work by all involved:

• Encourage and assist players in continuing their education during and after their Eels career.
• Provide quality coaching and instruction in hockey, nutrition, fitness, strength and conditioning.
• Advise and assist in the college admissions process.
• Increase Eels players’ visibility by showcasing their hockey talents for college coaches and pro scouts.
• Develop the players’ work ethic via comprehensive training and practice regimens.
• Hone the players’ skills by providing the opportunity to play in a highly competitive environment.
• Maintain players’ amateur status as defined by the NCAA standards.
• Provide the guidance necessary for our players to mature socially and emotionally.

This approach, of course, is not just limited to native Floridians or American players, either. One of Scarpaci’s favorite success stories from this past season was having Russian Nikita Lopatin, a ’99-born forward, take the ice in an Eels jersey.

“He came here as an unknown in our league, but I knew exactly what I was getting when I recruited him,” Scarpaci said. “Our foreign scouts came up big-time once again in assisting us in bringing Nikita to the Eels.”

Lopatin finished with 52 points in 42 USPHL Elite games this past season, an Eels rookie record.

“Nikita is extremely difficult to play against,” said Coach Frankie Scarpaci. “He is quick, explosive and drives to the offensive zone. He battles so well along the boards and is never afraid to get to the dirty areas to score goals and garner scoring opportunities.”

He is also known for a hard and accurate shot.”

Within the organization, Lopatin is noted for his work ethic – he’s at the rink early every day, and he shoots about 200 pucks every day to continue to hone one of his  greatest weapons as a player.

Lopatin was just one chapter to the Eels Elite team’s greater success story. He was one of 18 new players joining the team, one that is usually veteran-heavy but was much younger and lesser experienced this time around.

“Coach Frankie Scarpaci was looking for an Eels player. A player that has heart, determination, dedication, fortitude and selflessness,” said the GM Scarpaci. “A player willing to do whatever it takes to make himself better every time he hits the ice, be it at practice, his next shift or even in the gym. Coach Frankie hates the words ‘complacency’ and ‘entitlement.’ If you are that type of player, there is no room for you on the Elite team or in the organization as a whole.”

Lopatin was joined by fellow junior rookies Jean-Simon Robidoux, Colton Crabtree, Blake Hoffman, Richard Allgood and Caden Tchop, along with newcomers with junior experience David Stonebraker, Colin Jones, Michael Gennello, Nicholas Magill-Diaz, Andrii Rusakov, Sven Nilsson and Trey Kovalick.

Boyle led the way for the Eels veterans, along with Clayton Boyd (no relation to the author), Brian Kozek, Gavin Medina, Nicholas Kotz Nolan, Greene, Jordan Court, Rajhan Munnings and Brandon Hotaling.

“The team got better. Day by day, shift by shift, game by game, weekend to weekend,” said GM Scarpaci. “The Eels once again, for the fifth straight year, topped all the Florida Division teams in the regular season standings. That is simply remarkable when you think of how many new guys were brought in.”

In the playoffs, the Eels eliminated the Tampa Bay Juniors in the playoffs, sweeping their regional rivals for the first time ever. They next went up against eventual Elite finalists the Hampton Roads Whalers. The Eels held leads in Game 1, but the Whalers came back each time and won that game and Game 2 to end a remarkable season with record performances by Boyle and Lopatin.

The Eels went to work right away to prepare for the slight change that sees the Eels’ top team become a USPHL Premier team, and the second team become the USPHL Elite squad.

The USPHL operates in 20 of the 50 U.S. states and has sent more than 500 of its players to the collegiate level and numerous others to the professional levels.

“The opportunity and visibility that is associated with the USPHL Premier Division is unmatched,” said Frank Scarpaci. “We are indeed proud of our partnership with the USPHL. The Eels will participate in numerous college showcases during the 2017-18 regular season.”

The Premier and Elite teams will often travel together next year, as the Elite players develop towards a Premier spot either in-season or down the road. The USPHL Elite team will also participate in numerous showcases that take advantage of exposure to NCAA and NHL scouts.

With more than 800 hours of training, one of the nation’s most powerful leagues, and affiliation with an organization that churns out dozens of NCAA Division 1 prospects each year, what more could a hockey player ask for?

NHL Draft Picks

Theo Ruth, University of Notre Dame
(2007 Round 2, Washington)
R.J. Boyd, Michigan State (2010 Round 7, Florida)
Cam Darcy, Northeastern U./QMJHL
(2014 Round 7, Tampa Bay)

NCAA Division 1 players

Mario Puskarich, Univ. of Vermont
Richard Boyd, Univ. of New Hampshire
Chris Rumble, Canisius College
Micah Williams, Bentley Univ.
Malcolm Lyles, Boston College/UMass-Lowell
Clay Witt, Northeastern

NCAA Division 3 Players*

Zac Boyle, Neumann Univ.
Kade Brannon, Bethel College
Jonathan Carlson, Aurora Univ.
Robert Cerepak, Colby College
Joey Colatarci, Adrian College
Jordan Court, Neumann Univ.
Andrew Douse, Plymouth State
Josh DeLezenne, Westfield State
John Drummond, Post Univ.
Daniel Filler, Milwaukee School Of Engineering
Nolan Greene, Framingham State
Mike Gennello, Framingham State
Chris James, Curry College
David Limoges, Skidmore College
Cory Lignelli, Worcester State
Colin Whitt, Worcester State
Vasili Malliaras, Finlandia Univ.
Cody Rogers, Nicholas College
Alex Sanchez, Aurora Univ.
Doss Allen, Aurora Univ.
Max Kirkwood, Aurora Univ.
Jari Sanders, Concordia Univ.
Frankie Scarpaci, Concordia Univ.
Joel Stevenson, Concordia Univ.
Bennett Schneider, Hamilton College
Matt Schneider, SUNY-Brockport
Brien Thompson, Nichols College
Chris Weiland, Castleton State Univ.
Mike Ciffeli, Castleton
Hunter Fernandez, St. Mary’s (and Oklahoma/ACHA)
Zack Mudge, Lake Forest
(and Western Michigan/ACHA)

* = includes 2016-17 Eels players who have committed to colleges

Florida Eels Contact Information:

GM Frank Scarpaci