By Joshua Boyd
Buses pulling up, buses pulling away. The central corridor between several dressing rooms a bustle of players, coaches, equipment bags and sticks.
Scouts from levels ranging from the NHL to all NCAA divisions to Canadian major junior teams watching games intently, pens and notebooks in hand.
This was the scene at the 2017 edition of the Boston Junior Bruins Shootout at the immense New England Sports Center in Marlboro, Mass. It was not the opening of the National Collegiate Development Conference, but it brought a similar level of excitement as it was the first of many times this season that the entire NCDC will gather under one roof.
The NCDC is the top, tuition-free level of the multi-tiered USPHL, which extends through two further junior divisions and three midget divisions. The USPHL also organizes youth hockey divisions in its High Performance Youth leagues, running from birth years 2003 through 2007, providing a “Cradle to College” path for players.
Mike Anderson, head coach of the host Junior Bruins’ NCDC team, said the final tally of scouts from the Junior Bruins Shootout counted more than 140.
“I think it speaks to the depth of the USPHL,” said Anderson. “The scouts were there for various reasons, with programs attracting scouts who will watch specific players. Up and down the board, there are various reasons forthat many scouts to be there – there is something in the USPHL for everyone.”
This first year, the NCDC is already showing its depth and parity as, after all teams had played at least three games (and some teams have played as many as six as of Sept. 29), all teams had at least one league victory.
“Before we even dropped the puck, everyone was in agreement that team depth and overall league depth would improve” from last year’s top tier, the USPHL Premier. “You have to bring your ‘A’ game or else you are going to lose,” said South Shore Kings head coach John Gurskis.
The Kings were right in the middle of the standings with a 3-1 record.
Although they had only played three games at press time, the defending Dineen Cup champion Islanders Hockey Club started out 3-0. They had outscored their opponents, 13-2.
The host Junior Bruins (5-1) put on a great show as hosts of the Shootout, going 2-1 and featuring a close 2-1 battle against the New Jersey Hitmen.
“We feel like we have a good mix of guys who have played either in our program already, or have junior experience,” said Anderson. “Look at us six to eight weeks from now, and we hope some of the guys who are first-year guys are going to take another step forward and get themselves to a point where they are impact players consistently.”
Anderson believes that Dutch import Guus Van Nes will be one of the NCDC’s earliest success stories.
“We believe he is arguably, if not the best forward in the league, then among a handful of top forwards in the league,” added Anderson. “I believe he’ll be committed in early October.”
New Jersey eventually got the victory in that showcase showdown with the Junior Bruins and stood at 4-1 overall.
The P.A.L. Jr. Islanders were at 3-1- 0-1 overall. Michael Krupinski, a 2000- born defenseman, is excited about the potential for both the league and his own future, through playing in the NCDC.
“I think it’s great, and it’s fun to play in, with me being a younger guy playing against older players, and getting recruited by colleges,” said Krupinski.
Krupinski is a product of the USPHL’s tier system of promotion, having played last year with the Richmond Generals in the USP3 Division, this year’s USPHL Elite.
“I was at my billet family’s house last year when I heard about the NCDC,” added Krupinski. “When I saw it was going to be tuition-free, I saw that the USPHL is really trying to make it like the nation’s other [tuition-free] leagues, and recruiting some of the top players.”
He credited head coach Dan Marshall for being one of the main reasons he joined the P.A.L. Jr. Islanders.
Marshall coached the AHL’s Bridgeport Sound Tigers for six years, after previously serving as the New York Islanders’ Director of Player Development. Krupinski is in good hands with Marshall, who helped mold a young Zdeno Chara into one of the NHL’s best defensemen. His resume speaks to the coaching expertise the USPHL attracts.
“He has a really good background in hockey, he knows the game well andhe’s just overall a great coach,” said Krupinski.
The P.A.L. Jr. Islanders, the Kings and the Syracuse Jr. Stars were all tentatively tied with six points apiece, having just one win a piece. The Connecticut Jr. Rangers stood at 2-1.
The Boston Bandits, Northern Cyclones, New Jersey Rockets and Rochester Jr. Monarchs, as aforementioned, all had at least one league win in the early going.
“It’s a good league, every team is competitive and there’s a lot of skill across the board,” said Sean Cromarty, head coach of the Rockets, a new member organization in the USPHL this year. “It’s a major step up [for us], in terms of competitive balance, the level of talent. Across the board, you can check off all the boxes. We are still adjusting, with some younger guys finding their way a little bit.”
While the players are finding their way and picking up their game to match the new level of competition, the NHL and college scouts will continue to file through the door, especially after such an early showcase of all the league’s levels at the Junior Bruins Shootout.
“This time of year is always important because your scouts are obviously going to go where the players are,” said the Bruins’ Anderson. “It was important to get everybody’s attention in that sense. In Eastern U.S. junior hockey, the top programs are always able to get the scouts out to see our players. The level of interest for some of the kids they’re coming out to watch is a little bit higher than in the past.”