FORT MYERS, FL -- There are many reasons why a New Jersey native will leave the hockey-rich Northeast Corridor of the U.S. to play junior hockey for four years in Fort Myers, Fla. And Jared Figueroa is happy to list all of these reasons that he is a proud Florida Eel.
“Definitely the training aspect, we’re on the ice five days per week and with games on the weekends,” said Figueroa, a ‘99-born resident of Scotch Plains, N.J. “I personally love the USPHL and traveling to the showcases, where you have to give 110 percent every game because you never know who’s watching you.
“And the Scarpaci family are such wonderful people - they will help out anyone who needs it. Miss Clare [Scarpaci] makes the most wonderful food for us. Everyone’s a big family, regardless of whether you play Premier or Elite,” Figueroa added. “The training, the rink atmosphere, the weather - I love it all.”
The Eels were founded in 2001 by Frank Scarpaci, a longtime hockey administrator who grew up in the Boston area and was later president of the governing body for amateur hockey in Florida.
“What we always present with the Eels is, No. 1, our ability to advance players to college hockey,” said Scarpaci, still owner and general manager of the two junior teams. “You cannot put the cart before the horse - getting players to college hockey is predicated upon training.”
Surveying programs of similar levels across the country, Scarpaci said that the Eels’ training regimen is largely unmatched, as they offer more than 600 hours of on-and off-ice training per season. That breaks down to more than four hours per day five days per week, not including each team’s 44 league games or the 12 additional scrimmage/exhibition games against college teams that the Eels add to their schedule.
“Most programs train three days a week, maybe four days in the first month,” said Scarpaci. “But whether you want to be the best cellist, pianist, tennis player or hockey player, you have to train harder and longer than anyone else.”
Scarpaci modeled the Eels’ training program on the U.S. National Team Development Program. It’s not just the five days of on-and off-ice work the players do that has driven the Eels to more than 250 college advancements.
“Take the video training, and the fact that we reach out to college coaches who fly down to see our practices, not even just our games,” said Scarpaci. “When we’re doing all of this, the college coaches see that we’re doing more.”
On top of what is listed above for training, Frank Scarpaci and his son/ Premier head coach Frankie Scarpaci will have players on the Premier/Elite bubble skate up to improve their position within the organization’s depth chart.
Gage McNeish, an ‘01 defenseman from Summerville, S.C., saw 14 games with the Elite team last year before adding 30 more with the Premier squad.
“I feel like I’ve progressed pretty well. I’m playing faster with the puck, making faster decisions, and I’ve just become an all-around better player from our coaches,” said McNeish. “For my first full season with the Premier team, I’ve been working on my speed, and trying to be a little quicker, and I’m getting stronger for sure. Probably the way I’ve progressed the most is through the workouts in the gym.”
Frank Scarpaci’s No. 1 mission is to train hockey players towards a bright future in college hockey. That, to him, doesn’t mean moving up to a team at a given level where that player will sit in the press box or keep stats while his peers are on the ice. If it means playing more for perhaps an ACHA team while getting a top-notch education, Scarpaci will advise his players on the best path for them with education as the No. 1 driver.
“Everything we do - and I work year- round to find the right players - is to get a certain culture of kid who wants to play hockey at the best college he can get into, educationally,” said Scarpaci. “If you become a 50-goal scorer in this [USPHL Premier] league, the NCAA Division 1 schools will come looking for you.”
He tells the story of a player who was looking to move on to college and he had a New England Division 3 school team seeking his services, along with New York University, which runs an ACHA program.
“This kid wants to be an engineer, and I told him, ‘you don’t go [to the Division 3 school] when you have New York University - one of the best universities in the country - on your plate,’” said Scarpaci. “I told him straight up, ‘your life will be irrevocably changed if you go to NYU. He told me later I was like a second Dad to him, and he thanked me for helping him make the right decision to go to NYU. It’s not just coming from me, as I’ll bring in an academic advisor to talk to these players for another educated opinion.”
Scarpaci highly values the NCAA schools, but only if they are the right fit academically for the individual player with whom he is working. Along with talking to players to nail down the right fit, he also reaches out to NCAA and ACHA coaches to ask what are they looking for, and to hear scouting reports on his players.
“I’m constantly trying to find what they need. I send an Eels newsletter to every single NCAA and ACHA coach, and I can’t tell you how many of these teams have called me and said ‘I watch your games, and I like this player and this player,’” said Scarpaci.
“Frank definitely is the best at working to find a college for you,” added McNeish. “He offers all these scholarships for us, and gets these college teams to watch us and talk to us, so they can definitely recruit us. He’s good at that. Last year, I talked to a couple colleges, one each after our two showcases.”
“Age-wise, this will be my last season, so absolutely, the college search right now is going really well,” Figueroa said. “I’m studying with Frank and Clare’s daughter Nicole on SAT Prep, and I’ll be taking classes this season at Hodges University here in Fort Myers.”
Scarpaci said that the tuition fees he collects for the Eels go right back into making the organization - and by association, the players - better.
“I spend the money to improve our players, whether it’s through advanced analytics, the great homemade food that is cooked amazingly well by Clare, the nice CCM gloves, those little extras. And it’s for everyone, Premier and Elite,” said Scarpaci. “We pride ourselves on treating every player equally regardless of which team they are playing for. If you don’t, then you’ve failed in your development model.”
The Florida Eels have the training, college placement experience and family atmosphere that have worked wonders for more than 250 players and many more to come in future seasons.