The Twin City Thunder have carved out a home during their inaugural 2018- 19 season in the New England Conference of the United States Premier Hockey League’s (USPHL) Premier Division. Under the guidance of head coach Doug Friedman, the Thunder qualified for the playoffs in the strongest Tier 3 division in the nation. For the 2019-20 season, owners Ben Gray and Dan Hodge were honored to add a National Collegiate Development Conference (NCDC) team to the Twin City Thunder family. Friedman was given the reigns of the NCDC team and Alex Drulia was brought on board to guide the Premier team. So far this season, both teams have had successful campaigns and are making their mark against teams from the USPHL.
The NCDC, composed of 13 tuition-free teams, is the optimal league for players looking to pursue an education while playing college hockey. Based entirely in the Northeast region of the United States, the league boasts close proximity to NCAA schools that offer Division 1, 2 and 3 hockey. Furthermore, the shorter travel times allow players to balance on and off ice development with employment or the pursuit of early college credits. For the 2018-19 season, the USPHL had over 300 player commitments. Those players joined over 1,100 alumni who played college hockey last year.
As the state of Maine’s only NCDC and Premier members, the Thunder provides players with exposure to college scouts through a highly competitive regular season game schedule. It combines divisional and interdivisional competition at league showcases run throughout the year. These in season tournaments are held around the country, and are heavily scouted by college coaches/scouts and National Hockey League representatives.
Beyond the Game
As a junior hockey program that offers the best Tier II and Tier III player opportunities, it is the goal of the Thunder staff to get to not only move players on to college but help develop young men through giving back to the community. “We try to show our players that there is more to life than the game of hockey,” Thunder co-owner Dan Hodge says. “Sooner or later the game ends for all of us, so it’s imperative that we do our best to help our players get an education and learn life lessons along the way.”
The team has hosted multiple specialty jersey nights raising money and awareness for causes that range from Breast Cancer to Military Appreciation. The team is fortunate to have great sponsorship partners such as Spectrum Healthcare, Lewiston-Auburn Harley Davidson and US Cellular in Auburn. Their support, along with that of the community, help make these nights successful.
This past October, the Thunder hosted its second annual “Pink in the Rink” event to benefit Breast Cancer Awareness. The Thunder’s home rink, Norway Savings Bank Arena, sported a sheet of pink ice to set this year’s event apart. The night was further enhanced with a very special puck drop by local EMT Robin Wooster, who is currently in her own battle with breast cancer. What Wooster wasn’t aware of, however, was that her two children had been flown in to surprise her before the ceremony. “It was a very special moment and one I will never forget. The look on Robin’s face when she turned around to see her kids there was priceless,” Hodge said.
World Class Talent
The Thunder’s current NCDC roster is comprised of players not only from North America but also across the globe. There are players from Ukraine, Slovakia, Hungary, Mexico, Belarus, Sweden and the UK currently wearing the Thunder logo.
As well as playing along with the Nation’s Top Talent, the team had four players recently competing for their home countries in various tournaments. Forward Levente Keresztes (Hungary) and goaltender Artur Ogandzhanyan (Ukraine) participated in the U20 International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) World Championships.
Keresztes, a 6’5” 2002 forward, made the U20 team and had an outstanding showing, racking up 9 points, with 5 goals and 4 assists tying him for third on the team. Ogandzhanyan played in every game for Ukraine. He posted a .909 save percentage with a 2.37 goals against average, and a shutout. His performance garnered him the Top Goaltender of the Tournament award.
Forward Daniels Murnieks (Latvia) a 2002 forward, played in the U18 Four Nations Championship. Defenseman and Bowdoin College commit, Gonzalo Hagerman (2000), represented his home country of Mexico in the 2022 Olympic Qualifying Tournament.
Last winter, 2001 forward Lukas Skvarek represented his home country of Slovakia at the World Junior Championships, playing against powerhouse nations including the USA and Canada.
Sweden’s Oliver Rooth and Adam Svensson, along with Andrei Bartesevich of Belarus, have added a solid dynamic to the Thunder defensive corps. “Each of these guys have really stepped up their games since the start of the season. All three bring a different yet important dynamic to our group,” Head Coach Doug Friedman said. “Rooth and Svensson log a lot of minutes and quarterback one of our power play units, while Bartesevich has poise and the experience that makes him difficult for opponents to play against.”
The State of Hockey
Maine has been home to top caliber hockey programs throughout the years. The University of Maine Black Bears competes in Hockey East and has multiple NCAA Division 1 National Championships to its credit. The Twin Cities (Lewiston/Auburn) was home to the Lewiston Maineiacs as members of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League throughout the early 2000s. The return of high level junior hockey is something that the area has been thirsting for since the Maineiacs left the city of Lewiston.
Bringing the USPHL to the Twin Cities was just the right way to quench that thirst. The USPHL, which has had a consistent track record of being the league where all high level junior hockey players want to play, is now the home to the top tuition-free league on the east coast with the NCDC.
The league boasts alumni such as current NHLers Charlie Coyle (South Shore Kings) and Jack Eichel (Boston Jr. Bruins), as well as many former players who were able to get an education while playing college hockey.
While other leagues make claims about player development, the USPHL is the only league that has a proven model of player development and advancement. More players rise through the league ranks to play in the NCDC than any other league nationwide. Junior hockey players from across the country and the world have made the USPHL their league of choice.
The Thunder Culture
In its brief two year existence, the Thunder have gone above and beyond to establish itself as a main player in the USPHL, both now and in the future. The Thunder organization works hard to make sure that each player that wears the Thunder jersey has the best possible experience while in Auburn.
The teams play their games at the Norway Savings Bank Arena in Auburn, Maine. NSBA is a state-of-the-art arena and is the only dual-sheet facility in the state of Maine. The team has a dedicated locker room and uses Ingersoll Turf Facility and Orange Fitness for their off-ice workouts. The team has a full-time Skills and Goalie Coach on staff, as well as a Strength and Conditioning Coach and Equipment Manager.
GM Ben Gray explains “We want every player that pulls on the Thunder jersey to have a professional experience. We want them to have the best possible advantages to compete at the highest level on a daily basis.”
The Thunder are guided by Maine Hockey Management Group, partnered by Dan Hodge and Ben Gray. Hodge played Division 1 college hockey at Merrimack College and played 10 years of professional hockey. He serves as Director of Hockey Operations and is the full-time Skills Coach. Gray, who serves as the General Manager and Goalie Coach for the organization, also played professionally and at the college level. Joe Clark, who has coached at the Division 1 NCAA and then professionally, is the teams Senior Advisor and Goaltending Consultant.
The coaching staff is led by NCDC Coach Doug Friedman, who played professionally after a successful career at Boston University (Hockey East). Alex Drulia is in his fourth season as a Head Coach and has a tremendous track record of developing players and promoting them to the next level. Dan Condon assists the coaching staff and is the former Video Coach at the University of Maine. His video breakdown and analysis has proven invaluable this season. The entire Thunder staff prides itself on going above and beyond to promote its players by consistently communicating with college coaches about their teams.
The NCDC believes in promoting from within its ranks and developing working relationships with teams inside the USPHL. The Thunder and the NCDC believe in promoting from their Tier III teams; the proof of development in the USPHL is unparalleled. Currently, the Thunder roster boasts multiple players that saw time at the Premier level last season.
Forwards Jeromey Rancourt and Zachary Desmarais, along with defensemen Nicolas Poirier and Drew Gardner, suited up for the Thunder Premier last season. Christian Blomquist (Skipjacks Hockey Club) and Matyas Welser (Springfield Jr Pics U18) developed through the USPHL and have made an impact in the NCDC.
Friedman relies heavily on day to day talks with Premier Head Coach Drulia for player updates. Premier players are continually given the chance to practice with the NCDC team.
“We definitely take pride in giving Premier players the opportunity to practice with the NCDC team. Speaking daily with Coach Drulia, getting his input on his players, and attending Premier practices is huge for us,” Friedman said. “In any given week we can have five to ten Premier players at practice. It definitely helps us see what we have and who can step in if we have an injury or need to make a roster change.”
Along with the Thunder Premier team, the NCDC Thunder have been given affiliations with the Springfield Pics, Decatur Blaze and Metro Jets. The NCDC team has dressed 20 players from the Thunder Premier and two from the Metro Jets this season.
“Our affiliate teams are such an important part of our team’s success. Their coaching staffs are all very experienced and know what type of player it takes to play at the NCDC level,” Hodge said. “We look forward to working with and developing lasting relationships with these organizations.”
Be a Part of the Thunder
As the Thunder looks to the future, the coaching and scouting staffs are constantly searching for the next players to wear the Thunder jersey and represent the organization. The staff is actively in talks with prospects’ coaches, as well as attending games and gathering scouting reports. This past August, the Thunder held an invitation-only camp, hosting players from all over the world. The USPHL’s Spring and Summer Showcase series makes evaluations of the area’s top players more accessible to the entire staff.
“We had such a great response to our tryouts and ID camp, it proved to us that the NCDC and the USPHL is the league that the top players want to be involved with,” Hodge said. “The league takes great pride in the showcase series and it shows with the product on the ice and the number of scouts in attendance.”
As the holidays come to an end and hockey resumes, both Thunder teams are firmly entrenched in the playoff picture and are fighting for home ice advantage. With the postseason on the horizon, the teams know that points will be at a premium and each game could mean the difference of playing at home or on the road or not qualifying at all.
The players are not only focused on their next games but also on hopefully gaining a college commitment. Thunder forward, James Fisher Shea, has just recently announced his commitment to Tufts University for the fall of 2020. Forward and Assistant Captain Zach Egber has committed to Stevenson University. Defenseman Gonzalo Hagerman will be attending Bowdoin College next fall.
They join the long list of USPHL success stories that have earned their commitments throughout the league.
“While the player commitment is a big piece of what we do, we also want to make sure that our players are getting a quality education,” Coach Friedman said.
What Lies Ahead
The future is bright for Twin City Thunder as they establish a strong foothold in the state of Maine and New England area. The organization will continue to build on its competitive successes while also creating a culture by developing strong role models and well-rounded men off the ice.
The team prides itself on giving back to the community whether it be through raising money for cancer research, helping local families in need, or volunteering time to help out at a youth hockey practice. Every player that comes through the door on day one knows that he is expected to go above and beyond what has previously been expected of him.
The organization will continue to give back to the area. “From day one we have always said that this will be the community’s team and we will continue that mission going forward,” Hodge declared.
On the ice, the Thunder will continue to provide a top product at both the NCDC and Premier levels. From the owners to the coaching and sales staff, the organization has set a high standard for itself. The Thunder has an extraordinary fan base, making Auburn an ideal city for junior hockey players. The Thunder is one of the few teams in the area that get a consistent number of fans that attend their games.
Game day Operations Director Bill David and the staff are able to share ideas to create a great fan experience. “It’s definitely helpful having a staff comprised of ex pro hockey players.” David said “They have seen a lot of different promotions and we try to incorporate those ideas in our game day operations.”
The Thunder have started off on a very successful journey over the past two years and the organization knows that the best days still lie ahead. The team has a great partner in the city of Auburn and at the Norway Savings Bank Arena, as well as sponsors such as Spectrum Healthcare and US Cellular in Auburn. The league and team will continue to set the standard for junior hockey in New England while providing its players the best opportunity to advance to college. As an organization, the Thunder will continue to set itself apart through its high standards and work ethic.
The future of Thunder hockey is bright as the Thunder continues to roll through New England.