BOSTON, MA -- A select few will develop in other ways – they will become better leaders, able to rally teams when they’re down and keep their teammates firing on all cylinders in the good times. Learning to be a captain is a skill that these players can take beyond the USPHL – into college hockey, or even beyond that, into the working world.
Sometimes, players are born captains and there’s no hesitation on the part of their coaches to have that “C” stitched on their jerseys. For others, their coaches might see a spark of leadership that even the player himself didn’t know was there.
The latter was the case for Jack Thornton, the captain of the USPHL Elite Division’s Eugene Generals.
“Starting off, I wasn’t really sure if I was captain material. For the most part, I was one of the players that sat back and just listened to everybody and did my own thing,” said Thornton, a ’99 who lives in Eugene, Ore., the USPHL’s westernmost market. “As I got a couple weeks into it, being able to lead a team across the country and play some good teams, I knew I really had a love for the game. As a captain, I can help develop that love for the game [in my teammates] that the Eugene Generals have helped me develop.”
For other players, they brought captaincy experience with them to the USPHL, and they are continuing to practice that leadership and further hone it for the future.
Former Taft School captain Drew Hickey is now a co-captain alongside Devon Schell for the Connecticut Jr. Rangers of the National Collegiate Development Conference.
“It’s a little different – at prep school, there were a lot more off-ice activities, but playing juniors, it’s strictly hockey,” said Hickey. “When the team is playing bad, the coaches look to you to get the guys going. It’s difficult to find the right way to word things. When you need the goal or a big hit or big play, you have to stay positive.
“Sometimes you have to raise your voice and get angry,” Hickey added. “Every guy responds differently.”
Spenser Burns wears the “C” for the 18U New Jersey Rockets, and like Hickey, he continues to develop as a captain after previously holding an assistant captaincy role at the Bantam Major level.
“I feel a lot more confident now than I did back then. I believe I fill the role better now,” said Burns. “A captain in hockey leads by example. They go out there and they get the team going. They pick teammates up when they get down and they always support their teammates on and off the ice. To me, being a captain is a very important role to fulfill. You have to be able to work with everyone on the team, while challenging and pushing yourself to be the best you can.”
“It’s special. It’s fun being able to be a role model for some of the new guys,” added Kevin Kaufman, captain of the South Shore Kings in the USPHL Premier.
Kaufman is another in the line of players who previously served as an assistant captain, with Medway (Mass.) High School.
Each one of these above-mentioned players, however, certainly had one thing in common. They all want to play college hockey, and they all saw the USPHL as the best place to make that dream happen.
“I was at prep school, but I knew I wanted to play juniors and I wanted to play near home,” said Hickey. “Last year, I played on the [Rangers USPHL Premier] team with Coach Vinnie [Montalbano]. This year, with the Rangers going tuition-free, I didn’t even think about leaving.”
Hickey and Schell are helping the Jr. Rangers put together a winning campaign in the NCDC, going 22-14-3 as of Jan. 26. He sees the NCDC as a big step up both from prep school hockey and last year’s USPHL Premier.
“The pace of play is definitely a lot faster than prep school. I think I’m definitely an all-around better player from the USPHL than I was in prep school,” said Hickey.
Kaufman loves how the USPHL offers many avenues – at the junior level, players could try for the NCDC, the Premier or the Elite levels.
“It’s an opportunity for everyone. Whether you’re a junior rookie or a veteran, you’re going to have a spot,” said Kaufman. “There’s always a great level of competition each year in the USPHL. If you’re trying to move on in juniors, or trying to get into college for the next year, it’s a very good, well-rounded league.”
Kaufman played a full season in his first year after high school, left for a different league the year after that, but knowing the quality of the Kings and the USPHL, he came back and he certainly has not regretted that decision.
Jack Garland, the captain of the South Shore Kings’ 16U team, has also been very appreciative of the chance to play within the USPHL development model.
“It’s really good, I like it a lot, it’s great working with Edge Performance Systems,” said Garland. “I’m definitely pushing hockey as far as I can go. I definitely want to go to college.”
Garland also chimed in on thoughts on captaincy, after a two-goal game on the big stage of the USPHL Winter Showcase.
“It’s nice. I like it. It’s a lot of responsibility, but I can handle it,” said Garland.
The Rockets’ Burns has loved the opportunity to play with “a lot of high-level players” in the 18U Division, and the parity.
“Any team can beat any team on any given day. It’s a great league,” said Burns. “It’s fast-paced and very physical.”
The camaraderie formed from a whole group of young players with their eyes on doing more in their career has been very impressive to Burns.
“These are the best kids I’ve had the pleasure of playing with. It’s not really a team. We are more of a family,” said Burns. “When my back was against the wall coming into this season, all of these guys were there for me. I’ve enjoyed every second playing with these guys and I’ll never forget this team.”
The USPHL experience is very different for Thornton, as USPHL play is only a half of the Eugene Generals’ schedule. He’s disappointed that the Generals can’t qualify for the USPHL playoffs, but is grateful for the opportunity to play in such scout-heavy events as the USPHL Winter Showcase.
“We went there last year and it was good for the first time to be playing those East Coast teams,” Thornton said. “It’s definitely a different level of play. Even though it was Tier-3, everybody’s so much more focused. I personally enjoyed it a lot, being able to battle for a puck with a guy who could be twice your size.
“We’ve been playing a lot of different games outside the USPHL, against college [ACHA] teams and Midget teams,” Thornton added. “There are a bunch of different skills that you can compare to your own, and when you’re trying to develop, that aspect of it is good.”
Through all of these different games the Generals play, it’s down to Thornton as captain to keep every player focused on playing as a team.
“The only challenging part is you have guys who sometimes want to do their own thing,” he added. “Being a captain, you have to preserve that idea that to be a good hockey team, you have to play as a team. Hockey is a sport where, if you want to be good, you have to preserve and uphold that idea.”
Kaufman likes that aspect of captaincy where he gets to know all of his teammates better, and gets to know what they want to do down the road.
“It’s definitely interesting and cool to watch where the guys want to go,” said Kaufman. “You want to help them get their game up to a higher level and work with them after or before practice on things, whether it’s shooting or something else, skill-wise. You want to help them out with those things.”
As Burns approaches the stretch drive towards the Midget playoffs in February, he looks back fondly on that first feeling of knowing he’d wear the “C” for the Rockets.
“My coach told me at a tournament during the summer and I was excited and nervous,” Burns said. “I knew it would be a big year for everyone on the team, and I was just happy I could lead them.”
Top photo caption: Connecticut Jr. Rangers (NCDC) captain Drew Hickey talks to the linesman after a call during the 2018 USPHL Winter Showcase in Marlboro, Mass. Photo by Joshua Boyd
Jack Thornton, captain of the Eugene Generals (USPHL Elite), battles behind the net against the Beijing Shougang Eagles in Marlboro, Mass., on Jan. 7. Photo by Joshua Boyd
Spenser Burns is the captain for this season’s 18U New Jersey Rockets team. Courtesy Photo / New Jersey Rockets
Kevin Kaufman blisters a shot on goal against the Boston Bandits during a USPHL Premier league game at the USPHL Winter Showcase. Photo by Joshua Boyd