CHESAPEAKE, VA -- Hampton Roads has placed itself on the junior hockey map as a city of champions.
In a city a few hundred miles to the north, Worcester, Mass., they made this clear on March 11. That day, the Whalers’ USPHL Premier and USPHL Elite teams won their respective league championships.
That gave the Whalers organization their sixth and seventh league championships in the 12 years of their existence since 2006.
“It was a great experience for our organization. It is very tough to do, to have two teams from the same organization winning the titles,” said Rod Taylor, head coach of the USPHL Premier team.
“I couldn’t be happier for these kids, or more proud of their effort,” added Elite head coach Brad Jones. “It was a war all year with Charlotte. Hat’s off to them, they’re a great team and a great organization, but it feels great to come out on top.”
It wasn’t just the Elite team that beat the Charlotte Rush for a championship on March 11 (5-4 in overtime). The Premier team also faced Charlotte, showing just where the power in both leagues exists – the Southeast Division.
The Premier Whalers went 7-0 through the playoffs, and the Rush went 6-1. On the Elite side, the Whalers went 7-1 and the Rush went 5-3.
“The South’s been on top,” said Jones. “Our [Elite] team alone went 16-0 against all the other divisions, and Charlotte was like that. Atlanta went 15-0. The South is strong right now.”
The South Division has won USPHL championships the last three years. Between the USPHL Elite and Premier, the Whalers have been in five of the six championship games between the two leagues.
The Premier team has made the finals each of the last three seasons, winning in 2016 and 2018. The Premier Whalers have been to the USPHL championship tournament every year since its inception. The Elite Whalers have been in the final two of the last three years.
The Premier team pulled off a huge upset on paper, judging simply by the regular season records. The Rush won the Southeast Division title by 21 points over the Whalers. Charlotte went 40-2-2 for 82 points, and the Whalers were 30-13-1 (61 points).
Taylor stressed that a lot of the Whalers’ success comes from the multidisciplinary teaching that goes on in Hampton Roads.
“We work with our players to get them better on skill sets, as we’re looking to move them up to higher levels,” said Taylor. “It’s also integrity [that we teach] – not just skill sets, but we teach professionalism, and being respectful of the game and everything else.”
In late February, during the Southeast Division playoffs, the Whalers faced the rival Carolina Eagles at Charlotte’s Xtreme Ice Center and defeated them in two, but that second game was a tight 2-1 game.
“Our [regular] season was a little rough. Our kids learned late and came together to play for one another late,” said Taylor. “With how we won that Carolina series, you could feel the energy build within our team.”
That win also qualified Hampton Roads for the USPHL Premier National Championship tournament, entering into a round robin against the Florida Division’s Tampa Bay Juniors, the Midwest Division’s Chicago Cougars and the Mid-Atlantic Division’s New Jersey Rockets.
The Whalers enjoyed clear wins over Tampa Bay (6-1) and Chicago (10-2), before running into the formidable Rockets. The Rockets held an early 1-0 lead and the teams were tied 2-2. This was not going to be a cakewalk for the Whalers, but third-period goals by ’98’s Matthew Hanchon and Brandon Osmundson helped the team to a 4-2 victory and the semifinals.
Against the Islanders Hockey Club in that game, the Whalers were again down 1-0 early, but goal-and-assist efforts from Osmundson and ’97 Kirill Romanov, and a 39-save performance by ’98 goalie Sean Dickson, gave the Whalers a 2-1 win and a finals berth.
“[In those two games], our team was faced with a challenge, and they pushed themselves to win,” said Taylor. “They fought tooth and nail to help us to that championship game, which was also a very close game. Everyone had to be focused.”
For the third straight game, the opponent scored the first goal. The Rush also held a 2-1 lead against the Whalers in the rubber match. Romanov’s second goal of the game tied it, Hanchon’s game-winner eventually sealed it, and Dickson’s 38 saves held the fort on the back end.
“I don’t know if we really had an edge. I think the team played for one another,” Taylor added. “Guys are playing for a family they belong to. Everyone played for that family to win. The closeness of the game really helped us stay together and focused on the goal at hand, which was to win.”
Like the Premier team, the Elite Whalers place a high priority on each individual’s personality, to make sure they have the right attitude for improvement, development and to help their team win.
“We want good character people representing the organization the right way,” Jones said. “We wanted talented individuals, but also players who would be open and coachable whom we could mold into a future college hockey player.”
The Elite Whalers started out with a three-game series in Charlotte against the Richmond Generals. After a 7-2 win in Game 1, they fell 4-1 in Game 2. They rebounded with a 4-1 win in Game 3 to earn their spot at the USPHL Nationals at the Beantown Classic. In the round robin, they dispatched the Jersey Hitmen in a close 4-3 game, before earning 5-1 victories over the defending champion Florida Jr. Blades and the Islanders Hockey Club.
The semifinals on March 9 pitted them against the upstart Beijing Shougang Eagles, who pulled off upsets all the way through to the semis. In the end, the Eagles were no match for the Whalers, who defeated Beijing by a 7-1 score.
In the final, the Whalers drew the all-too-familiar Rush. Recent history was not on their side.
“We were 1-5 against them in the regular season, and most were in overtime. [The final] was our fourth overtime in seven games against them,” said Jones. “We knew it would be fast and physical. It’s a bitter rivalry. Those battles with the Rush hardened us for this game.”
The Whalers took a two-goal lead, off goals by ‘99 Ty Brandt and ’97 Caelan Bolanowski, but the Rush came all the way back and then some for a 4-2 lead by the end of the second period. However, ’99 Adam Campbell and ’98 Gary Eastlack were the third period heroes for the Whalers, tying the game at 4-4 and forcing overtime.
At 5:43 of overtime, Justin Jiang (’00) sent home a pass from Tianyou Zuo (’97), an import player from China, to make Whalers history.
“It’s something we’ve been going for since the season started,” said captain Ryan Lorenz. “It’s a championship culture, and seeing all the hard work pay off, nothing beats it. We all knew we were the top two teams. It was sweet we ended up playing the final against them. We pulled it out and I’m so proud of it.”
Already, the Premier team has seen some advancement. Viacheslav Goev has signed to play pro hockey with the Watertown Wolves of the semipro Federal Hockey League.
Zach Zalar will be attending the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
The Whalers have four Utica College commits including Dickson, attending this fall. The list expands to Brandon Osmundson, John Moncovich and Jaxon Rutkowski, all of whom will attend in 2019.
Kirill Romanov, Hayden Knight and John Horn are weighing their options for their collegiate futures.
The Elite team is losing its No. 1 goalie Everett Yasinski, who moves on to Iowa State University’s ACHA squad. Zuo will join the Chinese National team. Additionally, ’97 Caelan Bolanowski and ’98 Gary Eastlack are weighting multiple college offers and will commit soon.
For the rest of the Elite team, “we look for some guys to make the jump to our Premier team, while others will be looked at to step up and fill bigger roles next season.”
Matthew Hanchon, who scored the Premier team’s game-winning goal, played for the Elite team last year.
“That’s what it’s all about, and it’s pretty darned cool,” said Jones.
“We’re just an organization committed to our players. We work with them, develop them and make them better players and better people,” Taylor added. “We want to have them understand the game, and go as far as they possibly can. We care about our players a lot and want to see them succeed, and do so with integrity and commitment to play for the logo on front and not the name on the back.”
When: May 4-6, 2018
Where: Chilled Ponds Ice Sports Complex (Chesapeake, VA)
Registration: Visit www.whalernation.com for information and online registration.