BOSTON, MA -- Doors are opening to college hockey opportunity.
From Fort Myers, Fla., to Toledo, Ohio; from Boston, Mass. to Charlotte, N.C., the USPHL Premier is living up to its well-deserved reputation for advancement to all collegiate levels as the league enters Year 6 with new teams but the same ironclad determination to serve its players and the college scouts watching them.
In September, games will start in a newly expanded USPHL Premier Division with seven geographical divisions including 53 teams. As large a league as that may seem, the divisions typically play most of their games within themselves, so the full USPHL Premier operates more like seven separate leagues.
The benefit of the larger umbrella of the USPHL Premier comes into focus when the teams play in the several USPHL Showcase Series events held throughout each season.
These include the Junior Bruins Shootout, the Islanders Hockey Club Showcase, the signature USPHL Winter Showcase and the USPHL Nationals, when the division champions get together to settle one overall champion for the USPHL Premier.
True, the league expanded, but the majority of teams are proven organizations with strong Tier-3 junior track records and college and higher-level junior advancement. Each of the six teams in the Great Lakes Division are such teams, new to the USPHL but not to junior hockey.
“We needed to tie our youth and junior programs together and this was the only way to attain that,” said Southern Tier Xpress head coach David Dorsey. “Plus, we need to get our players more exposure out East. That will allow our players to get more visibility in front of NCAA Division 1 and 3 scouts, and help improve their chances of moving on to a higher level of hockey.”
“It was a decision that our division as a whole made [to leave from our previous Tier-3 league],” said Toledo Cherokee general manager/head coach Kenny Miller. “As a group, we just felt it was in the best interest for us from a business standpoint as well as for player development. Our organization felt we would have a better chance of moving guys to Tier 2 if we went this route.”
Other teams have taken the place of departed league members or are the result of franchise ownership changes. Others, like the Twin City Thunder in Auburn, Maine, are just simply new organizations that want to take advantage of all the USPHL has to offer.
“I think we added some very strong teams in the Midwest,” said Jason McCrimmon, general manager and head coach of the Motor City Hockey Club. “That is a positive step as we grow in the right direction.”
“I think the league is getting better and better, and I think it’s becoming the clear-cut leader in advancement to NCAA Division 3 and ACHA schools,” added Richmond Generals’ GM R.C. Lyke. “I think one of the biggest focuses we’ll have as we continue to grow and add new teams, is to make sure the talent remains at a high level, and continues to rise.”
NCAA and ACHA colleges have a wealth of player sources to scout and recruit from, but they certainly keep the USPHL Premier as a top destination every year.
The USPHL Premier saw more than 200 NCAA and ACHA commitments from players skating for its 2018-19 member clubs during this past season. The vast majority of these players are moving on to NCAA Division 2 and 3 schools. The full list, which grows almost daily, is online at www.usphl.com/collegecommits.
“The USPHL does an excellent job of advancing and placing players into NCAA programs from all of their divisions,” said Jay Punsky, head coach of the Boston Bandits. “The Premier Division gives players the best of both worlds – excellent exposure to colleges and the opportunity to develop and advance to Tier 2 junior hockey and the National Collegiate Development Conference with the same organization,” added Punsky, whose Bandits field one of the 12 tuition-free NCDC teams. “The Bandits are a perfect example of what I'm trying to say. Last season, 14 players from our Premier team were offered NCAA Division 3 commitments, but only four of them accepted the offers. The remaining players plan to return to play on our NCDC team.”
Tampa Bay head coach Garrett Strot said his Juniors team sees excellent advancement every year, largely through the reputation of the USPHL and all of its divisions.
“I’ve talked to coaches from the Midwest [colleges] and they say they have to get down there to Florida. We have nine going to college from our team this year, and five are going to Midwest schools,” Strot said. “Our team last year had eight kids from Minnesota skating for Tampa Bay. These players are coming to Florida because they know about the team and the program we run, and they know they will still get the exposure they’re looking for.”
“The USPHL continues to head in the right direction and build momentum, showcasing student-athletes,” added New Jersey Rockets head coach Tim Halewicz. “The Premier Division's record of advancement to NCAA is the proof of the USPHL's success. We had eight NCAA commitments, including Cole Sanderson going to Babson in the fall. We continue to push our players to competitive NCAA programs.”
No other single junior league in the United States has as many individual steps, with the top being tuition-free hockey that is scouted by NCAA Division 1 and even NHL scouts.
USPHL players can start at the 16U Futures Division, and work their way up through the Midget 16 and 18 levels, while the junior level tiers begin with the Elite, working up to the Premier and ultimately to the NCDC.
Within the Premier Division, there is the exclusive Affiliate Program, in which each NCDC team is paired with two to three Premier teams. As aforementioned, some Premier teams are within organizations that field NCDC teams, but these NCDC teams also reach out to teams from the outside to offer unprecedented in-season opportunities.
Affiliate teams can send two to three players each season to their NCDC teams for practices and, if these Premier players impress their NCDC affiliate coaches, they will see game action. At worse, these players get their names in the books for future season consideration.
“We work with John Gurskis, of the South Shore Kings, and he just came out to Detroit in mid-April to run a joint camp, which was very successful,” said McCrimmon. “Two guys from our Motor City team last year are going to their main camp.”
“The program and the players are very excited about the Affiliate Program,” added the Xpress’ Dorsey. “This will give them an in-season chance to get a call-up and measure their ability against higher caliber players.”
The Tampa Bay Juniors had a chance to work with both the Kings and the Northern Cyclones.
“It worked well for us,” Strot said. “We had a player who played for the South Shore Kings [captain Ryan Vlaisavljevich] and he was a candidate to stick with their squad. He went there because of that affiliation.”
“This was another big reason we decided to join the USPHL,” added the Toledo Cherokee’s Kenny Miller. “Anytime you can get a player called up and he gets an opportunity to go up to the NCDC and show that coaching staff his skills is not only a bonus for the player but for the entire organization.”
Teams like the Bandits and Rockets, with NCDC teams in-house, certainly like being able to use the Premier Division as a proving ground en route to that higher division.
“The Premier / NCDC affiliate structure fosters healthy competition within the ranks and the opportunity for advancement,” said the Rockets’ Halewicz. “Last season, Casey Sottanella started with the Premier team and moved up to NCDC in November, earning a spot for the rest of the season. At least 14 players were given the opportunity to play at least one NCDC game.”
Overall, Lyke hopes the USPHL Premier as a whole can work even better to move their 19-year-old and younger players towards the next level of junior hockey – that might be in the NCDC, in another U.S. league or even north in Canada.
“I would like to see our Premier programs as a whole commit to advancing kids to higher levels of juniors just as they have committed to sending them on to college hockey,” he added.
During the season, you might see the Boston Bandits play the Toledo Cherokee, the Tampa Bay Juniors play the New Jersey Rockets, or the Motor City Hockey Club play the Richmond Generals.
That doesn’t mean the bussing costs will go sky high or they’ll be flying this, that and the other direction. The USPHL is smart in its scheduling, keeping the lions’ share of games within the seven divisions, but scheduling three to four league games every couple months in the Showcase Series.
Taking out one team’s schedule as an example, the Boston Bandits played a New England Division vs. Mid-Atlantic Division Showcase in October. In November, they faced three teams from the Southeast Division in the Islanders Hockey Club Showcase. In the January Winter Showcase, they faced three more Mid-Atlantic Division foes.
“The USPHL's goal is to limit travel and time missed from school. As a result, the schedule is very friendly to the players. It allows them more time to focus on schoolwork, on-ice skill development and off-ice training,” said the Bandits’ Punsky.
“It is our hope that the USPHL will continue, and perhaps expand, their showcases,” Punsky added. “It’s an excellent way for scouts to see multiple teams under the same roof.”
“I think the schedule is solid and gives our players an opportunity to play in a lot of different places in front of a lot of different schools,” added the Motor City Hockey Club’s McCrimmon. “We played in Chicago twice last year, and we went to Boston [for the Islanders Showcase]. We were also very fortunate to go to Boston again as we made it to the USPHL Nationals. We talked to a lot of NCAA and ACHA schools at these showcases, and as a result, we’re moving seven players on to college hockey.”
The Southern Tier Xpress are grateful to not only have the chance to participate in the USPHL Showcase Series, but to have been placed within a division featuring their familiar foes from their previous league.
“I expect the same high level of competition that we’ve had in the past with those teams,” Dorsey said. “We expect it to be a battle every night, and the Showcases will provide elite competition for our players.”
“Hopefully, our team will get maximum exposure since we’re going from one showcase in our old league to three showcases in the USPHL,” added the Cherokee’s Miller.
Tampa Bay’s Strot loves the opportunity to play teams from all over the USPHL footprint. One thing he would add to the Showcase Series is more ceremony and fanfare.
“Maybe they can add more announcing the kids, maybe starting lineups, just a little more atmosphere for the players,” Strot added. “These showcases are huge for the league to get scouts to come to one place and see all the teams.”
It’s not long now before the USPHL 2018-19 schedule is announced across all levels, including the Showcase Series. Halewicz and the New Jersey Rockets will be waiting and looking forward to another year of fun, development and advancement in America’s single largest junior league.
“The USPHL Premier schedule works very well,” added Halewicz. “Not only are there showcases in the Northeast, mainly Massachusetts and New Hampshire, where it is convenient for many NCAA programs to scout, but there is also the opportunity to head west.”
Kyle Wadden (‘97) was a member of the 2017-18 Steele County Blades, and he is headed for the NCAA Division 3 Morrisville State College. Photo by Joshua Boyd
The Tampa Bay Juniors finished first in the Florida Division in 2017-18, with Minnesotan Zack Puterbaugh (‘00) putting together a strong season up front. Photo by Joshua Boyd
Marko Cohen (‘99) and the Boston Bandits put together a strong 26-15-5 season in the USPHL Premier in 2017-18. Cohen earned a call-up to the NCDC Bandits last season, as well. Photo by Joshua Boyd
Colin Philippon (‘99) carries the puck for the Boston Junior Bruins. Photo by Joshua Boyd