GLEN ALLEN, VA -- As Jack Zielinski prepares for another season on the ice for Niagara University, he can always look back and smile at his time on the ice in his hometown of Richmond, Va.
“I loved my time there. Being a local guy from Richmond, it’s not a very big hockey market, but if I hadn’t played for the Richmond Generals, I wouldn’t have the opportunities that I have now,” said Zielinski, heading into his sophomore season for the NCAA Division 1 program. “[General manager/head coach] R.C. Lyke works really hard to get you those looks and get you to the next level, and he puts it up to you to put in the hard work.”
Zielinski was on board for the Generals’ first team in the USPHL, back in 2014-15. He moved on to higher junior levels in the U.S. and Canada before joining Niagara. It’s a story that R.C. Lyke loves telling, as it illustrates the work ethic by both players and the Generals staff to send them on to the highest level each player can reach.
“We have some of the top numbers in the country in college and next level junior advancement,” said Lyke, whose Generals are now in their eighth year of existence. “We have had 155 commitments to NCAA Divisions 1, 2 and 3, Canadian university hockey and ACHA Division 1 and 2. That makes an average of 21 players per year that move on to the college level from our program.”
The Generals have also seen 13 players from their organization play pro hockey in the last eight years. Tyler Weiss, a former youth player for the Generals, was drafted by Colorado in the 2018 NHL Entry Draft.
That program includes Mite through Midget hockey, as well as the two USPHL junior teams at the Premier and Elite levels.
“We do have guys on our Premier team who came up through the youth ranks. Every year, we get two or three players who either played right through or left then returned for junior hockey,” said Lyke.
Several players that came up through the Generals’ system have moved on to the junior teams, including Stefan Owens, a ‘00 out of Midlothian, Va. He is in his third year with the Generals’ junior program, and his first as a full-time member of the Premier squad.
“I just like the level of hockey, it’s a good league,” said Owens, whose older brother Stian played for the Generals and advanced to the Milwaukee School of Engineering. “A lot of kids go on to colleges from here, you’re on the ice every day and the coaches work with you both as a team and as an individual.”
Forward Adam Krofchalk and goalie Jared Cable are two other 2000-born players who came up through the Generals youth ranks and are now with the Premier team.
Stefan had seen Stian growing into a better player for the Generals, and the family was more than willing to sign both brothers up with the Richmond squad.
“I watched Stian working hard in practice every day, and every once in a while while I was with the Elite team, R.C. would let me skate up with the Premier team,” said Stefan. “It’s a family atmosphere here for sure. R.C.’s always good about getting people involved, and bringing everybody together, between both teams."
“It’s our setup that we have, our Generals family,” Lyke added. “We have a great owner, a great coaching staff and a great support system for our team. We have billet families, a booster club, and all the people that work to help me make the program what it is. There is a network of friends and people who care about the program.
“When you come to the Generals,” he added, “our No. 1 goal is to develop players to be successful in life - that includes on the ice, in the classroom, in the community. Our ultimate goal is to develop strong men with high moral fiber.”
Like his brother, Stefan wants to eventually play in college, but is more focused on this year and potentially advancing to a higher level of junior hockey next year.
“I really want to play in the NCDC [the USPHL’s tuition-free tier of junior hockey] or Tier-2 somewhere, but I have to get through this year first,” Owens added.
Wherever he does move on to, he has a great chance of someday wearing a leadership letter on his jersey.
“We keep track of players who move on to next level teams and become captains, and that number is 21,” Lyke said. “That speaks volumes to what we’re trying to do with the kids.”
The Generals have also had a lot of international talent, and those players have succeeded to the point where they’ve represented their countries at different levels of the World Junior Championships. This includes players from the U.S., Italy, Lithuania, Spain, Japan and Latvia.
A big reason why players are moving on to higher levels, becoming captains and/or representing their countries on the ice is the commitment by the staff to market their players.
“R.C. seems like he has the most connections I’ve ever seen,” said Zielinski, at Niagara. “He structures his program very similar to how you will see it at the next level.
“He keeps you prepared for a normal day in the life in one of those leagues that everyone tries to get to.”