BOSTON, MA -- The merger of the United States Premier Hockey League and the Eastern Hockey Federation last summer unified the two best hockey development leagues in the East to create one “cradle to college” league where aspiring young hockey players can enjoy the game and reach their potential.
The vision of the combined groups is simple: to provided the best coaching and age-appropriate competition to generate a player experience model which is second to none.
From the youth ranks in the EHF to the tuition-free junior NCDC in the USPHL, it all comes together to show this is the best league for player development and advancement.
USPHL and EHF coaches are dedicated 100 percent to their players, and will find every resource available to make sure the player is progressing towards the ultimate goal of advancement. At some levels, that might be to the next highest Midget or Junior level, while at others, it means working towards a college hockey career.
In the tuition-free NCDC, you’ll find a coach like the New Jersey Hitmen’s Toby Harris utilizing way more than just practice time and games to make their players the best they can be.
“A week in the life of a Hitman is pretty intense,” said Harris. “We skate five days a week - Monday with our power skating coach, Friday with our skills coach, and three days of team practices. On top of that we have three team lifts a week, two yoga sessions, as well as boxing and team video. We also have synthetic ice at our arena, so quite often our players use that facility to shoot after our workouts. We spend about 22-25 hours a week training our players.”
Garrett Strot coached Minnesota high school hockey for 18 years, before becoming a junior coach, first in Tier-2 and now at the Tier-3 level with the Tampa Bay Juniors of the USPHL Premier and Elite Divisions. He talks about the detailed schedule of developing players towards their higher goals.
“Most of our games are Saturday and Sunday so Monday is a rest day,” said Strot. “Tuesdays are our high tempo on ice training days followed by off-ice. Wednesday we do a full off ice workout with sprint training, plyometrics and skill training with video after. Thursday and Friday continue with on-ice along with off-ice, and we will do some individual video.”
At the NCDC level and also in most cases at the Tier-3 junior level, players are out of school and can focus primarily on hockey. Tony Horacek, head coach of the USPHL 16U’s Palmyra Black Knights, works with a team of players who are in school for eight hours a day, but he still gives them every opportunity to sharpen their skills.
“We practice three times weekly and have a gym session once per week,” added Horacek, a former NHL and minor pro player, who learned coaching from some of the legends of the game over the past three decades.
Horacek’s past coaches include Stanley Cup champions Darryl Sutter and Ken Hitchcock, as well as other masters of the coaching craft like Andy Murray and Mike Eaves. He has learned much from these coaches, and passes that on to his players.
“Offense comes through playing great defense. Not everyone has high end offensive ability, however, everyone can play great defense and compete,” said Horacek. “We skate with purpose - no coasting gliding or drifting. The byproduct of competing the right way is development, or winning. We want to be the best every time on the ice, and it all starts in our preparation.”
Rod Taylor followed a NCAA Division 1 career at Ferris State University with an ECHL Hall of Fame career. He joined the Hampton Roads Whalers in 2014 and has since guided them to the USPHL Premier championship in both 2016 and 2018.
“I feel like my team can benefit from my knowledge of the game, so I certainly apply the things we did and even things we did not do when I played to help them develop and become better players,” added Taylor.
Taylor played for nine years under coaching legend John Brophy, second only to 14-time Stanley Cup champion Scotty Bowman in all-time professional wins.
“I would just say my big takeaway from [Brophy] was our shared passion for the game, and also trying to read your players to understand how they can best contribute to their own success as well as the team’s success,” Taylor said. “He was a coach who cared about me. He taught me to never stop competing, never stop succeeding. This is what I hope I pass on to my players.”
Speaking of Hall of Famers as coaches, the USPHL is certainly proud to count Hockey Hall of Fame Honoured Member Martin St. Louis among its coaching ranks.
St. Louis ccoaches both the 2008 Mid-Fairfield Jr. Rangers, in the EHF, and the Rangers’ split-season 16U team in the split-season EHF Selects Division. St. Louis, who has three sons in the Mid-Fairfield program, spoke highly of the EHF Selects Division during a preseason showcase in August.
“For us, coming from Connecticut, it’s a good way to get involved with some pretty good competition - obviously the talent pool in Boston, and the EHF is at the top of that.”
Rod Taylor has only been with the Hampton Roads Whalers for five years, but in that short time, he has coached the USPHL Premier to two league championships. The Whalers remain in a prime position to contend for a third this year, as well. Photo - JB
Tony Horacek is bringing knowledge from his NHL and pro career to USPHL 16U Division's Palmyra Black Knights. Photo - JB
Ben Meehan of the Boston Jr. Eagles (EHF Selects 18U Division) dons his cap as a Mass. Hockey state champion in November. Photo - JB
From Midgets to the Tier-3 junior divisions to the NCDC, this may just be the greatest year for the old adage of “anyone can beat anyone.”
Every Division has its frontrunner who appear ironclad in the majority of games, but the talent in the USPHL this year has been shining like beacon weekend after weekend, as upsets pepper each schedule.
At the same time, the USPHL has also shown how the best can really live up to that title. Out of its split-season EHF Selects Division, there are five teams moving on to the USA Hockey National Championships as Massachusetts State/District Champions.
One of these teams, the Boston Jr. Eagles, stood for several weeks as the top-ranked Tier-1 18U team in the nation according to MYHockeyrankings.com.
USPHL junior teams have also held the top rankings this season in Tier-2 (New Jersey Hitmen) and Tier-3 (New York Aviators). Martin St. Louis’ 2008 Mid-Fairfield EHF team held the top spot in the nationwide Squirt rankings as January came to a close.
Even the mighty must fall sometimes, as evidenced by the closing 18U game at the USPHL Midget Showcase in Connecticut over the Jan. 25-27 weekend. The USPHL 18U’s Springfield Pics, ranked 78th at the time, beat the No. 8-ranked Selects Academy at South Kent School team in a 2-1 OT battle for the ages.
The same weekend, the 12th-place team beat the second-place team in the NCDC, while in the USPHL Premier, the league’s winning percentage leader took a close loss to the 30th-ranked team in that category, and the No. 16 team beat No. 2 - all this in January alone.
“I have been very impressed with Year 2 of the NCDC. Every team has gotten better,” said Harris. “Every team has NCAA Division 1 caliber players on it and the parity in the league has been an upgrade on Year 1. I am really looking forward to seeing this league continue to grow and get stronger. In the NCDC, anyone can beat anyone from night to night.”
Philip Elgstam (New Jersey Hitmen -- National Collegiate Development Conference) --- Photo by Leyna Kmiechick
Springfield Pics (USPHL 18U Division) --- Photo by Joshua Boyd
“The USPHL has been improving each and every year, from the number and quality of players that are in the league,” added the Hampton Roads Whalers’ Rod Taylor.
The parity forces every player to stay on his toes and go into every game ready for a struggle for two points - this kind of pressure can only aid in the development of elite players, who learn to adapt to adversity by playing harder and drawing upon the aforementioned detailed development programs run by their teams.
The playoffs across every USPHL division promise to be a showcase for this massive drawing-upon of every ounce of energy and every tenet of hockey knowledge in a player.
In the USPHL 15U Division, the top three teams are separated by just seven points, while in the USPHL 16U’s Northeast Division, the top four teams are separated by three points.
Out of the eight divisions in the USPHL Premier Division, five are seeing chases for final playoff spots that could go down to the final weekend of the season.
Eight teams will make the NCDC playoffs, and none of the 12 teams has been eliminated, so you can bet every weekend will see upsets, split series and overall some of the best hockey on the East Coast.
Stay tuned -- playoffs begin in late February with the Midget Divisions, and he USPHL Premier and Elite will wrap up with their National Championships in March. That month, the NCDC playoffs begin, with the crowning of the Dineen Cup champion coming in late March or early April.
Now you know how strong every level of the USPHL and EHF is, and you’re wondering, “How do I get there?”
If you’re a hockey player between the ages of 3 and 20, the options for entering the USPHL and EHF are wide open.
(Ages 3 and up; varies by location)
Whether you’re looking to introduce your child to a new activity or set them on the path of a new sport, the EHF provides Learn-to-Skate and Learn-to-Play options for beginners. A number of clubs throughout New England offer skill development programs with experienced instructors to build your child’s confidence in skating and learn the fundamentals of ice hockey in a fun and active environment.
EHF Elite (Ages 7-13)
The EHF Elite division is the Eastern Hockey Federation’s top level of competition, featuring New England’s premier youth talent and full-season play. With competition stretching throughout the region, the EHF elite take on some of the best competition youth hockey has to offer. Half-season options are available for participants in the 14U division.
EHF Tier I (Ages 7-14)
Tier I is the EHF’s second level of competition, playing full seasons, developing top-tier performers from Mites to Bantams. With three tiers of competition offered, the Tier I division provides one of the deepest development models in youth hockey.
USPHL High Performance Youth (Ages 9-14)
The High Performance Youth League offers top-flight development opportunities for players in Connecticut, New Jersey and New York.
The USPHL 15U Division is a full-season Midget league with a footprint from New Hampshire through Southern New England into New Jersey, along with two Florida teams. All of the teams involved are members of organizations with teams at higher levels in the USPHL Midget and Junior Divisions, offering the chance for in-house promotion within the current season or future seasons.
The half-season EHF Selects also operates a Pure 15 Midget Division for the elite player who wants exposure to college and pro scouts, while still having the chance to play for their school teams after the EHF Selects season ends in November with USA Hockey state and district playoffs. Winners at these playoffs represent their state or district in the USA Hockey Nationals.
The Eastern Hockey Federation also operates half-season, Tier I 15U, 16U, and 18U teams with an eye on skill development.
The USPHL 16U Division is a full-season Midget league, running from late August to February. The 31 teams range over a footprint extending from Maine to Florida. This is a league that features many NCAA Division 1 commitments each year.
The EHF Selects 16U Division also offers high-level Midget competition in a split-season platform, again allowing players to finish their EHF Selects season in November and join their school team. Like the EHF Selects 15 and 18U Divisions, teams can qualify for USA Hockey Nationals through their state or district half-season playoffs.
The USPHL 18U Division is a full-season league with several teams fielded by organizations with USPHL teams at all levels – from youth to junior. The league footprint ranges from Maine to Pennsylvania. USPHL 18U is for the serious Midget player looking to play a full season of 20 or more games in front of college and pro scouts. Every year, there are players skating in the USPHL 18U who have already made NCAA Division 1 commitments or are working towards one.
The EHF Selects 18U division features many of the top-ranked split-season programs in the country, all operating within New England. Several players either already with NCAA Division 1 commitments or working toward one play in this fall league before joining their school teams. There are players from the EHF Selects on the NHL Central Scouting watch list each year, as well.
Junior Hockey: Ages 16-20
The USPHL Elite Division is the league’s developmental junior division, offering an introduction to junior hockey for those who want to climb up to Premier and NCDC teams. At the same time, several dozen players move from the USPHL Elite directly to college hockey teams every season. The league footprint of 21 teams extends from New England through the Mid-Atlantic region and down through the Southeast to Florida.
The USPHL Premier Division places more players into NCAA college hockey than any other Tier-3 program in the U.S. With 51 teams operating in 2018-19, the league offers players team options from Minnesota to Maine and south to Florida. Divisional play keeps travel to a minimum, while players also take advantage of playing in heavily-scouted showcases in Boston and Chicago, among other locales.
Founded in 2017, the National Collegiate Development Conference (NCDC) is the only tuition-free Tier-2 junior hockey league operating entirely on the East Coast, from Maine to New Jersey and western New York. Its small footprint of 13 teams for 2019-20 allows for more player development and less travel, while competing in front of college scouts every game over a 60-game season. In just two short seasons, the NCDC has already proven itself as a feeder program for the NCAA Division 1 college game.
Learn more about the USPHL and EHF at BestPlayHere.com.