The Doorway In: USPHL Premier, Elite Leagues give fine introduction to junior hockey

On any given weekend, pucks will drop in Chicago, in Palm Beach, in Boston and in Eugene, Ore. These games will all count towards the standings for the USPHL Premier and USPHL Elite leagues.

By Joshua Boyd

A truly nationwide junior circuit, the two developmental junior leagues are working to prepare players for many possibilities. Some might move on to the National Collegiate Development Conference, the USPHL’s tuition-free top division. Others may earn college spots at the NCAA Division 3 level, and still more will work their way towards spots with American College Hockey Association teams.

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Matthew Jahn is skating this year with the Syracuse Jr. Stars’ USPHL Premier team, a feeder squad for the Stars’ NCDC team. He is a two-year veteran of the USPHL circuit, having played two seasons ago for the Atlanta Jr. Knights in the former USP3 Division. Last year, he skated with the Skipjacks Hockey 18U team.

“[The USPHL Premier] has definitely gotten better, and a lot more people are drawn to it,” said Jahn. “The league has a lot of guys like me who came for the NCDC, but we dropped down because the NCDC has such a high level of skill. Everyone just wants to get to the top, and I’m working my way towards the NCDC.”

The Premier Division this year features 44 teams, with a majority located along the Eastern Seaboard, but with two divisions of Midwest teams.

“I think the Premier is a pretty tough league. Anyone can beat anyone,” said Atlanta Jr. Knights Premier head coach Kevin St. Jacques. “It’s consistency that will bring the top teams to the top.”

There are 25 teams operating at the USPHL Elite level this season.

From what was, in 2016-17, the USPHL Elite Division, there are 28 players that have played NCDC games this season through Sept. 29. Nine others that played in last year’s USP3 Division have advanced to the NCDC this season, as well.

USPHL Premier,USPHL Elite,USA Junior Hockey

Simon Fitzgerald (‘01) skates for the Jersey Shore Whalers team in the USPHL Elite Division.

“When you create a league and a framework, for young players to develop and advance, well that’s what it’s all about,” said one USPHL Premier and Elite owner that asked to have his name withheld. “A young player comes to our program with college aspirations, plays through the USPHL pipeline, and is succeeding at the Premier level. He will certainly get college opportunities as a result. That’s what the USPHL is doing for young players – giving them a path.”

Within the tuition leagues of the USPHL, there is advancement happening as well. Moving up from last year’s USP3 Division to this year’s USPHL Premier, 177 players moved up the ladder to within one division of the heavily-scouted NCDC.

“We’ve definitely stepped our game up. Our new coach Bobby [Goepfert, a former Hobey Hat Trick finalist with St. Cloud State] recruited a lot of 18U players and from junior leagues across the country,” said the Stars’ Jahn.

The USPHL Premier and Elite Divisions have given opportunities to develop players in so-called “non-traditional markets.”

Last year’s USPHL Elite champion was the Charlotte Rush, while the Florida Jr. Blades captured the USP3 title last year. Eight players from the 2016-17 Rush advanced to NCAA Division 3 rosters for this season (keeping in mind that not all NCAA Division 3 teams have announced final rosters for the 2017-18 season as of late September). Two more former Rush players are now skating in the NCDC.

Four former Blades are now on NCAA Division 3 rosters, one (goalie Cayden Bailey) is now tending goal in the NCDC and nine more have moved up to the USPHL Premier Division.

“Our USPHL Elite team is traditionally all 16-and 17-year-olds,” said the Knights’ St. Jacques. “I don’t recruit nationally for my Elite team, but we do try to recruit local players.”

“The [USPHL] creates a framework for member programs to base their player development models around their individual resources, geographic location, and financial capability,” added the aforementioned owner who asked his name be withheld. “They have been fair and very supportive to our program. We have had good seasons and bad ones, but through it, they try to help us be successful. Successful teams create a successful league. And as Richard Gallant said at least once, ‘success is measured in lots of different ways, not just wins and losses.’”

That owner said that the league has also “instituted competition standards this summer that will make sure programs are doing everything they can to develop and advance players.”


Read past USPHL articles in our archives:

National Collegiate Development Conference Fires Up

USPHL Midget Divisions give young players first shot at national spotlight