Hometown Heroes: USPHL’s footprint offers players opportunity to stay home, develop within elite framework

There are players who will cross oceans to play in the United States Premier Hockey League. There are players who will cross the continent of North America.

By Joshua Boyd

And there are some who just have to cross town from their front door. The USPHL’s three junior divisions and two midget divisions are so well laid out that players from locales across the U.S. can play high-level hockey right in the same zip code as their own bed.

George Sennott,Islanders Hockey Club,USPHL,USA Junior Hockey

George Sennott returned from British Columbia to his hometown of North Andover, Mass., to play with the NCDC’s Islanders Hockey Club this season. Courtesy Photo / Islanders Hockey Club

“That’s kind of what sold me,” said George Sennott, a North Andover, Mass., native playing for the Islanders Hockey Club team in the National Collegiate Development Conference. The Islanders are also located in North Andover, on the campus of Merrimack College.

“I knew this year would be a big step forward for the USPHL,” added Sennott, who scored 15 points in his first 27 NCDC games this season. “I knew a lot of guys would be coming back home, and I knew it would be much more competitive than previous years.”

Sennott is not alone in choosing to live at home while developing within the USPHL framework of high-intensity training and games with limited travel.

You will also hear from Coon Rapids, Minn., native and Minnesota Blue Ox forward Colton Ryan; Charlotte, N.C., native and captain of the Elite Charlotte Rush, John Barrett; Clifton Park, N.Y., native and 18U CP Dynamo standout Brendan Fess; and 16U New Jersey Hitmen blue chip prospect T.J. Schweighardt, a native of Wayne, N.J.

A true Islander

Sennott is proudly wearing the lighthouse of the Islanders Hockey Club, but last year, he was on a real island, one more than 3,000 miles from his front door.

Sennott came back to the USPHL after a year with the British Columbia Hockey League’s Cowichan Valley Capitals, located on Vancouver Island. Having also played for Kimball Union Academy in Meriden, N.H., Sennott has never had a problem with living away from home to play hockey.

He also knows a good opportunity for development when he sees it, and if it’s “down the street,” that’s all the better.

“I don’t really get homesick,” said Sennott. “I’ll go where I need to play against a lot of good players. When I heard about the new NCDC, and the Islanders Hockey Club being part of that league, it was a no-brainer.”

Sennott was certainly attracted to the tuition-free junior model, as well as skating against the high amount of NCAA Division 1-committed players across the NCDC.

“I think I’ve definitely been getting a lot better, extending my game to a 200-foot game,” said Sennott. “The Islanders and the NCDC are making me better all around, and it’s getting me ready for the next level, college.”

“George has been great for us all season,” said Islanders Hockey Club head coach Sean Tremblay. “A relentless work ethic and love of the game allows him to be an effective and necessary player each day. He is phenomenal on the penalty kill and leads by example. A true team player, we can’t do what we do as a team without players like George Sennott.”

Sennott has come full circle in his hockey career. He played for the former Middlesex Islanders (now the Islanders Hockey Club) when he began playing travel hockey as an adolescent.

He’ll end his career as an Islander, and the plan right now is to become a Gull next year.

“The plan right now is to play for Coach R.J. Tolan at Endicott College [in Beverly, Mass.], which I am really excited about,” said Sennott. “If a Division 1 college comes to me, I’ll talk to them. It’ll still be a conversation to think about and talk about with my family.”

Living and playing in North Andover, he always has that family support system close at hand.

 

A career made in Minnesota

Last spring, Colton Ryan threw up his cap after graduating from his hometown Coon Rapids High School.

Little did he know at the time, but the next step in his hockey career would be right there in the town where he grew up. The Minnesota Blue Ox, it was announced around then, were opening up shop at the 2011-built Coon Rapids Ice Center. Introducing the team was one of its three owners, Minnesota Wild head coach Bruce Boudreau.

“When I heard about Coach Boudreau, that changed how I thought about things, and I thought how cool it was that someone that big into hockey could run a little team,” said Ryan, a ’98 forward.

The Blue Ox have become much more than a “little team” since then, contending for the top spot in the Midwest West Division of the USPHL Premier Division as a first-year team. It’s no surprise to co-owner and Blue Ox head coach Jay Witta that Coon Rapids’ own Colton Ryan has been a big part of that success.

“When talking with the City of Coon Rapids on finding a home for our Blue Ox franchise, I had already been recruiting Colton his senior year,” said Witta, who co-owns the Blue Ox with Bruce and Crystal Boudreau. “The fact we ended up playing in Coon Rapids made his signing with the Blue Ox that much more special. Colton was also the first ever player to sign with our organization, and he will go down in our record books as the first ever Blue Ox player to score a goal at the Coon Rapids Ice Center.”

Colton Ryan,Minnesota Blue Ox,USA Junior Hockey,USPHL

Coon Rapids, Minn., native Colton Ryan is seen celebrating the first-ever home goal by the Coon Rapids-based Minnesota Blue Ox in September. Courtesy Photo / Minnesota Blue Ox

“I was planning on leaving home to play [juniors],” said Ryan. “I decided to stay home. It’s really nice being able to drive 10 minutes. I don’t have to drive 30 minutes to get to where I need to play.

“Jay [Witta], our coach has really helped a lot with my development,” Ryan added. “We do a lot of skill development drills, a lot of power skating. I’ve developed a good amount since the beginning of the season.”

Ryan has scored 10 points in his 23 games with the Blue Ox this year. He loves playing in front of his hometown
crowds, which he said are pretty big for Blue Ox home games.

“It was a great idea to put a team in Coon Rapids,” said Ryan. “I feel like it builds up the community more.”

“Our No. 1 priority as a USPHL organization is to provide a positive environment and opportunity for each player to develop and move on to the next level,” Witta added. “It is really that simple.”

 

What a Rush

John Barrett is helping to grow hockey in the city of his birth, and he couldn’t be more thrilled to be a hero to the young aspiring hockey players of Charlotte, N.C.

“There are a lot of kids who play youth hockey, and this past year, the youth hockey organization changed its name from Jr. Checkers to the Rush,” said Barrett, the Charlotte-born-and-bred captain of the Charlotte Rush of the USPHL Elite Division. “The younger players do want to follow in our footsteps.”

As a captain, he has players on his own team who are following the example he has set. Barrett is clicking at a point-per-game average (31 in 31), as he helped the Rush maintain a hard-fought lead in the Southeast Division of the Elite as 2018 dawned.

He gets to do all of this in the city of his birth.

“It’s awesome, being able to play at home and just be able to bring all the fans there, and have my family come to watch,” said Barrett. “This is my second year with the Rush. I joined the program in its second year [2016-17], and they’ve established a lot in a short time.

“The way those Elite guys last year were able to come in and win a championship, and the way my USP3 team last year got to the semifinals, the way the Rush were built up so quickly, it all amazes me.”

“John Barrett has been amazing for the Rush both on and off the ice,” said Rush general manager Ryan Cruthers. “He developed in our youth program and played for our Elite head coach Trevor Jewell at the U16 AA level. He has developed into a captain and a role model for kids in the Charlotte area that don’t have to leave home now to [develop for] college hockey.”

Barrett is a big booster for the USPHL, especially its Premier and Elite Divisions that have teams up and down the Eastern Seaboard, throughout the mid-South and down into Florida.

“The fact I’m from Charlotte and I get to lead the team, it shows the local youth kids they can come right up to the junior program and do big things,” said Barrett.

Barrett, a ’99, has plans in mind for next season to reach a Tier-2 main camp. If he doesn’t make the final cut, he’ll be happy to suit up yet again in the Red and White of his hometown Charlotte Rush.

 

A Dynamo in the making

For 10 years, along the banks of the Mohawk River in Clifton Park, N.Y., the CP Dynamo have lived up to their name in terms of development and advancement.

As of 2017, the Dynamo counted more than 36 alumni at NCAA D-1 and D-3 colleges, and over 50 players advancing to various junior teams throughout North America. A Tier-1 program the last six years, CP Dynamo has made five National appearances.

Brendan Fess is hoping that he will be part of this impressive heritage, as he continues to click on the blue line for the CP Dynamo of the USPHL 18U Division.

CP Dynamo,Brendan Fess,USPHL,USA Junior Hockey

Brendan Fess works his way up the ice for the CP Dynamo 18U squad. Courtesy Photo / CP Dynamo

“The CP Dynamo is a great organization,” said Fess, who had 13 points in 14 USPHL games. “They get the full potential out of players and prepare them to play at higher levels.”

“It was a no-brainer for me to play for the Dynamo 18U team. We have a great coaching staff that pushes players to reach their full potential and teaches you how to be successful. I was also able to live at home while continuing with my engineering classes at my home high school.”

Head coach Brad Shaver said that Fess’ love of engineering has him eyeing a school like the Rochester Institute of Technology for his future.

“He plays big minutes. He is not big by defensive standards, but he is an excellent skater and he has a fierce competitive edge,” said Shaver.

“I hope to be able to play in the NCDC in the future,” Fess added. “It is a great league that provides great opportunities for kids to get scouted and move on to play college hockey.”

 

Schweighardt is a big hit with Hitmen

Another crucial blueliner for his team, T.J. Schweighardt continues to turn heads as a NCAA Division 1 prospect playing for the New Jersey Hitmen in the USPHL 16U Division.

T.J. Schweighardt,New Jersey Hitmen,USA Junior Hockey,USPHL

T.J. Schweighardt is hoping to commit to a NCAA Division 1 college and continue his career next year in the NCDC with the New Jersey Hitmen. Courtesy Photo / New Jersey Hitmen

“He has been an absolute pleasure to coach and getting to know him has been an even more rewarding experience for me,” said Hitmen head coach Brack Healy. “There is no doubt in my mind that T.J. will not only play Division 1 hockey, but that he will absolutely flourish in any program that is lucky enough to have him.”

Schweighardt, born in 2001, is the Hitmen’s “hometown hero,” growing up in the northern New Jersey town of Wayne, also home to the Hitmen’s facility, the Ice Vault.

“The Hitmen are a great organization that puts guys into D-1 schools,” said Schweighardt. “With an organization like that five minutes away, you can’t go wrong. They have the best players and best coaches.”

T.J. has 15 points in 14 USPHL games, but offense is only scratching the surface of the all-around game he’s learned around the corner from his home.

“He knows how to play in all three zones,” said Healy. “He is a smooth skater, with a hard shot, he’s an excellent passer, and he defends as well as anyone.”

Schweighardt originally joined the New Jersey Bandits youth hockey organization, which is also based out of the Ice Vault.

“The Director of the Hitmen, Jim Hunt, told me I should look into the Hitmen when there was only a spring team for my age. The Hitmen have since turned out to be a great organization that every New Jersey kid wants to be a part of,” said Schweighardt. “We have practices three times a week, along with boxing, lifting, yoga. It develops you into a Division 1 player, and a man. It develops you greatly, especially off the ice – you get better manners, better communication. The Hitmen teach you all facets of life.”

He wants to move on to the NCDC Hitmen, possibly as early as next year.

“The NCDC, being tuition-free, has helped a lot of junior players get to their dream of playing college hockey,” Schweighardt said.

When Schweighardt looks through the locker room, he sees teammates joining up from Estonia, South Carolina, Alaska and Utah. He certainly realizes how lucky he is to have the Hitmen right down the road from his own house.

“You have kids who come here from all over,” said Schweighardt. “It’s good to think about the fact you’re only five minutes away.”

 

Top photo caption: John Barrett has not only been a character leader for the Charlotte Rush’s USPHL Elite team, he has also been one of the Rush’s scoring leaders. Photo by Joshua Boyd.

 

Read past United States Premier Hockey League articles in our archives:

DeCristoforo A King From The Beginning

Ferguson, Cheremeta Move Up Together With Islanders Hockey Club