The United States Premier Hockey League is getting an influx of talent for the 2017-18 season.
That extends beyond what the National Collegiate Development Conference teams got in the May 17 Entry Draft, and it extends beyond other players who will sign over the remainder of the spring and summer for the USPHL teams.
The USPHL is welcoming in six new league members that already carry long-standing junior hockey traditions from throughout New England and the Mid-Atlantic area. The Northern Cyclones, New Jersey Rockets and Boston Bandits are three of the 11 teams forming the first-year tuition-free NCDC. Additionally, the New Hampshire Jr. Monarchs, Hartford Jr. Wolfpack and Connecticut Nighthawks will field teams in the USPHL Premier, along with feeder teams in additional USPHL junior and midget divisions.
The Cyclones, Rockets and Bandits all bring to the NCDC deep organizations with a commitment to full-time and year-round player development and advancement. Players such as Toronto Maple Leafs prospect Jeremy Bracco (New Jersey Rockets alum), Brian Bowen (University of Vermont/Northern Cyclones alum) and Tyler Drevitch (Merrimack College/Boston Bandits alum) are all testaments to the work these organizations do on a daily basis for their players.
They are all excited to be joining the USPHL, and a group of like-minded organizations that focus every waking moment on player development and advancement.
“The teams and ownership groups are committed to a higher level of hockey,” said Bill Flanagan, owner and head coach of the Cyclones and its NCDC team. “There is excitement [around Cyclones Arena]. The USPHL is in a different echelon than our previous league.”
“I think being in the NCDC will provide local players the ability to train and develop at home,” added Sean Cromarty, head coach of the Rockets’ NCDC team. “As we project forward, less players will need to leave the area to gain exposure and play at a high level which is huge for the development of the game in New Jersey.”
Like Flanagan, Cromarty said there is a definite buzz around the Bridgewater Sports Arena about joining the USPHL and the NCDC.
“The feedback has been nothing but positive,” Cromarty added. “While some see this as a new league, it’s really a collection of programs with a strong track record of player development joining forces. We have had more interested players in becoming a Rocket than ever before, and more importantly more internal players interested in staying here versus going abroad.”
The Bandits’ Scott Drevitch is also eager to put together a well-built team for its inaugural USPHL year.
“I feel that the league has done a good job of promoting the new NCDC level, creating a lot of interest from the players and the college coaches want to see how the teams shape up,” said Drevitch. “With the location of the teams close to so many colleges, I feel the players will get additional looks compared to other free to play leagues as the coaches do not have to travel as much. [Less travel] also makes for more quality practices, off-ice training, eating and rest. This will all result in better player development.”
Like their NCDC colleagues, the Cyclones, Rockets and Bandits will field teams at additional USPHL divisions to form ladders for players within their organizations to climb to the NCDC squad in future seasons.
Along with the NCDC, the Cyclones have teams in the Premier and Elite junior divisions, as well as in the 18U and 16U midget divisions for 2017-18.
“We will provide every player an opportunity to play at his appropriate level and develop his full potential,” said Flanagan.
The Rockets are fielding teams at the same level, giving them the chance to invest in players at a young age and work with them towards playing tuition-free hockey in front of NCAA Division 1 and NHL scouts alike.
“Our youth clubs made the move to the USPHL last season, and our junior team is now following suit,” said Cromarty. “The league has an excellent model, and our families have embraced the move with open arms. I think the NCDC will provide an extremely competitive league with minimum travel requirements. Our longest road trip will be five hours. The competitive nature of the league will increase college visibility for our players, which is a major drawing point for our club.”
The Bandits have an alignment in addition to the NCDC that includes teams in the USPHL Premier, and the 18U and 16U divisions.
“We have signed, are talking to and/or [drafted] some quality players that otherwise may not come east or stay home. There is a buzz in our area about the direction the Boston Bandits have taken, not only with the older players but the younger ones as well,” Drevitch said. “We have always developed players from when they were young, only to have them leave to play in the tuition-free leagues. Now we have our own.
“The organizations in the NCDC are the best in the east with a rich history of producing college players,” he added. “We hope there will be a filter-down effect from older top teams (NCDC) to Mites.”
Three new teams, with similar success stories in both long and short histories, have also joined the USPHL. The top teams for the New Hampshire Jr. Monarchs, the Hartford Jr. Wolfpack and the Connecticut Nighthawks have joined the USPHL Premier Division for the 2017-18 season.
The Nighthawks are the youngest of these teams, having been founded in 2015. The organization based out of the International Skating Center of Connecticut in Simsbury, is taking a bold step in its early history.
“We have always been impressed by the professionalism the USPHL operates with and we are thrilled to be able to join the league. The opportunity USPHL players have for exposure to college coaches is unmatched,” said Jason Olson, assistant coach of the USPHL Premier team, and the USPHL Elite team head coach. “Our program feels that the organizations in the league are truly focused on the development of players and the ability to move them to NCAA teams.”
Not far down the road, at Champions Skating Center in Cromwell, Conn., the Hartford Jr. Wolfpack joined their Connecticut colleagues in joining the USPHL. The Jr. Wolfpack have joined at the Premier and Elite junior divisions, and the 16U Division, as well.
“We were already a program that was good at placing guys into college hockey,” said Mike Tenney, new USPHL Premier head coach for the Wolfpack. “We go to a league where exposure is maximized. It’s a slam dunk in terms of getting more exposure for our players at all levels, from midget to junior. We can get guys exposure to college coaches earlier in their ladder of development, to where they can make placements earlier and possibly to even better schools.”
The New Hampshire Jr. Monarchs name still rings loud and clear around the USPHL – many of the USPHL’s founding members had regular run-ins with the Monarchs when they were all members of the former Eastern Junior Hockey League.
“We made a calculated, well researched and well thought-out decision that we feel not only improves our hockey program and its untapped potential, but also brings our business to the next level as well,” said Monarchs general manager and USPHL Premier head coach Ryan Frew. “It was a move that encompassed all age groups from mite hockey all the way to the juniors, as they connect with the NCDC.
“We arrived at the conclusion that the USPHL gives us the best chance at longevity, ongoing success, continued tradition and a solid long-term plan,” Frew added.
The teams say they are already seeing a significant boost in interest in their programs.
“In joining the USPHL, we expect to be able to significantly increase our ability to recruit high level players from across the country,” said the Nighthawks’ Olson. “The USPHL has quickly built a strong reputation with players and we plan to use that to our advantage during the recruiting process.
“We are proud of the success we have had placing kids in to college from our organization and we are excited to be able to utilize the USPHL's reputation and increased exposure to help us continue to improve that number,” Olson added. “We feel that moving to the USPHL was not only a good hockey decision but also a strong business decision that would allow us to be successful for years to come.”
Frew said he has always been impressed with the collective interest by all USPHL members in the overall health and competitiveness of the league.
“The focus and expectation in this league is to get stronger together, by working together,” he added. “The unique ability for teams in the USPHL to work together for each other in an environment that is fiercely competitive is something special. There is one common goal with this group: to provide the best opportunity possible for the player.
“The USPHL leadership group is focused on making sure that all teams benefit from the structure provided and set forth by the league. Every organization is expected to pull their own weight, while simultaneously pulling on the same side of the rope as the collective membership,” Frew said. “All programs are held accountable by strictly enforced performance standards, so that nobody can be held back from realizing their highest level of potential.
“It raises the bar and removes the ceiling,” he added. “The hope is that everyone succeeds. If the bottom of the league improves every year, then the entire league improves.”
When the USPHL name is connected to NHL playoff performers like Jimmy Vesey and Chris Wagner (both alumni of the South Shore Kings), the excitement certainly grows. Tenney has seen this in person at the Champions Skating Center.