By Joshua Boyd / USPHLElite.com
The 2023-24 season is one of not just some new teams in a couple of the USPHL junior leagues, but the story is one of entire divisions. In the NCDC, the Mountain Division has made its Tier II debut, and now the spotlight will also be on six teams that are set to make their USPHL Elite debuts this year. The Elite, traditionally an Eastern Seaboard league, has gone west – as far as Chicago, in fact.
The first-year division will see new feeder programs for USPHL Premier teams in the Midwest East Division, helping to provide those organizations with depth and the ability to get internal program competition for Premier spots.
Season Opener: Sept. 29 at Decatur Blaze
The Cougars Elite team would love to have anything close to the success the Cougars enjoyed at the Premier level, which included making every National Championships tournament between 2018 and 2022. They’ll certainly accept simply pushing some new, young players through their first junior season and on up to the Premier Cougars, as well.
“This is a team with a high quality work ethic with strong depth. Being that’s it is still early in the year it’s hard to tell what our strengths and weakness may be but given the tempo and pace of our practices, a combo of our speed and competitiveness will be an asset for our team as we go through the season,” said Head Coach David Heflin. “With the core of younger plays on our roster, we have a hungry group looking to accomplish big things on a team and individual basis.”
“I’m excited and looking forward to the inaugural season for the Chicago Cougars at the Elite level. Long term, I believe this division level will foster an entirely new development path for many players’ careers who are striving to grow their game and continue onto higher levels of Junior and College, and/or Professional hockey,” added Pete Olson, owner of the Chicago Cougars and Chicago Crush.
With no returning players, this is a chance to make a whole new culture within the Cougars program, one that works hand in hand with the higher level.
“[Premier Coach] Josh Dallmann has established a specific culture that breeds success. At the Elite level, we’ll be looking to establish the same strong habits that have made the organization a top Premier USPHL team, but now at the Elite level too,” added Olson.
The team is excited about players like Rocco Bifano and Jack Powers, who can “provide the necessary leadership qualities necessary to be successful in the junior circuit.”
“Even with a relatively inexperienced team, the guys in our locker room are highly motivated and looking forward to the challenges that come at them throughout the year,” Heflin added.
Season Opener: Sept. 23 vs. Metro Jets Elite
The Crush were a new team at the Premier level in 2022-23, but they are certainly looking to grow in terms of development and advancement to colleges, which was a big reason why they brought on the Elite team. This provides a pipeline for young players to work their way up the ladder.
“We feel like we have done a nice job of assembling a roster full of competitive players this fall. Our organizational goal is to develop all of the guys to be a part of our Premier team in the future, so we know that we will have a significant amount of movement between the two levels all season,” said Head Coach Phil Bushbacher. “We have a number of players that have experience at not only the CSDHL (top local tier II Midget level), but with AAA clubs and even in the USPHL Premier. We think that this will help us create a culture right away, both on and off the ice.”
The Crush coach couldn’t really imagine just how the division might look, in terms of standings, as this is obviously brand new ground for all the teams and organizations.
“We are interested to see how the level takes shape this year. With it being the first season for Elite in the Midwest, we are eager to see what clubs decide to do,” said Bushbacher. “Our philosophy at the Crush is to use Elite as a farm club for the Premier team. While it is nice to win, our focus is on development first. We will certainly have a lot of players moving between the two teams, as we are sure other clubs will too.
“When considering the top clubs, we think that Fort Wayne and MJDP will be teams to reckon with. Both clubs have established themselves as the class of the [Premier] Division, and we look for them to be solid this season.”
Season Opener: Sept. 29 vs. Chicago Cougars
The Blaze are looking to build something truly special, right up there with when the Premier organization pushed through tough competition and qualified for the 2020 USPHL Nationals, which were unfortunately canceled. The Blaze have brought in some very young players – including 2008-born athletes – to start building up both their Elite and Premier teams towards future success and increased player development towards college hockey.
“From day one, we wanted to establish our identity early on,” said Head Coach Justin Cohn. “As a team, we want to be the hardest-working team when we step on the ice and the players are embracing that. There is a healthy mix of younger and older guys hungry to move on to the next level.”
The ‘08’s coming in are Easton Gbeyetin, Hammad Khan and Gavin Meisner and “all are going to be key pieces.”
Gbeyetin comes in from St. Louis Park, Minn., Khan is from Naperville, Ill., and the CSDHL’s Highland Park Falcons, and Meisner comes to them from Cranbrook, B.C.
“Carter Murphy and Jeremy Zarvos are both defenseman who will help lead the back end,” Cohn added. “Some key forwards for our team will be Fischer Smith and Trevor Balagna who are both older and will be a huge resource for our younger players.”
Cohn is excited to get started against the Blaze organization’s traditional Illinois rivals in the Chicago Cougars.
“Looking around the league and seeing rosters, the Midwest Elite division should be highly competitive,” Cohn added. “It should be a battle every game and every point is going to matter trying to get into playoffs.”
Fort Wayne Spacemen
Season Opener: Sept. 29 at Chicago Crush
The Spacemen are excited to see all of the work they’ve been doing come to fruition when their season begins next Friday against the Chicago Crush.
“I believe we have a strong roster for our inaugural season. So far through training camp and one week of practice, our veteran experience has proven to be a strength and has really made a positive and competitive environment for our squad,” added Head Coach Cam Wirick.
He’s looking forward to the contributions to come from some new players like Trevor Evans, Alex Zinoviev, Dylan Davis, and Jack Backstrom. All could help to build the Spacemen Elite culture from the start.
“The inaugural season for the USPHL Midwest-East Elite Division will be ultra-competitive,” said Wirick. “I feel very confident in our roster and how we develop our players here in Fort Wayne and believe we will have a successful season and open a lot of eyes.”
Metro Jets Elite
Season Opener: Sept. 23 at Chicago Crush
The Metro Jets organization became the only non-NCDC team this year to field three junior teams when the Midwest Elite Division was formed last spring. Between the Great Lakes Division’s Jets team and the Midwest East Metro Jets Development Program and this new Elite squad, a common thread of development first will run throughout as General Manager Justin Quenneville has big plans for the new team.
“We are excited to add an Elite schedule to our program. We have operated a three-team model before and we have the staff as well as the platform to run it smoothly,” said Quenneville. “Our Elite model is different than others, where we want to be able to provide more games and development for our players. Elite will serve as another opportunity for our players and we look forward to continue focusing on player development across all 3 Jets teams as they work together.”
Motor City Gamblers
Season Opener: Oct. 1 vs. Fort Wayne Spacemen
The Gamblers are on the rise again, coming back to the upper echelon of the Premier Midwest East, and now they have even more program depth with the addition of their Elite team.
“We are very excited to be part of the new Midwest Elite Division. The opportunity to develop more young athletes is something we look forward to, as that is our organization’s number one goal,” said GM Chase Crawshaw. USPHL veteran Carter Schluckbier is taking on a leadership role with the Elite team as he and forward Dylan Statham will help to develop some future stars such as Defensemen Isaac Bunk and Asher Taylor.
“Our 2007 goalie trio of Tyler “Fridge” Houle, Braedyn Sullivan, and Massimo “Mojo” De Vita offer us a lot of upside in the net as well,” Crawshaw added.