By Miles Regan / USPHL.com
When it comes to USPHL franchises, there has been a little bit of change in the Midwest East in 2022-2023. The league has welcomed two new members in the Battle Creek Kernels and Chicago Crush to maintain a seven-team league. Coaches across the board expect the levels of parity and competition to increase in the Midwest East significantly this season, here’s the scoop on each team prior to puck drop.
Order is 2021-22 Finish
We kick things off with the defending champs, who open play on Saturday against the Motor City Gamblers. Josh Dallman’s club has made Nationals for five straight seasons and have won the division during all but one of those years. The Cougars’ recent history somewhat parallels that of the New England Patriots’ early Belichick days, with a strong emphasis on discipline and team-first culture. At Fifth Third Arena in downtown Chicago, they do things The Cougar Way.
“We have a decent amount of returners carrying the load and explaining things to the newer guys,” said Dallman, “All our 20-year-olds played here last year and can show the younger guys the ropes.”
The returning contingent contains a group of solid players that will help the team as a whole. Defenseman Peter Drake (‘02) returns for his second year in the green and yellow, and ‘03 T.J. Haas is back for a third campaign. Haas has 58 career points (23-35–58) as a Cougar. He and Drake are expected to be two of the bigger leaders on this team.
The group they’ll be leading is really young. Coach Dallman believes the team’s average age will hover around 18.
“We’ve got five or six 20-year-olds, a handful of ‘03s, and then a good chunk of ‘05s.” recounts Dallman. As an adamant “team is greater than the individual” coach, he stood pat when asked to rattle off talented newcomers, instead telling us that they’ve got “a good lineup as a team.”
Team-first hockey has been and will continue to be the standard in Chicago, but will that change now that the Cougars are sharing the city with the expansion Chicago Crush?
“Since I’ve been here, the division has gotten better and better every year. [The expansion] continues that trend.” said Dallman. He’s happy to welcome the Crush aboard, as their proximity will be mutually beneficial in terms of travel. The cross-town foes will meet for the first time Sunday, Oct. 2, on Cougar ice.
Splitting the talent pool is another adjustment that needs to be made, but it’s what’s best for the division: “Any program can win any given night.”
Fort Wayne Spacemen
On paper, this 2022-23 Spacemen team looks to be the best in Fort Wayne’s four-year USPHL history. Coach Lincoln Kaleigh Schrock’s club finished second in the division last season and will return top scorer Noah Maine (‘02). They will open on Saturday, Oct. 1 against the Chicago Crush.
Maine is one of the best offensive-defensemen in the league. He led Fort Wayne with 50 points (20-30–50) a year ago, which was also fourth most of any Premier defenseman. Maine will again be this team’s cornerstone blueliner, but unlike last year, he won’t be the only Knoxville, Tenn.-born Spaceman filling up the stat sheet.
Forward R.J. Rollman (‘03) is a former teammate of Maine’s and one of the biggest gets for FW this offseason. He’ll join a forward group that brings back scorer Logan Robins (‘02) and veteran winger Cam Perry (‘02). Rollman will likely contribute offensively off the bat, but don’t overlook the experience that Robins brings. The 5-10 center out of Detroit led all Spacemen forwards in assists (24) and total points (42) in 2021-22.
Former Midwest Blackbird Forward Tucker Tone (‘04) will also join the Space party this fall. Tone registered eight points (1-7–8) in his first Premier season last year, and is expected to become a bigger factor offensively as he’s now a year older, bigger, and stronger.
Schrock spoke emphatically about Tucker’s speed and skill earlier this week, calling him a “waterbug” out on the ice. Tone is one of a handful of Fort Wayne natives on this year’s roster, a testament to Schrock’s dedication towards hockey in Northeast Indiana.
After spending his playing days with the Komets, Schrock began serving as GM at Parkview Icehouse and became a mainstay in the FW hockey community. He wants to keep kids in Fort Wayne, and believes that the city is becoming a destination for prospective players.
“It feels like a true junior hockey program,” said Schrock. “[Fort Wayne] is one of the best places at the Tier III level.”
Metro Jets Development Program
Sustained success is the goal in Mount Clemens, but with all the roster turnover that the nature of the Jets’ organization brings it’s easier said than done.
MJDP finished third in the division last season with 56 points and made it to Nationals for a second straight year. If they want to make it three in a row, a lot has to go right – but the MJDP and Jets organization overall usually finds a way to make that happen.
Luckily for Coach Justin Quenneville, the 65-man tryout roster for both the Jets (of the Great Lakes Division) and MJDP was deep.
“(We’re) still trying to determine team and lineup stuff, potential players, and where they fit,” said Quenneville, whose MJDP squad starts on Sept. 30 against the first-year Battle Creek Kernels.
He added that, as always, MJDP wants to emphasize individual development this winter, and that the team will be faster and more dynamic than they’ve been in the past. Rosters had not yet been finalized during the organization’s media availability, but Quenneville believes that the 2022-23 MJDP will be one of the younger teams in the division.
In terms of the competitiveness of the division, “Coach Q” as he is affectionately known across the league, is excited for what 2022-23 will bring. He feels that in recent years the top half of the division has gotten stronger. Now, exciting operators and organizations (Battle Creek and Chicago Crush) will likely make the circuit better and competitive in a different way all the way through.
The 2021-22 season was one Blaze fans are ready to put behind them with a brighter view on the new campaign, which begins Oct. 7 against the Chicago Cougars.
GM/Head Coacb Zac Pearson has chosen to remedy the situation via rebuild.
“We’re going to be young and are only returning six veterans,” said Pearson, adding there will be plenty of new faces in Central Illinois this winter.
Two in particular stand above the rest 0 forwards Lukas Verstegen (‘05) and Duke Kersting (‘04).
Kersting hails from the St. Louis suburbs and played AAA puck in the AYHL and NAPHL last winter. In his last full season, he scored 20 points on an even 10 goals and 10 assists with Fort Zumwalt East in Missouri high school hockey.
Verstegen also comes to the Blaze with AAA experience. The Dallas, Texas, native played high school hockey in California prior to signing with Decatur. Although he’s young and will be just 16 on opening night, Pearson believes Verstegen’s athleticism will make him a key player immediately.
Veteran and returning Midwest East All-Star Walker Smith (‘02) is expected to add poise and experience up front yet again. Smith registered 29 points (17-12–29) a year ago and looks to average above a point per game this season. Jeff Shirkey (15-20–35) will also be back with the program as an ‘02.
On the blue line, Decatur returns ‘03 Brendan Hirliman, who led the team with 26 assists last season.
Although the overall talent level and depth of the Blaze are relative unknowns at this point in time, Coach Pearson says we can bank on one thing right now: the Blaze are going to work hard.
“Hard work will beat skill any day,” said Pearson. “We’re going to work hard and let skill take over after that.”
Motor City Gamblers
A new name, a new logo and a new outlook. It’s a whole new era for Jason McCrimmon and the Motor City Gamblers, and he expects that the Chicago Cougars will see a Motor City more resembling the team that made the 2018 and 2019 Nationals when the puck drops Saturday.
“[We want to] get back to what we were a couple years ago, making back-to-back Nationals,” said McCrimmon, team owner and Assistant GM who will be serving as Associate Coach on new Head Coach Sam Shaheen’s staff.
Shaheen most recently served in the same role with the Detroit Fighting Irish from 2020-22 and was brought to Fraser Hockeyland to build a team that’s “strong from top to bottom.”
On the back end, the Gamblers will carry three new goaltenders in Michael Massaro (‘03), Grant Williams (‘03) and Devin Williams (‘05).
At defense, they return lefty Zack Domanke (‘03) and ‘05 righty Brett Trevino. New defensemen Zach Hudson (‘02) and Jace Weimer (‘05) will serve as captains for the Gamblers this season. Both spent last year with Coach Shaheen in Detroit and are familiar with his system. Do not be surprised if these two serve as Motor City’s top pair, given their on-ice experience against Midwest East foes.
The forward stable will also have a new look in 2022-23. The only returner up front is ‘02 Maxx Sabel (8-7–15). Former MJDP winger Owen Ott (‘02) will also serve as a captain for the Gamblers. Owen Wilson (‘04) and Preston Stenzel are another pair of forwards expected to contribute immediately.
With a largely new roster, consistency may be hard to achieve at first in Motor City, but it’s what McCrimmon and Shaheen are looking for. They’re worrying about themselves, and their focus is centered on “the Motor City Gamblers. That’s it.”
Battle Creek Kernels
The USPHL’s footprint in the state of Michigan deepened with the Midwest East division’s addition of the Battle Creek Kernels. BCK will be led by Co-owner and Head Coach Triston Jensen in their first season in Premier.
Cobbling together an expansion team can often keep coaches up at night, but Jensen isn’t worried. He has a plan in place and feels confident in his process.
“I think the biggest thing as an expansion team coming together is we didn’t just go out and get anybody – we got the right guys,” said Jensen, whose team starts the season on Sept. 30 against MJDP.
When asked about who these “right guys” may be, Jensen immediately jumped to his netminder, Liam Donnelly (‘03).
Donnelly is a 6-3 Canadian who already has a pair of USPHL Premier campaigns in the Midwest West and Pacific Divisions. Donnelly also has some Canadian Jr. A experience, and Jensen viewed him as a must-have signing because of his resiliency. Watching Liam battle back from an injury has been inspiring to say the least.
In front of Donnelly is a defense corps highlighted by ‘02’s Joe Blair and Connor Trankina, USPHL veterans both. They will be making the journey east from Wisconsin. Expect points from offensive-minded blueliner J.D. Lemonds (‘03) as well.
At forward, Max Hoffman (‘03) and Will Haggerty (‘03) are the headliners. The pair were teammates with defenseman Luke Tinker (‘04) and the aforementioned Lemonds at Rockford (Mich.) High School, and their chemistry is something Jensen is hoping to capitalize on immediately.
“[We] have a lot of rookies on this team. There’s the Rockford High group and then locally Owen Miller (‘05),” added Jensen. “I’m very excited about this group, could talk about them all down the road.”
The puzzle is by no means put together, but all of the built-in Michigander relationships make grouping the pieces together much easier. Hopefully they’ll know who fits where by end of season, as Jensen expects to still be playing come March.
“We want to try and host a playoff series,” said Jensen. “We’re coming in strong and will be a surprise to a lot of people.”
Jensen’s confidence stems from his deep coaching staff. At a minimum, the Kernels are going to make it hard to beat them right off the bat. They’ll be #BattleReady come puck drop indeed.
The USPHL’s billet model is tried and true. In order to enhance their careers as hockey players, oftentimes these young men leave home, and live with billet families in their team’s city. The billet system provides players the experience of living in a new location, and it allows teams to recruit without geographical barriers.
This mutually beneficial system has been used by many Midwest East coaching staffs in the past, but the new expansion club, the Chicago Crush, have focused on local talent.
“We’ve taken the approach of focusing our scouting efforts on Illinois players. Our vision comes from our Owner, Pete Olson whose heart is solely dedicated to the development and growth of Illinois hockey,” said Head Coach Jon Varga, whose team opens at home on Oct. 1 vs. the Spacemen.
“It’s a different brand and theme where players can live at home and have the ability to attend school. There is nothing better than being able to play high level hockey in front of your family and friends while maintaining academic excellence, creating a well-rounded young man.”
With this mindset, the Crush roster for their inaugural season contains all but two Chicago-area players. Nick Zehelein (‘03) from Hoffman Estates, Ill., played with the NAPHL’s Northwest Chargers last season and recorded seven points (3-4–7) in eight games. Nick performed very well at preseason camp and the Crush staff is particularly excited to see him perform and develop this season.
The Crush do have one international player, Finnish-born ‘03 Johan Karjalainen who is billetting with fellow Crush teammate and netminder Jeff Wasco. The 2022-23 season will be Karjalainen’s first season in North America and is expected to bring a certain European flavor to the Crush attack. Karjalainen averaged a point per game last season in Finland.
The Crush will play many of their home games at Addison Ice Arena, on an Olympic-sized rink. Given the larger playing surface, the Crush coaches were looking for specific strengths during tryouts. They put a premium on players who have the skill sets and speed to work their way around the ice well. The personnel decisions for the lineups may be dependent on whether a given game is home or away:
“It’s a versatile group. We will dial in our strategy, according to the ice sheet” added Varga.
He is assisted by former NHL and 10-year Chicago Wolves captain Steve Maltais. Their strategy may be considered unconventional but at the end of the day, it’s all about player development in the Windy City.
“We are developing the player’s experience, local Illinois hockey, and aiming to improve the Crush everyday,” Varga added. “It’s all about the daily process.”