By Joshua Boyd / USPHLPremier.com
The USPHL Premier National Championship trophy is presently residing in Hudson, N.H., after the Northern Cyclones became the first New England Division team to capture the title last March. The Cyclones were certainly part of a larger conversation going into Utica, but became a heavier favorite when a lot of the top teams entering Nationals had been eliminated. When all was said, done and celebrated, the Cyclones had won all six games they faced in Utica.
The Cyclones are back – and boy are they ever. They return 12, yes 12, players from the championship game. It was fun winning it all, so why not try and do it again if you still have the eligibility?
Traditionally, the Cyclones’ toughest competition has been the Islanders Hockey Club, who are 24 miles down the road from Hudson. Both the Cyclones and Islanders have been the New England Division’s two Nationals competitors for three straight seasons. The Islanders’ great run began in 2019-20, a season they began with a 20-0 run, staying undefeated from September to December.
The New England Division comes into the 2022-23 season with a new look, including a couple new members. The Utica Jr. Comets join from the Atlantic Division and the Gatineau, Que.-based College Universel has joined the fray. The fray also includes a Boston Junior Bruins team that made the Islanders and Cyclones sweat enough times before finishing third. The Springfield Pics have shared in the rest of their division mates’ college placement success and they’re hoping to break into the top three for the first time after making the Nationals in 2020 as part of the former Northeast Division.
The South Shore Kings went through a bit of a tough season last year after finishing second to end the 2021-22 regular season.
Order is 2022-23 regular season finish
Season Opener: Sept. 29 vs. Hampton Roads Whalers (at BJB Shootout)
As mentioned above, the Cyclones come in with veteran depth to be envied – especially since it’s championship veteran depth. No one can count out the Cyclones from wire to wire right now, and that includes Northern being already officially in the conversation to at the very least make Nationals if not repeat in late March 2024. You can’t bring back that many from a championship team and not expect these kinds of prognostications.
“I think we have a deep group of veteran players,” said Head Coach Bill Weiand. “We will have a good mix of veteran returners from inside the program and newcomers who will step right in and have an impact for us. The makeup of this year’s team is similar to last year’s team. We will have good leadership and we will need our key guys from last year to step up again this year. We are excited to get started!”
New England All-Stars Billy Dougherty – a sixth-year USPHL veteran who posted 55 points last year – and Justin Tremblay (49 points) are back for another shot at the Premier cup. Additional forwards to welcome back are Scotty Swain (37 points), Max Abramson (31 points), Matt Gagnon, Samuel Mitchell, Justin Scrabrough and Michael Kennedy.
Defensemen back in the Crimson and Black are Jace Hartman, Anton Helin and Rory Hammersmith, a late addition last year from the Chicago Fury 18U AAA program.
So how could the defending champion get even better? Weiand likes the looks of his team’s newcomers, especially fourth-year USPHL veteran Steven Mense, who last played with the Boston Junior Bruins 18U AAA team, former Anaheim Jr. Ducks forward J.J. Dean and former Kents Hill School defensive standout Jakub Kloboucek.
The Cyclones have to push their way through 44 tough games in the New England Division and at showcases (including their first trip to the USPHL Florida College Showcase in Estero, Fla.) in order to make it back to the postseason. They’re ready, but Weiand knows it won’t be easy.
“I think we are going to have the deepest division this year,” he said. “We have a lot of parity in our division and it’s going to be an exciting season watching us compete against each other!”
Islanders Hockey Club
Season Opener: Sept. 29 vs. Jersey Hitmen (at BJB Shootout)
The Islanders are always a team to keep tabs on, no matter where in the USPHL national landscape you reside. They just find ways to get where they need to go and have four straight Nationals berths to their name. Head Coach Jay Punsky is confident the IHC has the tools to keep up their prestigious reputation.
“We feel we have a fast paced, competitive team with a very strong defensive corps,” said Punsky. “Last year’s team advanced eight players to NCAA Division III hockey, three players to our NCDC team and one player to professional hockey in Sweden. As a result, we have a lot of new faces and first-time junior players in our locker room this year. We’re excited to see how they adjust to the level of competition. So far they have been eager to learn, hard working and have made plays at a very fast pace.”
Defenseman Matt Bobko returns to the IHC and has been named Captain.
“Matt is primed for a big season. The smooth-skating puck-moving defenseman is sure to draw a lot of college interest,” said Punsky, who is also Head Coach for Worcester State University (NCAA Division III).
Additionally, defensemen Mees Van Wingerden and All-Star Jamie Eyre, both ‘04’s, come back after also representing their home countries of Netherlands and France, respectively. Up front, the IHC will be happy to have back the trio of Jack Roberts (29 points in 38 games), Dylan Reynolds and Nathan Isoniemi (both with 24 points)
“We expect our returning forwards to generate a lot of quality scoring chances,” added Punsky. “The division is always extremely competitive and, being in New England, we look forward to showcasing our players to all of the college scouts on a regular basis.”
Boston Junior Bruins
Season Opener: Sept. 29 vs. Potomac Patriots (at BJB Shootout)
The Junior Bruins have cemented themselves over the past few years as a top four team, finishing as high as second place in points in 2020-21. However, they are still looking for that magic that can bust through the recent Cyclone-Islanders monopoly on Nationals berths.
Head Coach Nevin Hamilton, also coaching the Junior Bruins NCDC team this year, likes the speed and depth of his team right off the bat, with a week remaining until opening day at their signature event, the BJB Shootout.
“We have a real fast team this year and I believe, for the first time in a few years, we have depth up front. We will be able to consistently receive offense from all four lines which will be a nice change to help put us over the top in some of the close games that maybe didn’t go our way in the years past,” added Hamilton. “We are young and hungry to get better. No one will be going through the motions.”
Along with his remarks on the speed and depth up front he has also been impressed with what he has seen so far in terms of the Junior Bruins defense.
“On defense, we have some good size and a lot of new faces who have already made their presence known in the couple preseason games we have had,” Hamilton added. “We will focus on consistent pucks getting through to the net from up top as well as making the smart first pass out of our zone.”
One returning player the Junior Bruins will rely on heavily this year is ‘05 Riley LeBlanc. Coming out of Fitchburg, Mass., he posted 19 points in 42 games as a 17-year-old last year.
“He had a strong rookie season last year up front and this year will look to be one of the go-to guys in big situations,” said Hamilton. “He is great around the net and has a good head on his shoulders.”
The Junior Bruins are geared up for the start of the season and will be ready for their traditional foes across the circuit when they begin divisional play on Oct. 4 against South Shore.
“The New England division is very competitive. Every night is a hard-fought game with very few one-sided matchups,” added Hamilton. “Each night, these guys will need to be focused and mentally engaged or else this division can leave you in the dust very quickly.”
Season Opener: Sept. 30 vs. Jersey Hitmen (at BJB Shootout)
The Pics are right up there with the defending champion Cyclones when talking about veteran leadership returning. The Pics are certainly rich with experience, bringing back 12 players from their 2022-23 team that finished in fifth place.
“We are going to a big team hopefully that can score enough goals to win hockey games. Our strengths will be our returning players,” said Head Coach Rob Bonneau. “Our depth was greater last season so that is the biggest difference from last year to this season.”
Leading the charge is returning New England Division All-Star Dominick Balboni, who is entering his sixth overall USPHL season. The West Springfield, Mass., native has essentially spent his whole life at the Olympia and began his USPHL life in 2018 with the Pics’ 15U squad. He scored 58 points in 43 games to lead the Pics last year.
Other forwards returning are Jack Tuite (36 points), Tim Devine (35 points), Tyler Zembrzycki (28 points in 30 games), Levi Adcock (15 points in 26 games), Zack Fox and Loik Leclerc.
The defense features returning players Griffin Sarver, Max Christiansen and the top returning scorer among defensemen Josh Tisdell, who put up 24 points in 42 games. Nick Zanin also played both defense and forward.
A big strong point for the Pics is the goal crease, where they return Ben Zaranek, another local Springfield area product. He posted a .932 save percentage and 13 wins last year, and for his two-year career so far, he has a 25-9-1-2 record with a .935 mark.
One of the key newcomers to watch is Frederic D’Amours, an ‘04 Quebec native who crossed his country last year to play in the Vancouver Island Junior Hockey League. “He will be a big contributor on defense,” added Bonneau.
Knowing the ups and downs they’ve seen over the years, including qualifying for the ultimately canceled 2020 Nationals, the Pics are ready to utilize their experience to give themselves a fighting chance for a top spot this year.
“The Division is always a very competitive division. Any team can beat anyone on a given night. You have to have your ‘A’ game to get wins in the division every year and we don’t expect it to be any different this season,” Bonneau said.
South Shore Kings
Season Opener: Sept. 23 vs. College Universel Gatineau
The Kings will be the first to open up the season in the New England Division, alongside newcomers College Universel Gatineau, so that they can get three solid games in before taking on non-division opposition at the BJB Shootout.
“This season’s Premier team has a solid group of returners from last season. Through the first couple weeks we have started the process to get ready for the season opener this coming weekend,” said Head Coach Dave O’Donnell.
The Kings return four key returners to their forward ranks, including their top returning scorer Daniel Sieto (‘05), who had 28 points in 43 games, in addition to Samuel Pack, Matt Brown and Jason Schnitzler. They’ll join Eison Nee and Trevor Morris, both moving up from the 18U Kings, as well as newcomers Kayolan Stoyanov and Jeremiah Morgan who “have looked very good.”
Stoyanov is an ‘05 Bulgarian who played in Austria last year for the Okanagan Hockey Academy team there, and is entering his first North American season.
“At forward, I believe we can run a deep group,” added O’Donnell.
Another good group bringing experience makes up half of the eight defensemen the Kings have signed. Mitch Jongmans (‘04) returns from Netherlands. He has played for his home country in the World Juniors and men’s World Championships, and he posted 14 points in 36 games last year. David Lacroce, Dylan Heck and London, England’s own Stanley Johnston are also back with the Kings. The team also features 18U call-ups Payton Kender and Colton Scheralis.
Nepo Bodnar, an Austrian and former Okanagan teammate of both Stoyanov and Jongmans, and Maxwell Fleming joins from the Maine Moose 18U AAA team as newcomers.
“The strength so far has been our defense core. We have eight guys that can really play,” added O’Donnell.
In goal, the South Shore Kings welcome in newcomers Dom Walecka, who posted a .925 save percentage with the EHL’s Worcester Jr. Railers, and Matt Dore, out of the Kings’ 18U squad.
O’Donnell sees a well-balanced team of Kings, a healthy mixture of veteran experience and young newcomers wanting to put their stamp on the program and attract college hockey coaches’ attention.
“We do have a group of younger and older guys. We should be a hard team to play against in a stronger division,” said O’Donnell. “Every game is difficult. So as we get going, we will have to understand that every day we come to the rink, we are going to have to work for our success.”
Utica Jr. Comets
Season Opener: Sept. 29 vs. Connecticut Jr. Rangers (at BJB Shootout)
The Jr. Comets are another team that has had a strong history of top four finishes – including 2020, when they qualified for Nationals alongside former Northeast Division mates the Pics. They’re never a team you can count out and always hit high marks with their numbers of college advancements.
They’re also another team that is essentially building again from the ground up.
“We have a completely new roster with only two returning players. We are certainly still evaluating our guys and making determinations of where guys will fit,” said General Manager Louis Educate, also the Head Coach of the Jr. Comets’ NCDC team. Both squads start Sept. 29, so they are still building both teams’ rosters. “We believe we have a lot of guys who can slot into different roles which will give us a lot of flexibility with our roster. Having such a new group has its challenges but also brings a lot of excitement to the group. A lot of willingness to learn and everyone has an opportunity to make an impact.”
Seven of the 15 longest-serving all-time Jr. Comets (and their predecessors Syracuse Jr. Stars) Premier players were on the 2022-23 team, all playing no less than 80 games for the organization. That group has moved on to college hockey, so it’s time for a new era in Utica.
“Last season we had a much more veteran group. A lot of guys with a lot of experience and familiarity with the program. This year we are very young, which is the direction we wanted to go,” said Educate. “We want to develop our young talent and prepare them for the next level. We want to use our Premier team as a feeder team for our NCDC team. This year, being so young, we are hoping that we can develop some of these players to be Tier II guys either during this season or for next.”
The two ‘03’s returning for another go-round with Utica are forward Jake Hall and Joey Demiglio. Hall, a local area product from Rome, N.Y., and the Rome Free Academy, he is also a former USPHL 16U player for the Jr. Comets.
“Jake joined us after Christmas last year and added depth for our team heading into playoffs. He was a big reason for our late season success. Jake will be leaned on to be a leader for all of the young players on this team,” said Educate. “We expect big things from Jake this year offensively and to be a solid two way hard working forward for us. Jake plays best with a chip on his shoulder and we believe he will be able to do that for us all year.”
Demiglio joined partway through last year from the NA3HL’s Milwaukee Power.
“Joey also joined us during the season last year. He took big strides in his development last year, quickly becoming a very reliable D-man for us,” Educate said. “Joey has great natural leadership qualities. He will be a leader for us on and off the ice and will be the heartbeat of this team. On the ice he will be a physical D-man who moves well and has added another level to his offense making him a complete package on the back end.”
There is obviously most of a whole team remaining of newcomers, and Educate will give them all a chance to earn their names getting out there as the season begins and progresses. They’re all coming into a very tough circuit, but one in which he’s confident that his young, hungry team can prosper.
“We have a bunch of young players who are excited about the challenge to compete in a very good Premier division,” said Educate. “Our two returning players are excited for this challenge and are helping our young guys come along.”
College Universel Gatineau
Season Opener: Sept. 23 at South Shore Kings
The first Canadian team to join the USPHL Premier comes out of a sports academy/prep school along the Ottawa River, and from the city of Gatineau, Que., directly across the river from the nation’s capital of Ottawa. The Premier team will play a full schedule of games, but entirely on the road. They will be the home team at various showcase games over the course of the season, but will not play USPHL games in Quebec.
Head Coach Alexandre Gagnon is impressed with the Premier team they have put together for this season.
“We have a good mix of young potential and smart veterans,” said Gagnon. “Good collective game, solid defensively, and good puck possession.”
From their 18U team that played last season in the North American Prep Hockey League, the Premier Universel team is bringing back forward ‘03 Louis Ouellet, and defensemen ‘03 Francis Lavoie and ‘04 Mederic Berteau. Ouellet had a strong output in that former league, posting 43 points in 24 games.
The team welcomes Mathis Tarani, out of the Quebec Midget AAA league, Remi Dionne (from Bishop’s College) and Markus Carrier (from Upper Canada College).
It’ll be a whole new league and a whole new world of junior hockey for College Universel Gatineau, but they are ready for it.