August 19, 2013

Eastern Hockey League: Old rivalries, new philosophy

By Shawn Hutcheon

It is a given that when people gather in rinks the Greek philosopher Heraclitus is not on anyone’s mind, but it was approximately 2,500 years ago when he said, “There is nothing permanent except change.”

His words rang true in the summer of 2013 when the subject turned to junior hockey in the eastern United States.

Eight Eastern Junior Hockey League franchises (Islanders Hockey Club, Boston Jr. Bruins, Jersey Hitmen, South Shore Kings, Bay State Breakers, Portland Jr. Pirates, Rochester Stars, Springfield Pics) departed the circuit to organize the United States Premier Hockey League.

Suddenly, the EJHL had five organizations (New Hampshire Jr. Monarchs, Boston Bandits, Valley Jr. Warriors, New York Apple Core, Philadelphia Revolution) remaining and the east had three junior hockey leagues – the USPHL, EJHL and the Atlantic Junior Hockey League.

The question arose, how could the EJHL survive with just five teams? The obvious answer: it couldn’t.

AJHL Director of Hockey Operations, Mark Kumpel explained how junior hockey profited from the situation.

“The remaining EJHL teams called me and asked if something could be worked out and agreed to join our league last April,” he said.

And change had occurred. The demise of the Eastern Junior Hockey League led to the birth of the Eastern Hockey League. The new circuit will consist of the aforementioned former EJHL clubs and the entire AJHL and will be divided into three divisions based on geography.

The North Division consists of the Valley Jr. Warriors (Haverhill, Mass.), Boston Bandits, Boston Jr. Rangers, New Hampshire Jr. Monarchs and Northern Cyclones (Hudson, N.H.).

The Central Division will see the Walpole (Mass.) Express, Connecticut Oilers, Connecticut Wolfpack, New York Apple Core, New York Bobcats, and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (Pa.) Knights.

The South Division includes the New Jersey Rockets, New Jersey Titans, Philadelphia Little Flyers, Philadelphia Jr. Flyers, Philadelphia Revolution and Washington Jr. Nationals.

Coaches and owners from both former leagues (EJHL and AJHL) have expressed enthusiasm about the new league.

“It was a no-brainer,” said Northern Cyclones Head Coach Bill Flanagan, who also serves as Chairman of the EHL. “It’s more economical for the teams because there will be less travel. In our division (North), the furthest trip is one hour.”

“These were tremendous organizations in the EJHL,” Flanagan added. “We feel this has established us (EHL) as the best junior hockey league on the east coast.”   

Steve Santini, owner of former EJHL member New York Apple Core, commented on the effort that went into the formation of the Eastern Hockey League.

“It’s been a lot of hard work but the transition has been smooth,” Santini said. “That’s a credit to everyone involved. Everybody has a very positive feeling about the future of this league.”

Santini agrees with Flanagan that the reduced travel will benefit the players, who are looking to impress college coaches and NHL scouts.

“It (travel) isn’t as much of a grind,” Santini offered. “Kids can concentrate on playing hockey and getting seen by the scouts and coaches.”

New Jersey Rockets head coach and general manager Bob Thornton feels the competition will be enhanced and only strengthen what was an already a strong brand.

“The EJHL was more established than the AJHL but our (AJHL) top teams competed well against (the EJHL),” Thornton observed. “We’re happy with the structure of the EHL. Now, it’s up to the teams to put a good product on the ice.”

Kumpel, who will continue in his post as director of hockey operations for the EHL, believes the merge of the two circuits is good for players, coaches, USA Hockey and the game in general.

“The opportunity came along (to add the EJHL franchises) and it was the right thing to do,” Kumpel explained. “The league is just that much better. It adds clarity for everyone. I went down to Naples, Florida, to the college coaches convention and the EHL was very well received. We also went to USA Hockey …. It was agreed this is in the best interest of the players. We want to give them the true experience of junior hockey on the ice and academically. We became the first Tier III junior league in the United States to name a USA Hockey Safesport Coordinator. Cheri Bonawitz will serve in that capacity and ensure that the league is compliant with USA Hockey’s safety policies. I’m very encouraged and excited to get the season started.”

There is excitement throughout the hockey world for the Eastern Hockey League. It is the change that many observers have been waiting for and it is pretty safe to say Heraclitus would be looking forward to it as well.


Twitter: @ShawnHutcheon.