November 7, 2012

Juniors Journal: Harris, Hitmen helping New Jersey rebuild

By Shawn Hutcheon

For so many of us, hockey is our refuge, our “getaway” activity. For others, it is a passion and it needs to be. Hockey needs to be a passion if you play it and plan on making it your vehicle for acquiring a college education and pursuing the professional ranks. The junior-aged player eats, sleeps and dreams of achieving such lofty aspirations. Nothing will get in his way.

Sometimes, however, the world beyond the rink puts major obstacles in their way. Reality reared its ugly head when Hurricane Sandy hit the northeastern United States, particularly in New Jersey where the damage is unimaginable.

Between the Eastern Junior Hockey League and the Atlantic Junior Hockey League, there are three junior teams that were in Sandy’s path. Jersey Hitmen coach Toby Harris, a native of Kingston, Mass., described the destruction as devastating.

“It’s so sad, people lost everything,” the Boston College alum said. “I’ve been here for two years and I’ve never seen anything like it. Complete towns are under water or just washed away. I mean, on TV, we saw the damage that was done to New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina but when you see it in person, you can’t really believe it.”

The Hitmen roster features players from plenty of locations outside the Garden State. A few hail from places such as Nebraska, Ohio and other areas of the country that are not usually in the path of such powerful storms. Coach Harris describes how his players have reacted to Hurricane Sandy.

“Well, pretty much all of our U16s and U18s are from New Jersey and many of them lost their houses,” the coach said. “They’ve had to move in with other families. A lot of our (EJHL) guys still don’t have electricity or running water in their homes or billet’s homes, but we’ve banded together and are helping others. Our players are helping people clean out their homes. They, along with my wife, have been volunteering at a soup kitchen, making sure people get enough to eat.

“We have the players’ families who don’t live in New Jersey helping any way they can,” the coach continued. “The father of Tanner Creel, who is from Illinois and one of our goaltenders, bought and sent a huge generator for Tanner’s billet family. The support we’re receiving from all around the country has been incredible. Of course, I’ve heard from the other EJHL teams and they all want to help. We appreciate everything people are doing for us.”

The organization is also planning a benefit hockey game to raise funds for the cleanup and rebuilding efforts.

“We’re going to play a Hockey Fights Sandy game in the near future,” said Harris. “We just need to finalize the date and opponent and we’ll announce all the details. We want to do everything we can for the people down here.”

The Hitmen were able to find practice ice and have played twice since the storm ravaged their surroundings.

“Last week, we were able to practice at Ford Hall Arena on the campus of Montclair State University, although some of the players couldn’t practice and we played our series against the Springfield Jr. Pics, “ Harris said. “We lost the first game. For obvious reasons, our heads just weren’t in the game but we won the next day so that was something we could feel good about.”

The players and staff of the Jersey Hitmen are continuing to help each other cope with Hurricane Sandy, but more importantly, they are helping their fellow human beings. People have lost everything they have ever owned and the Hitmen have been instrumental in assisting with the cleanup and provision of the essentials that most of us take for granted on a daily basis.

Asked how will the people of New Jersey move on emotionally and put their lives back together and Harris said, “I moved down from Boston two years ago and I quickly learned that the people here have heart and are genuinely good people. They’re determined to rebuild their communities and it will happen. I love it here.”

Game of the Week

Jersey Hitmen at Bay State Breakers

Two of the Eastern Junior Hockey League’s hottest teams will meet this weekend for two games when the South division’s first place team, the Jersey Hitmen, visit Massachusetts to face off against the division’s second place club, the Bay State Breakers. One point separates the two squads who are also first and second overall in the league standings, respectively.

Jersey boasts three of the circuit’s top four leading scorers in Tim Clifton (24 points), Brendan Bradley (24 points) and Josh Henke (23 points). Offensively, Jersey has been unstoppable. The Hitmen power play is scoring at an eye opening 34.3 percent rate, contributing to the club’s average of 5.06 goals for per game.

Defensively, Jersey has given up 1.94 goals per game. Goaltender Tanner Creel is second in the league with a .943 save percentage. His crease mate, Chris Funkey is third with a solid .931 save percentage of his own. The puck stoppers have been buoyed by penalty killing units that have enjoyed a success rate of 92.2 percent.

Bay State has been on a roll of its own. The club has won eight of it’s last ten contests. Leading the way for the Breakers is new Princeton University recruit Ben Halford (Lenox, Mass.). Halford leads the EJHL with a .951 save percentage. The team is allowing an average of 2.60 goals per game boosted by the penalty killers who have stopped 87.5 percent of man down situations.

On the offensive side of the puck, the Breakers are scoring by committee. Twenty-six players, including Halford and fellow netminder, Greg Ogard have found their way onto the score sheet this season. The top point producer on the club is Sotiri Anthanasopoulos, who has 16 points on seven goals and nine assists in 17 games. The Montreal native has registered 13 points in his last seven contests.

The Breakers power play needs improvement as it’s 15.7 percent success rate will attest but it is the a respectable seventh in the EJHL.  

Power Rankings

1) Boston Junior Bruins (11-5-0-0-0) - The Junior B’s were idle last weekend and remain in first place in the Eastern Junior Hockey League’s North division. This week, coach Peter Masters’ club will see the Bridgewater Bandits in Bridgewater, Massachusetts on Wednesday.

2) Bay State Breakers (11-5-0-0-1) - The Breakers are on the rise in the Eastern Junior Hockey League’s South division. Last weekend, Bay State picked up four points by sweeping the Connecticut Oilers (6-2, 4-0). With the victories, the Breakers moved within one point of division leader Jersey Hitmen. This week, Bay State has a two game showdown at home in Kingston, Massachusetts with the Hitmen.

3) Valley Junior Warriors (10-6-0-0-0) - The Jr. Warriors took on a spirited Boston Bandits club last Sunday and came out on the losing side (2-1). Despite the loss, Valley maintained its hold on second place in the EJHL’s North division. This weekend, the Jr. Warriors will play three games in three days with a visit to Rochester, New York to face off against the Jr. Stars Friday night before returning home to host the Philadelphia Revolution on Saturday and the Connecticut Oilers on Sunday.

4) Springfield Jr. Pics (10-6-0-0-0) - The Pics made the trip south to take on the Jersey Hitmen for a two game set and returned home after splitting the series with a 3-2 win and a 7-3 loss. Coach Pat Tabb’s squad has risen to third place in the Eastern Junior Hockey League’s South division thanks to going 8-2-0 in the it’s last ten contests. This week, Springfield will play the Islanders Hockey Club on Wednesday evening. The next night, the Pics will see the New Hampshire Junior Monarchs. Both tilts will take place in Haverhill, Massachusetts.

5) Boston Jr. Rangers (9-1-4-0) - The Jr. Rangers had last weekend off from Atlantic Junior Hockey League action but remained in first place. Next week, Boston will begin a five game home stand. Friday evening, BJR will host the Connecticut Wolfpack. Saturday the Junior Rangers will meet the New Jersey Titans followed with a Sunday game versus the New Jersey Rockets.  

6) Walpole Express (9-2-2-0) - Like the Jr. Rangers, Walpole did not hit the ice last weekend in the AJHL. The Express is sitting in third place in the league. Coach Mark Kumpel’s team is one point behind second place Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and two points in arrears of first place Boston Jr. Rangers. This week, Walpole will travel to the Nutmeg state for a Tuesday night tilt with the Wolfpack.

7) South Shore Kings (8-5-0-2-0) - South Shore was given last weekend off and returns to EJHL action Wednesday afternoon at the Lighthouse in Tyngsboro, Massachusetts for a match versus the Islanders Hockey Club. The Kings will return to the ice Thursday in Haverhill, Mass. to take on the Portland Junior Pirates. SSK will hit the frozen sheet for its third game of the week against the Rochester Jr. Stars on Saturday in Haverhill, Mass.

8) Islanders Hockey Club (7-4-0-0-1) - The Islanders made the trip from Tyngsboro, Mass. to Rochester, NY where coach Sean Tremblay’s troops split their two game series by scores of 4-2 (loss) and 6-1 (win). The Islanders who are 6-4-0-0 in their last ten matches and sit in fifth place in the EJHL’s North division. They will face off against South Shore at home on Wednesday followed with games versus Springfield on Thursday in Haverhill, Mass and New York Apple Core also in Haverhill, Mass.  

9) Northern Cyclones (8-3-0-1) - The Cyclones did not play last weekend. Coach Bill Flanagan’s club occupies fifth position in the AJHL standings. This week, Northern will see each of New Jersey’s teams as they will host the Rockets on Saturday and the Titans on Sunday.

10) Connecticut Wolfpack (7-2-1-1) - The ‘Pack did not see AJHL action last week. Coach Chris Cerrella’s club is in sixth place and will look to move up in the standings when they face the Walpole Express on Tuesday night. Friday Connecticut will drive north to Tewksbury, Massachusetts to take on league leader Boston Jr. Rangers.

11) Boston Bandits (8-9-0-0-0) - Coach Steve Stirling’s team pulled off the upset of the weekend by defeating the Valley Jr. Warriors 2-1. The Bandits are in fourth place in the EJHL’s North division. Boston has a 5-5-0-0 record in it’s last ten contests. This week, BB has one game scheduled. The club will host the number one ranked Boston Junior Bruins at home on Wednesday.

12) New Hampshire Junior Monarchs (7-4-0-0-1) - Last weekend, the Monarchs made the long trip to Philadelphia and swept the Revolution in a two game series (4-3, 4-1). It was the first time this season New Hampshire had won two consecutive games from an opponent this season. The defending EJHL champions currently reside in sixth place in the North division. This Friday, Coach Ryan Frew’s crew will face off against the Springfield Jr. Pics in Haverhill, Massachusetts followed with a Saturday tilt versus the Connecticut Oilers also in Haverhill, Massachusetts.

13) Connecticut Oilers (4-8-0-2-0) - The Oilers made the trek north to Raynham, Massachusetts for a two game set with the Bay State Breakers but came away two losses (6-2, 4-0). Connecticut is currently in sixth place in the EJHL’s South division but trail New York Apple Core by just two points.

14) Laconia Leafs (3-9-4-0) - To paraphrase a famous quote, “Something good, this way comes...” to Laconia, New Hampshire. The Leafs are in the midst of a five game unbeaten streak and have risen from last place in the Atlantic Junior Hockey League to tenth. Coach Joe Cardarelli’s squad is only three points removed from seventh place in the standings. This week, Laconia will test their new found success against the New York Bobcats in a two contest set at home in the Granite State.

15) Portland Jr. Pirates (2-14-0-1) - The Pirates welcomed New York Apple Core on November 3rd but were less than hospitable hosts as Portland defeated Apple Core, 4-1. The win ended a seven game EJHL losing streak for the Jr. Pirates. The two teams met again the next day with New York coming out on top, 5-2. Thursday, Portland will be looking for its third win of the season against the South Shore Kings. PJP will meet the Philadelphia Revolution on Sunday. Both matches will take place in Haverhill, Massachusetts.  

Shawn Hutcheon can be reached at feedback@hockeyjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter at @ShawnHutcheon.