By Bill Keefe
At this time last year, the Eastern Junior Hockey League was the big kid on the block and the United States Premier Hockey League was a fledgling idea seeking to shake up the status quo.
While much has changed in a year, some things haven’t changed at all.
Today, the EJHL is a memory as its teams have dispersed to the USPHL and the Eastern Hockey League. The USPHL features 78 teams representing 32 organizations in five divisions: Premier, Elite, Empire, Under-18 and Under-16.
The USPHL’s top circuit is the nine-team Premier division. The Junior Bruins, South Shore Kings, Bay State Breakers, Islanders Hockey Club, Portland Jr. Pirates and Jersey Hitmen are the former EJHL organizations that comprise the USHL Premier division along with the Philadelphia Flyers, Police Athletic League Junior Islanders and Connecticut Yankees.
The Rochester Junior Americans and Springfield Pics, which fielded teams in each division this year up to Elite, will move up to the Premier division next year.
The Junior Bruins, a perennial EJHL power, are the inaugural USPHL Premier regular-season champion. The Hitmen and Kings were near the top, while the Breakers, Islanders and Pirates all made the playoffs.
Over 50 players from the Premier Division have committed to Division 1 colleges.
“Normally, we play the Hitmen and Kings three times; we played them six times,” said Junior Bruins coach Peter Masters, a founder of the USPHL. “(Sean Tremblay’s) Islanders, rather than play (them) four times, we played them six. This was the most difficult league championship we’ve won. It was one tough game after another.
“The league was a byproduct of nine organizations working to grab players. The changeover helped the depth of the nine teams. We looked at it as a three- to four-year process to see where we could take the league. Year one went as well as could be expected.”
Each level of the USPHL was competitive, Masters said. The Under-16 and Under-18 divisions have sparked considerable interest and appear to be an area of growth. Additionally, the USPHL is the only North American junior league with multiple teams with NHL or AHL affiliations, Masters said. The NHL’s Islanders and Flyers are affiliated with their namesake USPHL teams, and the same goes for the AHL’s Pirates.
In 43 games, Joe Lappin of the South Shore Kings was in the top 10 in USPHL Premier scoring with 26 goals and 42 points. Last year, he played for the Valley Junior Warriors in the EJHL. When he learned the Warriors’ top team would not be in the USPHL this season, he decided to pursue a roster spot with a USPHL club.
“The thing that’s different is all the teams can compete against anyone,” said Lappin, a 1994-born winger. “Last year, you’d beat teams 8-1. That’s not the case this year. There’s more talent in this league.”
The USPHL is faster, more physical and more competitive, Lappin said.
“I think switching over has made me a much better player,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s based on my coach (Scott Harlow) giving me opportunities or playing against better people.”
Lappin’s linemate Nolan Vesey (North Reading, Mass.) was challenger for the USPHL Premier scoring title with 25 goals and 59 points in 46 games. Coming to junior hockey from Austin Prep, Vesey said he had no concerns about the Kings leaving the EJHL for a new league.
“I knew this new league would be a good league with the teams from the EJ that moved over,” said Vesey, a Maine recruit. “The league has a lot of commits on each team, and that speaks for how deep the league is.
Even the last-place team has two or three D-1 commits.”
As the Premier division playoffs get under way, Masters said he would not be surprised to see an upset of a higher seeded team. He certainly hopes it’s not his team, which will be the top seed.
Quinnipiac-committed Sean Lawrence has backboned the Bruins in goal.
With other teams yet to finish their regular season, he was leading the league in goals-against average (2.06), save percentage (.932), wins (29), games played (46) and minutes played (2,158).
“He is our horse,” Masters said. “If we were going to challenge to win it, we had to bring our best lineup every night.
“He is one of the most competitive goalies I’ve coached. He works like a dog. He has the ability to make a save that you’re not supposed to make — which can’t be taught — and he makes the saves he should make.”
Vermont-committed forward Brian Bowen (Littleton, Mass.) has paced a balanced scoring attack that saw 10 players produce 20 points or more.
Pending the completion of other teams’ schedules, Bowen was the league leader in goals with 27 and sixth with 50 points.
“He’s a big horse of a kid who’s tough to handle when he gets the puck on his stick,” Masters said. “He’s got a good scoring touch, a heavy shot and he’s creative when he attacks the net.”