July 26, 2013

Cadre of EJHL products lift Reading Royals to Kelly Cup

By Mike Zhe

Alex Berry (Danvers, Mass.) hoists the Kelly Cup after winning the ECHL title in May. (Photo: Tom Boland)

Talk to members of a championship pro hockey team and you’ll inevitably hear the word chemistry.

Locker rooms are melting pots, usually with a mixture of New Englanders, Canadians, Midwesterners and Europeans, among others. Units take shape, often with shared experiences forming the foundation.

For the Reading Royals, one of those units was simply known as the “EJHL guys.”

The Royals are champions of the ECHL after defeating the Stockton Thunder, four games to one, in the Kelly Cup finals in late May. It was the first championship for the 12th-year organization, and there was no denying the contributions of the local guys.

“It was kind of a special thing for us, with so many New England guys,” said forward Ian O’Connor (Londonderry, N.H.). “A lot of EJHL guys and a lot of Hockey East guys. That was a pretty cool piece to our puzzle.”

O’Connor is a Providence College product. Teammates T.J. Syner (Springfield, Mass.) and Alex Berry (Danvers, Mass.) played at UMass, years apart. Another forward, Barry Almeida (Springfield, Mass.), put in four good years at Boston College.

All four developed in the Eastern Junior Hockey League. Syner and Almeida, who are cousins, played for the Springfield Pics. Berry skated for the Boston Jr. Bruins and O’Connor for the New Hampshire Jr. Monarchs.

Those EJHL playing days are in the rear-view mirror, but the stories from those locker rooms endure in today’s locker room.

“I feel like every team you go to, people reminisce about their past leagues,” said Syner. “I did the same thing with my USHL buddies. We’d tell stories and guys would roll their eyes because there’s only so many of us that played in the ‘EJ’.”

“Lot of laughs along the way,” said O’Connor. “Guys were busting our (chops) when they heard that EJHL talk. We all played together at some point along the way.”

Nobody outside the locker room was laughing at the Royals once the postseason arrived.

Reading went 46-19-3-4 to earn the top seed for the Eastern Conference playoffs, charging in after winning eight of 10 games to close the regular season. Syner and Almeida, rookies who began the year in the AHL with the parent Hershey Bears before the NHL returned from the lockout, finished the regular season both averaging about a point per game in the ECHL.

“The American league is obviously a little bit better league,” said Syner. “Players are better, faster. I think in the ECHL I played with a little more confidence.”

O’Connor logged a couple games in the AHL with Worcester in 2011-12 and was signed to a professional tryout agreement with his hometown Manchester Monarchs in February. That led to a 17-game stint that saw him score his first AHL goal and play in the building that was the center of his hockey world as a youth, the Verizon Wireless Arena downtown.

“That was a dream come true, to be able to play in that building,” he said.

After handling Greenville in five games in the first round, they were taken to a Game 7 by Florida. In the 4-1 finale, Almeida and O’Connor would score goals, with Syner notching an assist.

“We felt when we played our game nobody could touch us,” said O’Connor.

They beat Cincinnati in five games to win the Eastern Conference and dispatched Stockton in five to win the Kelly Cup. The theme of the postseason was resilience, with the Royals often coming back from multiple-goal deficits to win games.

“I’ve never been a part of so many unbelievable games, comeback games,” said Syner, who finished third in the ECHL in playoff scoring (9-12-21). “Our team was so resilient throughout the playoffs. When we were down a couple goals we wouldn’t give up.”

Syner was on the ice for five of the six goals in the Cup clincher, a 6-0 win at Stockton in Game 5. Upon returning home, the team was honored with a championship parade and rally that saw more than 3,500 inside the Sovereign Center.

Kelly Cup forever on their résumés, the New England four will try to stick in the AHL next season. Syner re-signed with Hershey last month, while O’Connor guesses he’ll at least open the new season with Reading.

Berry, the elder statesman among the local guys, is 27 and was a fifth-round draft pick of the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2005 before running into some injury issues. Almeida is a champion for the second year in a row after helping Boston College win it all as a senior.

Another Hockey East product, forward David Vallorani out of UMass-Lowell, was the Royals’ second-leading scorer during the regular season with 17 goals and 59 points.

Common backgrounds. And now a common championship feeling.

“It’s a little different schedule, for sure, running so late,” said O’Connor. “I’ve tried to relax the last couple weeks and now I’m going to hit it hard.

“But this was great. Stuff you’ll always remember.”

This article originally appeared in the July 2013 issue of New England Hockey Journal.