August brings hockey players from across the world off the beaches and summer jobs and into the rinks to get ready for the 2019-20 USPHL season.
From there, it’s a marathon - but not the typical 26.2-mile run, more like those endurance 100-milers - to the end of the season in February or March, depending on your particular level of hockey.
USPHL hockey begins for the Midget Divisions at the end of August, and for the juniors, it begins in September. Road trips, off-ice training, educational assistance and college placement help are all part of the world outside of the rink.
Meantime, players are working almost every weekday to get ready for the busy weekends of two - or in some cases, three and four - games.
To get some insight on what this marathon is like from starting gun to finish line, we talked with three USPHL veterans from across the league’s footprint - from Minnesota to New Hampshire to Virginia.
About our panel: Jake Freise is going into his fourth season with the Steele County Blades, of Owatonna, Minn.; Nick Wood is advancing from the Potomac Patriots’ Elite team to the Premier squad in this, his fourth USPHL season; and third-year USPHL veteran Cam Speck is returning for a second season as Captain of the New Hampshire Jr. Monarchs in the NCDC.
First of all, what brought you to the USPHL? How did you hear about the league and your team?
Freise: I heard about the Steele County Blades through a Tier-2 camp here in Chicago. I was 17 at the time, and Coach Nick [Adamek] was in the stands. I had a meeting with him, and decided then this was where I wanted to be.
Speck: Coach Tony Dalessio was the big sell for me with the Monarchs. I sat down with him in the spring of my senior year in high school. It was the way he carried himself, he was genuine, and he told me he was a hard coach and would get the most out of me.
Wood: I was playing youth hockey with the Patriots when the organization moved to the USPHL. From youth hockey, I transitioned to Midgets [USPHL 15U and 16U] and then into juniors. I live relatively close to the Patriots and the Prince William Ice Center, so location was big for me. I didn’t want to give up my school, friends and home and go someplace where I might not have developed as well or had as good a time.
What were your first impressions of the team and the level of play at tryouts and at the main camp?
Wood: It was different, faster. Honestly, I saw the talent there and was a little intimidated going into juniors, and playing with kids from 16 to 20 years old. The Patriots made me know that I belonged here, but had room to grow. There were so many great players in the club.
Speck: We had a spring camp, a summer camp and then main camp later in August. Main camp was really the first impression when I first saw Coach Dalessio and Coach [Ryan] Frew show their styles and how they wanted to play. They wanted fast players, and guys who played hard.
Freise: The team had a tryout, but Nick told me that I didn’t have to skate at tryouts. So my first impression was at training camp. I was the youngest guy on the team. I started off third line and had to work my way up. It was a wild experience.
How long did it take to get to know your teammates, once you were in the final preseason camp?
Speck: We jelled pretty quickly. Last year, we had a really good group of guys that wanted to be together and do things even outside the rink together. It took maybe a month, but once we came together, right at the end of our slide in September, you saw our record shoot upwards after that.
Freise: Before my first training camp started, my roommate was a ’96, the oldest player on the team. There were also a lot of other players on the team from previous years, and I met a lot of these players through him. So, before the games even started, I had made a lot of really good friendships. Last year [2018-19], I had been on the team longer than anybody and Coach Nick gave me an “A” [as alternate captain], so I led the way pretty much the whole season.
Wood: Not long at all. In training camp, we had a lot of team-bonding activities to get to know names and the guys’ backgrounds. Maybe within a month of the start of camp, we were just getting together and joking around.
What did you think of the practices early in the season, and how did they compare to practices later in the season?
Freise: At the beginning of the year, everyone’s trying to impress people, everyone’s letting the coach know they can play. Once lines are put together, practices get better and faster.
Wood: The practices were steady all year. Both of our [Premier and Elite] coaches ran the practice, and they were up-tempo all year. Mondays were off, so we skated four days a week and each practice was different - one day would be special teams, another would be forechecking and backchecking. You were always moving.
Speck: In September, the practices are high tempo, high speed, but with a lot of teaching. Besides three or four players returning with our coaches, everyone was learning a different style of play from what they were used to. From the end of January to March, practices were a little more relaxed, slower but with more touches on the pucks, in order to keep us upbeat and fresh for games.
Where were you, mentally, for your first USPHL game? What were your thoughts going into that first game?
Wood: Going into that first game, I definitely had some butterflies. That’s probably normal for anyone. We had a 10-minute warmup, and that was definitely the time to get the nervousness out. Then I calmed myself down, and played how I normally play.
Freise: My first game, there were a lot of people on the team, almost four and a half lines of forwards, some people didn’t get a lot of ice time. Every time I got on the ice, I felt like I had to play my best hockey.
Speck: We played at the Connecticut Jr. Rangers, and there was a lot of curiosity. It was not only our first NCDC game, but the Monarchs’ first as an organization. What was the league going to be like? There was a lot of anxiousness in that room, but after the first period, everyone settled down and it was good to get that first win.
Kings of the Road
Where did you go on your first big road trip, and what do you remember of that road trip - both on-and off-ice?
Speck: In Connecticut, that’s when we did our first Shoe Check. The team’s all at dinner, and someone will go around and put ketchup on someone’s shoe. Then someone will call “shoe check!” and if you didn’t catch it, you had to get up in the restaurant and sing a song. Logan Martinson had to get up and sing “Fergalicious” [by Fergie].
Wood: Last year, the first road trip I remember was down to Atlanta, so that was about an 8-hour bus ride each way. On the bus, Elite is up front and Premier is in the back. We had a lot of fun. Some guys slept, some played cards, and I think there was a movie on. I also had schoolwork to do, as last season was my junior year of high school.
Freise: My first road trip was to the Wisconsin Dells [against the Dells Ducks]. I believe we lost in OT the first game and won the second game. I didn’t play the first game because of a back injury. It was a really fun experience, bonding with the guys in the hotel and at the rink. All the road trips I’ve been on have been a great experience. Every time I see a road trip on the schedule, I know it’s going to be more fun and more time with my teammates.
What was the most interesting thing to happen on a road trip in 2018-19?
Freise: We were coming back from Wisconsin Rapids, and we stopped at a gas station on the way, and the goalie from the team the year before was working at the gas station. Everyone stopped in and saw him. Everyone was so shocked to see him there, because no one had communicated with him since the season before.
Speck: For all of our road trips, there’s been nothing too crazy. We took the games seriously and then relaxed in the rooms. If someone had an X-box, we’d usually gravitate there.
Wood: The Patriots’ team bus was sideswiped by a car on its way to the USPHL Florida Showcase in Tampa. No one was hurt, thank God. I wasn’t there, because I had school and then I was flying down to meet the team for the weekend. I got a text, “Hey we just got sideswiped!”
What do you like the most about your home rink, and what are some memorable home games from this past season?
Speck: I enjoy Tri-Town Ice Arena. It’s a little bit of a cold rink, especially going out for a mid-winter practice at 9 a.m. But when we do get a good group of fans, there’s usually a lot of kids and they can get loud. That makes it a lot of fun.
Freise: Playing at our home rink [Four Seasons Arena] is always the best thing to look forward to no matter who you play, but there is one game that sticks out. A team that had beaten us [Rum River Mallards] was coming into our rink. It was our last game, since we weren’t making the playoffs, and we won. It was just a great experience, especially being on the ice for a couple goals.
Wood: I love our home arena. I think the Prince William Ice Center is one of the best we go to all year. It’s newer, the junior locker rooms are awesome - big and spread out. We don’t get huge crowds for home games, but we get close to 100. We get the surrounding families and friends, but even families who don’t belong to the club come out to watch.
How did you feel your individual game improved from September to March?
Freise: I’m not one-dimensional, but I play a pretty simple game - be as fast and physical as possible. At the beginning of last year I was almost reckless, but then penalties became less and less of an issue.
Wood: My skills, speed and hockey IQ developed tremendously. Also, my confidence grew just by being bigger and going to the gym. You get out there feeling on top of the world, that you’re the best, and you’ll play really well.
Speck: A lot of credit just goes to my teammates, and to Coaches Dalessio and Frew. I started the season a little banged up, with a broken bone in my ankle, so improvement took a while.
Getting The Looks
During the season, what kind of college attention did you get, and are those schools still talking to you going into this year?
Speck: There are a few schools I continue to talk to, and have throughout this summer. I still have one year and I’m waiting to see what is in store. Obviously, this coming season [as a ‘99], I have to make a decision.
Wood: I was just up in Massachusetts visiting Tufts University, looking at that through a hockey perspective. I also met the head coach at Babson, and I also got to skate with the U.S. Naval Academy ACHA team. Navy is my No. 1 school right now, so either that or a really competitive NCAA Division 3 school.
Freise: I’m in conversation with a few different schools. I’ve been talking to Iowa State a couple years now, as well as Framingham State, Lewis University, and a few schools in the suburbs in Illinois. I’m not super-committed in any direction. There are several options, and my coach is pushing that perspective.
This off-season, when did you decide to return to the USPHL, and what do you like most about your team that has you coming back?
Wood: It was probably right as I entered into junior hockey. Just a couple hours south of here, you have Richmond and Hampton, and there are so many great teams north of us. Our Coaches Jon [Sucese] and Zachary [Vit] are tremendous. They know what they’re talking about, and they knew the path I wanted. I knew they were the best people to help me get [to college]. I also get to finish up my senior year at my home high school this year.
Freise: I made the decision at the end of last season, just because I knew this would be an age-out year. I had my shots at going to school, but I know this will be a different year for the Blades. After our season-ending meeting, I feel like we have a new mindset, and we’re not going to let missing the playoffs happen again. We have to be a different team this year.
Speck: I decided to come back pretty much right away at the end of last season. I didn’t want to make a sacrifice or give up a really good spot in a good place like the Monarchs to maybe go somewhere else and not enjoy it as much. I stayed because I think if I do what I need to do, I’ll get to a spot where I want to be. It was a no-brainer for me. I enjoy the team, and the atmosphere is second to none.