The USPHL 15U Division kicks off this weekend with the first regular season games in the USPHL universe. The team will play, under modified low-contact rules, in Foxboro, Mass., as part of the Eastern Alliance Kickoff event.
The Eastern Alliance Kickoff will also act as a seeding event for the 16U and 18U Divisions, and the schedules (and season previews) for those divisions will be released next week.
As with all the teams in this division, the Hitmen bring in a new group every year and the results are not surprisingly different each season. After taking second in 2018-19, the Hitmen fell to seventh in 2019-20, but they were strong enough to pick up a victory in the round robin portion of the 15U playoffs in February.
With another new group in the essentially 15 Pure division comes a new Hitmen coach in Gary Shpungin to lead the Hitmen in 2020-21.
“We are really looking forward to some normalcy and getting back to playing the game we love, in what has been a crazy 2020,” said Shpungin. “This year more than any other gave us an opportunity to develop, practice, and get closer as a team through uncertain times. Our team is very fortunate to have a close knit group with 10-plus returning players who have been with our organization for multiple years and a handful of players [have been with the Hitmen] since Mites.”
“With our veteran leadership, plus the addition of a few talented players, the sky’s the limit for our success,” added Shpungin.
Philadelphia Hockey Club
Two years ago, the PHC pulled off a big upset, defeating a Rockets Hockey Club that was a top 15 nationally-ranked 15U team, for the USPHL championship. Those players may have moved on to higher age levels with PHC, but the spirit of being a top program in the league remains - especially being part of a feeder system to Philly’s new NCDC team.
“There are high expectations as this year’s PHC 15U team comes into the USPHL 2020-2021 season,” said first-year Head Coach Dennis Helkowski.
Coach Helkowski expects his team to play a complete 200-foot hockey game and compete for three full periods.
“[Our] Identity will be a consistent 100% effort on the ice, utilizing team concepts, disciplined play, and attention to detail in all aspects of the game,” he added. “We are very excited to get started and wish all of the teams the best of luck this season.”
Connecticut Jr. Rangers
The Jr. Rangers return to the fold after a two-year absence, having last fielded a 15U team when the league was known as the USPHL 16U Futures in 2017-18. Bobby Pauls takes the helm as the Jr. Rangers similarly hope to develop homegrown talent for their successful NCDC squad.
“I'm excited to be a part of all my players' continued development. I expect a good season from my players,” said Pauls. “A big goal of mine is to create a team-first culture, teach accountability, having my players take ownership of their development and finding a role on the team at which they can excel.”
The Jr. Rangers will unveil their first 15U team of the new decade at the Eastern Alliance Faceoff this weekend at the Foxboro Sports Center. It is the first step in a marathon, not a sprint, for players making their first jump at Midget hockey. Teaching will be paramount.
“I'm very focused on developing good practice habits, creating their own sense of competitiveness and the drive to keep elevating their game,” Pauls added. “Obviously as a coach and being competitive myself, I would love to win as many games as we can. However, it is more important to put a focus on how they conduct themselves in games, how they prepare for games and practices, and help them take their first steps towards playing junior or college hockey.”
Islanders Hockey Club
Head Coach Brian Umansky brings his Islanders club to the ice expecting a lot from a talented group hailing from many different parts of the country.
“[I am] extremely excited to coach a hungry group to make their debut in Tier-1 hockey,” said Umansky. “The Islanders expect to have great leadership on the U15 team.”
Brian Putney, “a reliable, two-way forward who leads by example,” will be captain, as he leads a forward crew that also includes Maine’s Tanner Cole, “who should be a high-octane point producer.”
Colorado’s Joey Wennogle, Weston English and Liam Doherty also join the Islanders up front, the fruits of “a great recruiting season.”
Defensively, another Colorado native Jacob Reil and veteran Islander Josh Weigs will lead the blue line crew. Local product Cole Currier and Luke Hardiman, of Pittsburgh, will give the team solid goaltending as well.
The Pics return hoping to get into the USPHL 15U playoffs here in 2020-21, after missing the mark last year. Three players are actually returning for the Pics, as well. Defensemen James Delaney, Hunter Stockseth and Philip Tikhonov will be expected to provide leadership.
“We are also looking forward to having a lot of new faces get their first taste of the Springfield Pics culture,” added Head Coach Rob Bonneau.
Hailing from Hudson, N.H., the Cyclones come in with a potent force of players largely familiar with this highly reputable youth and junior organization.
“Along with adding a lot of newcomers, we have six players that have moved up from our U14 Cyclones team from last year,” said first-year Head Coach Chris Zuccaro. “This year's team has a lot of depth at every position. We have kids from all over the country coming to play for us for the first time.”
Nick Blanchette, Ben Lees, and Kaiden Cianci played together as a 14U Cyclones line last year and will have a big role in this year’s success as well, Zuccaro added.
Matthew Ketcham is a newcomer in net for the Cyclones, but is coming off an impressive stint with the Long Island Royals. Additionally, Cushing Academy product Bobby Nabozny “will be a huge offensive addition to our team this year.”
“It will be a learning experience for a lot of these players as the league is very competitive,” Zuccaro said, “but I am happy from what I have seen so far in training camp. It should be a great year!”
Palmyra Black Knights
Largely a new group, as is the nature of this division, the Black Knights nevertheless carry the traditional target of a defending champion. Head Coach Rob Shearer leads the pack to the ice to get the title defense season started this weekend.
Utica Jr. Comets
The Jr. Comets’ first year in the 15U Division last season was a smashing success, as they were often at the top of the standings and finished in the top three crowd that also included Palmyra and Philadelphia.
P.A.L. Jr. Islanders
The P.A.L. Jr. Islanders always have solid Midget teams, and they are expecting nothing less this year. This team has the benefit of being coached by former New York Islanders General Manager Garth Snow, continuing to highlight the working relationship between the NHL club and the P.A.L. organization.