The USPHL Elite 2021-22 season begins on Saturday, Sept. 11, and the Mid-Atlantic Division will be in action that evening, with a 7:30 p.m. faceoff marking the first-ever game for the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Knights in the USPHL Elite against the host Jersey Hitmen. The two teams get back in action at 10:30 a.m. Sunday morning. The three other division teams will kick off their seasons over the next couple weekends thereafter.
Below, we profile all five Mid-Atlantic Division teams. Check back on USPHL.com every day from now to Sept. 20 for new Premier (or Elite) divisional previews, coming to an end just prior to the first games played in the New England Division.
The order presented below is based on 2020-21 regular season finish.
Rockets Hockey Club
Season Opener: Sept. 25 at Jersey Hitmen
The Rockets got a chance to show what they can do on the National stage, making the championship series for the first time. Head Coach Todd Wagenbach is looking at 13 players coming back from that Nationals team ready to get there all over again and get a shot at that championship.
“We have high expectations for the team this year, especially with 13 returning players from last year’s team that went 22-8-1 in the regular season and made a trip to Nationals,” said Wagenbach, whose team is also the defending regular season champions of the Mid-Atlantic Division. “With five veteran defensemen on the blue line, we will be stronger defensively.”
Max Toomey, an ‘04, was already one of the top defensemen in the Elite Division last year and he’s back for another round, along with fellow blueliner Matt Bucci (‘01). Both were all-stars last year, along with returning forward Marco Taffo (‘03).
Joining Taffo up front are veterans Nick Jervas (‘01) and E.J. Gleie (‘04). They’ll be joined up front by exciting newcomers Jozef Polacek (‘04) and Mike Tomao (‘03). Jack Woodhead (‘03) is a new player to watch on defense.
“The division will be strong as usual, especially with the Rocket-Hitmen rivalry,” said Wagenbach. “I’m not sure what to expect from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, but the Aviators and Whalers will be as competitive as ever, as both had very productive off-seasons.”
Season Opener: Sept. 11 vs. Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Knights
The Hitmen made a third straight trip to the National Championships in 2021, so they certainly know what it takes to get there after also making it in 2019 and 2018.
Head Coach Jim Raymond is excited for his young Hitmen group of 2021-22, which is made up 81 percent of 2004-born players, 21 to be exact. He also has four ‘05’s and two ‘03’s on board, so it is definitely a young squad, though eight players are actually returning veterans.
“This year’s team is once again young, hungry, and filled with talent,” said Raymond. “We’re anticipating a good year and look forward to the challenge of getting back to the National Tournament in March.”
Raymond sees the 2021-22 squad as deeper overall than the team he iced through last March.
“To say COVID was a challenge last year would be an understatement,” Raymond added. “Between injuries, shutdowns and the like, we often played games with a short bench, especially at defense. Now, having a large, deep roster will keep the guys competing for their jobs weekly and allow us to fill in the holes when needed. Several of the guys will get the call up to Premier and that’s always exciting for everyone.”
The eight returning veterans are mostly up front - Jack Vander Plaat, Matthew Cochran, Oscar Rosen, Leo Carlucci and Mason Ruschmeier. Raymond sees Cochran and Rosen as “poised for breakout seasons.”
Back on defense, Collin Nolan, Austin Bailey and Will McDade are back.
“[Nolan] will continue to be a major force on the blue line,” Raymond added.
As for the newcomers, there are 21 on this year’s roster.
“I’m excited about the incoming class and look forward to each finding their way and leaving their mark,” Raymond said, who went on to give his thoughts on the division. “I anticipate WBS to be a strong, well-coached squad that will give all of us within the division a real push. The Rockets Hockey Club and Coach Todd Wagenbach [is expected to] vigorously defend their Mid-Atlantic Championship title. The Jersey Whalers and the New York Aviators are physical, well-coached teams poised for strong seasons.”
Season Opener: Sept. 17 at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Knights
There’s one sure thing in the Elite Division - that the Whalers want to go in a new direction under new ownership and coaching, and that starts with dropping the “Shore” from the prior franchise the Jersey Shore Whalers’ name.
That doesn't mean closing the door on valuable players from the prior franchise, however.
"We have a great mix of second year Elite junior experience along with some skilled rookies making the jump to junior, that will help build our junior program," said Head Coach Joe Campisano. "This season's team is younger. We are '03-and '04-heavy, yet half of our team is returning as second-year juniors. Our competitive nature is higher."
This veteran group includes goaltender Collin Penders, forwards Giuliano Fazio, Anthony Campisano and
Tommy Johnston, and defensemen John Spallin and Michael O’Keefe.
Among newcomers, watch for early fireworks from blueliners Jake Yerdon, Jared Dye and Garrett Kettyle, forward Ethan Smith and goalie Lucas Holland.
"The Mid-Atlantic division is consistently a strong division," added Campisano. "I feel it will show consistent play throughout all teams and I feel confident this division will represent well come showcases and playoffs."
New York Aviators
Season Opener: Sept. 24 vs. Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Knights
The Aviators are ready to put a tough 2020-21 season behind them. The team was never able to play a single true home game in 2020-21, so playing their first three games at Aviator Sports and Events Center is already a step in the right direction.
The Aviators have completely overhauled their Elite team after its all-around struggles last year, with not quite a handful of returning veterans to lead the new squad. All things new, however, carry with them their own brand of excitement and the Aviators hope to get back to Nationals at the Elite level after making the trip for both Premier and Elite in 2019, and both teams also qualified for the eventually canceled 2020 Nationals. The Premier team held the Aviator flag aloft this year, proving you can usually count on at least one Aviators team making the trip to “the dance” - they’d just rather go as a pair than solo.
Season Opener: Sept. 11 at Jersey Hitmen
Welcome to the USPHL, Knights! Their new USPHL journey begins this very Saturday as they travel to New Jersey to face the Hitmen for two games. They jump right into the fray against a regular Nationals participant, but Head Coach Ryan Secor and his team has no fear of anyone, even being the “new kid on the block.”
“The Knights are a team that has only two veterans,” said Secor. “Even with a heavy roster of rookies, [we] have a lot of talent, but are hungry to get to the net and are willing to block shots.”
The Knights will lean heavily on ‘01 Nick Viselli as he is one of these two junior-experienced veterans stepping onto the ice at the Revolution Ice Centre in Pittston.
“Nick has gone through a tremendous amount of adversity by missing the 2019-2020 season due to a car accident,” said Secor. “He was resilient and was able to return to play in the second half of the 2020-2021 season with the Elmira Jr. Enforcers, where he gained valuable playoff experience. He provides great leadership and grit to a highly skilled team.”