The USPHL Premier 2021-22 season begins on Saturday, Sept. 11, with a showdown between the Florida Jr. Blades and Tampa Bay Juniors. Farther north, however, the focus will be on the defending Champion Charlotte Rush opening up their title defense campaign against North Carolina in-state rivals the Carolina Jr. Hurricanes at 8 p.m. tomorrow evening. Both these teams represented the Southeast Division at the National Championships last March.
New head coaches in Charlotte (Troy Schwab), Hampton Roads (Jon Vaillancourt) and Potomac (Josh Gratton) will play a big part in how all of this year shakes out, along with the veteran coaching presence of R.C. Lyke in Richmond.
Below, we profile all five Premier 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.
Season Opener: Saturday, Sept. 11, at Carolina Jr. Hurricanes
The Rush organization asserted its dominance by winning the “Double Dip” Premier and Elite championships last season, and as you can guess, they had a lot of fun doing so. Why not go for it again?
With rings on the fingers of the returning players and coaching staff, they will be out to add a little more bling to the franchise. This includes new head coach Troy Schwab, who ran the Elite bench last year and has now moved up to the Premier side. Former Head Coach Trevor Jewell is still on board with the Rush, but in a management role now.
“The team will be very young and very deep. We are hoping some of the new players are able to come in and contribute right away,” added Schwab. “We are relying on a few of the players off our last year’s Championship Elite team to take the next step and help contribute at the Premier level this season.”
Youth worked wonders last year, as there were only 12 2000-born players that saw time with the Premier Rush in 2020-21, out of more than 30 total.
“Very similar to last year, we will have a young team,” said Schwab. “Last year, we had very good goaltending and the ability to score a lot of goals. This year our D-core is very good and should be the backbone of our team.”
That’s not to say they don’t have firepower - again.
Ethan DeMumbrum (‘01) “has the potential to be one of the top players in the USPHL,” the coach added. DeMumbrum was a top 10 scorer in the regular season who scored nine points in eight total playoff games, including the Rush’s five Nationals contests.
Newcomer Tristan Avoletta (‘01) brings three years of USPHL Premier experience to the table as well.
“He has a track history of scoring and we hope that continues in Charlotte,” Schwab added.
With a championship target on their backs, the Rush know they’ll be chased after by every team in, historically-speaking, the best division in the USPHL Premier.
“I think every team in our division will be good again this year,” Schwab said. “I don't think there will be any team that will be a surprise, as I think all teams have brought in very good players and all organizations have a history of being competitive and I don't expect that to change.”
Carolina Jr. Hurricanes
Season Opener: Saturday, Sept. 11, vs. Charlotte Rush
Similar to their cross-state rivals in Charlotte, the Jr. Hurricanes have gotten younger this year, but with that youth, Head Coach Kevin St. Jacques expects more hunger to prove themselves as a team, and as individuals looking to gain the attention of college hockey programs.
“Our Premier hockey team is a young group this year but a very hungry bunch of players,” said St. Jacques. “The difference between last year‘s hockey club in this year’s is a little bit in size and obviously age, but with age comes enthusiastic players hungry for success to the next level which I think will be a good thing for our program.”
The team is going to be leaning on forwards Ethyn Hopp, Daniel Nau, Duke Cherpeski, Jake Murray, David Blue and Pete Giambatista, along with sole returning defenseman Florian Zajic. Not many, but that means the Jr. Hurricanes were successful in their perpetual mission.
“From last year’s group, all the [remaining] players have gone to college or Tier II, which is great for our program!” added St. Jacques.
Coming up from the Elite Jr. Hurricanes are Nate McNamara, Nathan Fishman, Emmitt Marchesi and Jaxson Verska. Overall newcomers to the junior organization are Isaac Kinsella, Matthew Perry, C.J. Stucky and ‘04 defensemen Patrick Wrzesinski - this youngster will bring strength and size to the D-core. Niklas Seppanen is a new goaltender for North America and for the Jr. Canes as well.
“As always I expect us to compete very well this year,” added St. Jacques. “I’m very excited to coach this young group of players! #onefamilyonegoal!”
Season Opener: Saturday, Sept. 11, vs. Hampton Roads Whalers
The Generals have put their name into the championship echelon at the Elite level, winning that title in 2019, but they have yet to break up the Hampton Roads-Charlotte hold on the championship since 2017. With a group that Head Coach R.C. Lyke says “will be heavily recruited by NCAA schools and next-level junior teams,” he may have the right mix to win it all.
“I am very excited for this year’s team. We have a very good makeup of speed, size, scoring, toughness and a lot of top character young men,” he added. “I think the biggest difference that stands out between this year's team and last year's team is the age of the guys in our group. We are a younger team this year, where last year we were one of the oldest teams.”
Only two players are coming back from last year’s team, as the rest went to NCAA, ACHA and higher-level junior teams. These include veterans Carter Jordan (Wilkes University recruit) and Owen Noll, both ‘01’s. Additionally, ‘03 defenseman Brady Burke played briefly last year with the Premier team and is back for a full season.
Brendan Yingling, a Lebanon Valley College commit, moves up from the Elite team, along with fellow offensively-gifted forwards Luke Kangas and Ryan Kotz.
Pietro Baccarin is an ‘01 with already two years of Premier experience, while ‘01 defenseman Drake Semrad has Premier as well as NCDC experience. Zachary Boulet comes in with prior Tier III junior experience (and success), while ‘02 Michael Deforel and ‘03 Ernests Berzins are among the most exciting junior rookies on the team.
“All of the teams in our Division are very well run and coached every year. The team that will emerge at the top will have to be the team that can stay healthy and play the most consistent throughout the season,” added Lyke.
Hampton Roads Whalers
Season Opener: Saturday, Sept. 11, at Richmond Generals
The Whalers have a chip on their shoulder, after not making Nationals for a chance to defend their 2019 championship - the last before 2021, due to COVID causing the 2020 Nationals cancellation.
With a new head coach on board in Jon Vaillancourt, the Whalers are going in with their back end being particularly strong.
“The Premier squad has been built from the net out,” said General Manager Brad Jones. “Starting with returning netminder Kenny Vought and a strong core of ‘01 veteran defenders, the Whalers expect to be a strong defensive team. Beyond that, the roster has been almost completely turned over. With 15 college commitments and two Tier-II advancements in 2020-21, the 2021-22 Whalers Premier roster will see many new faces.”
Additionally, this year’s team will benefit from a coach such as Vaillancourt who brings in a lengthy coaching resume including a 2015-16 National Championship for the Whalers, as well as a number of Tier II seasons in Minnesota.
Along with Vought, who commences his fourth USPHL season and third with the Whalers, the team will look to returning Whalers Alonzo Colburn and Jake Fleet for veteran leadership.
Dylan Murtagh, Spencer Johnston and Connor Carlile also have previous USPHL experience, while Wyatt Allen and Brendan Kelley are exciting USPHL newcomers.
“The South is always the strongest division in the USPHL Premier. Every team in this division is a contender to win the National title,” added Jones. “Whichever two teams make it out of the Southeast and into Nationals have a strong chance to win the title.”
Season Opener: Saturday, Sept. 18, vs. Charlotte Rush
The Patriots know they have to up their game to keep up with their Southeast Division brethren, and hiring an NHL alum with pro experience in more than 12 countries is a step in the right direction. Josh Gratton played at every North American pro level, and many in Europe to boot, and he brings wisdom from experience to a “young, hard-working team with size and speed,” according to the new head coach.
“The overall skill level of our players should set us up for success this season compared to past seasons,” added Gratton.
Goaltender Dylan Dallaire returns, and he has put together great numbers including a .920 save percentage, a very impressive stat for facing a massive amount of shots last year. Trenton Hart is a fourth-year Patriot and third-year Premier player who, along with Dallaire, “will impact this team dramatically.”
With only a couple returners, more than 95 percent of the team are newcomers. “A few that stand out,” according to Coach Gratton, are fifth-year junior Troy Andrews, fourth-year junior Colton Wiacek and Russian import Valerii Kneib.
“We believe we have a great opportunity to turn heads and be successful,” said Gratton.