The Fresno Monsters, brand new to the USPHL but with a 12-year history thus far, became the historic first Pacific Division participants in the Premier National Championships held last March in Virginia.
Although they didn’t make it out of the round robin, they did end their run on a high note by beating a well-established USPHL Premier power in the Minnesota Moose. Fully established as a team in the national USPHL conversation now, watch for the Monsters to defend their Nationals spot against a largely new group of teams in the division. With so many unknowns - including three brand new organizations - they will have to test the waters along with fellow returning league members the Las Vegas Thunderbirds and San Diego Sabers.
The Sabers joined the Hub City Tampa event, as COVID restrictions made it tougher than ever to play games in California. That gave the Sabers an Ivy League education in how some of the top and most well-established Premier organizations operated, so expect the Sabers’ Year 2 to see a dramatic progression.
Below, we profile all five Premier Division teams. Check back on USPHL.com every day from now to Sept. 21 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: Thursday, Sept. 16 at Long Beach Shredders
The Monsters will be the first-ever opponents for the new Long Beach Shredders when the two teams open the season in Lakewood, Calif., for three games between Thursday and Saturday.
“The Fresno Monsters are very excited to defend our Pacific Division title. With the additional teams joining the very competitive Pacific Division, we are looking forward to creating some new and exciting rivalries,” said Head Coach Cody Key. “Our team has one year of experience under its belt about the nuance of the USPHL style of play. The learning curve is over; quick passing, steady defense and fundamental hockey are the cornerstones to being successful in the USPHL.”
The team the new Shredders will face will look not unlike the team that reached the Nationals, at least in terms of some of the major players. The Monsters have returned Pacific All-Stars Leon Biller and Jacob Gagnon, as well as fellow single-year USPHL veterans Charles-Emile Duciaume, Cobi Lennex, Kevin Brennan, Drew Brett, and Seamas Killian.
Biller and Gagnon are a pair of ‘02’s from Sweden and Bakersfield, Calif., respectively, who combined for 90 total points between them. Duciaume, an ‘03 from northern Quebec, crossed a continent to become one of the Monsters’ top-scoring blueliners with 21 points in 36 games, as well as a top defensive player, registering third last year in takeaways (147).
Additionally, Brennan, Brett, Killian and Lennex all contributed in a number of different ways to the Monsters’ Nationals run. To all of this, the Monsters add USPHL Premier Midwest East All-Star Stepan Skvirskii, who scored 52 goals and 84 points for last season’s Decatur Blaze.
“We know that this coming year as we defend our Pacific Division title we will have a target on our backs. San Diego and Las Vegas will be looking for some revenge and we are looking forward to the challenge,” Key added.
Las Vegas Thunderbirds
Season Opener: Sept. 24 vs. Fresno Monsters
The T-Birds were generally right with Fresno all last year - sometimes ahead, sometimes behind - in what amounted to a two-team race in the new division. Fresno ended with a just slightly better five-game unbeaten streak against Las Vegas’ three-game unbeaten streak to end the season and set much of the difference. Otherwise, it was neck and neck. This year, the T-Birds entrust a run for the division title and trip to Nationals to a younger squad than in 2020-21.
“Overall, Vegas has made a choice to be a younger, very skilled team with some key 20-year-old pieces,” said General Manager Adam Bonaldi. “We expect to go through some growing pains early in the year, but feel the sky is the limit for most of our players. We expect to be a high-energy, speed-focused team that relies on great goaltending and depth scoring to win games.”
The team returns USPHL Premier All-Star brothers Nick Bonaldi (defense) and Anthony Bonaldi (goaltender) just for starters. Unfortunately, Nick is currently out, but the T-Birds “look forward to getting [him] back from injury in the near future,” Bonaldi added.
Local native and ‘03 forward Heath Mensch returns as one of last year’s top goal-scorer, with 17 through 36 games. Additionally, Caden Thorne, Kevin Hanly and and Deric Prier are expected to bring key contributions.
“We have many players experiencing junior hockey for the first time,” said Bonaldi. “Some of them include Evan Brown, Jadon Kwiatkowski, Antoine Tourigny, Loïc Gosselin and William Maltais, just to name a few.”
Bonaldi can’t wait to play the new teams, as well as rekindle their 2020-21 rivalries with Fresno and San Diego.
“We are very excited to have three additional teams in our division this year. We expect great things from Long Beach, Lake Tahoe, and Ontario. Last year it was pretty much a two team race between Las Vegas and Fresno. We look forward to things being very different this year with all teams being competitive for a playoff spot,” Bonaldi added.
San Diego Sabers
Season Opener: Sept. 25 vs. Ontario Jr. Reign
Learning is never easy - otherwise, it wouldn’t be learning, it would just be “doing.” So, for the 2020-21 season, a young Sabers team learned and learned some more. Now, one year older and one class wiser, many of last year’s Sabers have come back with a full knowledge of what it takes to compete in the tough USPHL Premier.
“I'm confident in the way we look right now. We're stronger than last season thanks to a handful of experienced veteran players coming back and new faces that will become key players for us,” said Head Coach Domenick DiCicco. “The largest component that I'm focused on this season is the small aspects of the game, like shot-blocking. Our returners throughout the second half of last season were beginning to understand how critical those small aspects of the game are, and our new players already have a good understanding of that component.”
DiCicco already sees a much deeper group for the 2021-22 season, one with “positive personalities that will bring character and build a great culture in the locker room.”
Three players in particular bring at least portions of a season of USPHL experience.
Defenseman Dylan Travis (‘03) missed a majority of last season due to an injury, but after a summer of training, DiCicco believes this talented player can make an impact right away.
Carson Brown (‘04) is an exciting player to have back up front, having joined the Sabers at Hub City Tampa coming out of Langley, B.C.
“He is coming back ready to make a splash,” said DiCicco. “He had the end of the season last year to adjust to the junior level and, each game, just kept improving.”
Goaltender Justin Lakin (‘01) also comes back to help create a pitched battle in the crease.
A pair of ‘01 newcomers will be potential leaders right out of the gate, both being offensive stalwarts - Luke Avedesian is from Quebec’s Trinity College Prep, and Ludvig Nilsson joins from Sweden.
“I expect our division to be very competitive this season and have a lot of parity throughout it,” said DiCicco. “The Pacific Division is hard-fought with big hits and spectacular goals. We have to be prepared for battle every night.”
Lake Tahoe Lakers
Season Opener: Sept. 24 vs. Long Beach Shredders
The Lakers, being brand new to 2021-22, get their first shot for wins in a three-game weekend against another brand new franchise, the Long Beach Shredders. The Lakers have behind them, however, the Premier Division-winning ownership group that also owns the Charlotte Rush organization (and the Carolina Jr. Hurricanes, as well).
Right off the bat, you have a champions’ front office running the show, and first-year Head Coach Dan Bogdan is excited to “make an immediate impact.”
“I am extremely excited to get our season underway and showcase the diligent recruiting efforts we have put forth. We feel that the group we have assembled will have a ton of offensive threats up front, coupled with steady goaltending and a big, mobile group of defensemen,” added Bogdan. “Our biggest asset is the mindset and culture that we are fostering here in Lake Tahoe. The day to day development of the Lakers will be a cornerstone to our ultimate goals of winning the division and National Championship.”
Three USPHL veterans are providing the building blocks for the Lakers in terms of leadership - Jett Arminen and Jaegar Watts (both ‘01’s) and Arley Cutler (‘02) will play at the forward, defense and goaltending positions, respectively.
“Arminen is a proven scorer and point producer in this league and will have an immediate impact up front,” Bogdan said. “Watts provides veteran leadership and a steady, reliable role on the back end. Cutler comes in with championship experience having come from the Charlotte Rush and will be a solid presence in between the pipes.”
Up front, Latvian Rihards Mertens will provide a spark to the scoring, along with Zach Teichart joining from the storied Little Caesars 18U program. Luke Stevens joins as a big (6-foot-3-inch, 205-pound) blueliner from Colorado who comes out of strong South Kent Selects Academy and Elite Hockey Academy programs.
Long Beach Shredders
Season Opener: Thursday, Sept. 16, vs. Fresno Monsters
The Shredders are the brainchild of NHL alum Emerson Etem, he of 196 combined regular season and playoff games in “The Big Show,” almost all with Anaheim - a dream come true for the 1992-born Long Beach native.
Now, he gets to bring in players and develop them for the college hockey path utilizing every minute of his vast high-level pro experience.
“One word that comes to mind about our team is depth,” said Etem. “We have scoring depth up front, especially our top six. We have plenty of forwards that can create energy in multiple ways. Our D are solid through and through with the perfect mix of skill and steadiness. I took my time with goalies this season and we have three that can shut the door.”
In order to build a strong offense, he turned to Tier II veterans Blake Anderson and Pablo Frank.
“Blake was the leading scorer in the Greater Metropolitan Hockey League last season and we’re looking for him to build on that offensive performance,” said Etem. “Pablo is a pure goal-scorer and was a big part of his team in Missoula last year. Nate Boucher is a young D, but was a point-per-game player with the GMHL championship-winning team last year.”
Watch for junior rookies Jean Berthaudin and Angelo Picazo jump right into the mix of team leaders this year.
“Jean is a tall, lanky goalie that can get across quick and will for sure shut the door,” added Etem. “Angelo is a tall and smooth skating D that can get it done at both ends of the rink.”
Ontario Jr. Reign
Season Opener: Sept. 25 at San Diego Sabers
Ontario joins the USPHL, associated with the American Hockey League team known as the Ontario Reign, who happen to be the Los Angeles Kings’ top farm team. Utilizing this honorable position, the Jr. Reign were able to hit the road and bring in the players of strong character that they were looking for to build that first-ever 2021-22 team.
“During the recruiting process this summer we focused on players with the requisite ability, but more importantly, the character to be a part of our organization,” said Head Coach Jeremy Blumes. “Being our inaugural season, we anticipate some ups and downs and by identifying players with strong character we will be able to battle through that adversity. In the long run, that tough mental makeup we will develop over the course of the season will be a tremendous asset by the time playoffs begin. That adversity will, in fact, benefit us in the long run.”
Blumes predicts a team that will wear its heart on its sleeve and put in the hard work every night.
“Similar to the town we represent, we plan to be a blue collar, hard working team that gives our best effort each and every night,” added Blumes.
A pair of ‘01’s in center Juna Croteau and defenseman Jackson Wade will bring the junior experience they need.
“Junah is an offensive catalyst. His work ethic, elite vision, and skill set will make his teammates around him better,” said Blumes. “Junah and his family recognize the unique opportunity that presents itself in the Ontario Jr Reign's inaugural season within the USPHL, a league with a tremendous track record for player development. It's a great opportunity as he pursues his goal of playing college hockey the following season.
“Wade is a reliable, steady defenseman that plays hard every night,” Blumes added. “Along with being a presence on the back end, he has an equally big impact off the ice with his positive personality, and team-first mentality.”
Californians Clint Thwaites and Jordan Contreras come into junior hockey for the first time with speed and tenacity, while Aidan Wisdom (‘03) was a top blueliner in 18U hockey last year. Ethan McIntyre (‘03) is a true power forward joining his first junior team.