By Bill Keefe
Over the past decade plus, scores of New England players have migrated west for their hockey. Usually, it’s for the USHL, the USA Hockey National Team Development Program or the NAHL. Sometimes, it’s more off the beaten path, such as the British Columbia Hockey League.
Meanwhile, over the past several years, a reverse trend is emerging. More and more players are coming east, or maybe north, to the Eastern Junior Hockey League.
What was once a purely local league has gained a national, and even international, profile. A quick zip through some rosters reveals home states including Nebraska, Illinois, Florida, Texas, Ohio, Virginia, Maryland, Michigan, Iowa and Minnesota, among others. A number of foreign players from Russia and especially Sweden are playing in the league as well; Swedish goalie Linus Lundin of the Springfield Pics is drawing significant attention.
Every league has its strengths, but the strength of the EJHL came through loud and clear in talking to some non-New England players: exposure.
Other leagues have more fans and play in a larger media spotlight, but the EJHL delivers quality of spectator over quantity with more than half of the NCAA Division 1 programs located in New England, New York or New Jersey, in addition to an abundance of Division 3 schools.
“We might only get 50 fans, but 10 schools are there watching you,” said Ian McGilvrey, a 19-year-old Omaha, Neb., native ranked among the EJHL’s leading scorers in his first season with the New England Huskies.
McGilvrey played AAA midget hockey in Omaha before joining the first-year New Mexico Mustangs of the NAHL last season. He attended camp with the Mustangs this year, but with a new coach, the situation had changed and it was time to look elsewhere.
His former Mustangs teammate Mike LaFrenier of Addison, Ill., had spent barely a month around the EJHL. He had committed to the New England Huskies over the summer and made the EJHL Selects team that played in Russia. Huskies coach Paul Jenkins already had put him in touch with some schools. In that brief time, he had seen enough to recommend that McGilvrey join him with the Huskies. McGilvrey came almost sight unseen.
“I just came out here because of the exposure aspect,” said the 5-foot-8, 170-pound McGilvrey, who had 11-8-19 numbers in his first 12 games. “I always wanted to play out East for a Hockey East school. I was happy playing in the North American League; I’m extremely happy playing out here. They’re showing some interest; it’s pretty exciting. There are not many fans, but 10 times the exposure. It’s night and day.”
In its earlier days, the NAHL was based in the Upper Midwest. Now, it has 28 teams stretching from New York to Alaska.
“It’s harder to scout,” said Jack Sweeney, EJHL’s director of hockey operations. “No one had really seen (McGilvrey) or heard of him. He came out and tried out for the Huskies, and he’s a terrific player. It was not overnight that he became a terrific player. He was a good player, but nobody saw him.”
A potential drawback to the EJHL is that it is a pay-to-play league with tuitions in the neighborhood of $6,500, while the USHL and NAHL are tuition-free. However, because they are tuition-free, those leagues need to sell tickets and that can have ramifications on the ice. The EJHL requires players to wear full cages and bans fighting, in line with the NCAA. The USHL and NAHL? Not so much.
“It’s a complete different style,” said LaFrenier, a 5-foot-11, 190-pound, 19-year-old defenseman. “The ‘EJ’ is a lot faster, more skilled, less physical contact. The ‘NA’ has got to please the fans. They love their fights. Every team has their fighters. They’ve got to try bringing fans back to the game.”
Forward Nick Cruice of Dresher, Pa., is in his second season playing for the South Shore Kings and recently committed to Union College for 2013. After his last midget season, he was leaning to Milton Academy, but he followed a coach to a new, and local, EJHL club, the Philadelphia Revolution. After that season, he was a late cut from the USHL’s Lincoln Stars before joining the Kings.
“The fact that it’s a pay league didn’t have a major impact in choosing between leagues,” Cruice said. “There’s more college exposure. Last year, I had a lot of interest from schools in the East and I didn’t want to go west and lose that interest.
“My first year, Brown University saw me early; they’re only 20 minutes away. I’ve been happy with the ‘EJ.’ (Kings coach) Scott Harlow helped me a lot getting on the phone with assistant coaches. He did a lot to help me get exposure and during the process.”
Zemgus Girgensons, a ’94 forward from Riga, Latvia, posted 49 points in 51 games last season for the USHL Clark Cup champion Dubuque Fighting Saints. Now in his second season with Dubuque, he is a potential top-round pick in the 2012 NHL draft. His first full season in the United States was spent with the Green Mountain Glades in 2008-09.
He started with the Empire team and was moved up to the EJHL club. Others quickly took notice. He liked Burlington so much, he committed to Vermont during that season.
“I was nervous,” Girgensons said. “My language wasn’t that good and it was hard to leave home. I made the right move. All the universities look for you and there are a lot of good recruits from the ‘EJ.’”
Girgensons and Boston College junior defenseman Brian Dumoulin (Biddeford, Maine) are two EJHL alumni who have helped build the league’s reputation as Matt Gilroy, Nick Petrecki, Ron Hainsey (Bolton, Conn.) and Mike Komisarek did before them. The more current recruiters can point to the number of EJHL players that have been drafted, competed in the Frozen Four and played on national teams, the more word spreads that the EJHL is a significant option.
Dumoulin said there was some pressure to go to the USHL, but with “a proven track record to develop players at the Division 1 stage,” he decided to play for the New Hampshire Junior Monarchs. Dumoulin became a 2009 second-round pick of the Carolina Hurricanes.
Harvard-committed left winger Jimmy Vesey (North Reading, Mass.) is another local player who faced a decision about going west. Seeking to avoid a midseason trade and remain close to his family, Vesey joined the Kings this season and had 14 goals in his first 14 games.
“With more and more guys staying local in the EJ and getting guys from around the U.S, it’s becoming a stronger league,” Vesey said.
This article originally appeared in the November 2011 issue of New England Hockey Journal. Bill Keefe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org