December 12, 2012

Juniors Journal: Winning isn't all that matters to Wolfpack

By Shawn Hutcheon

The Atlantic Junior Hockey League’s Connecticut Wolfpack had a slow start to the season, but after losing only two of their last thirteen games, the ‘Pack have risen up through the standings. They are currently in second place, six points behind the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Knights. 

Connecticut head coach and general manager Chris Cerrella explains that the schedule has played a role in the sudden turnaround by his club.

“We played a light schedule at the start of the season then we started catching up with the other teams by playing midweek games,” Cerrella said. “We’ve been playing three games per week. We still have six games in hand on Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. Our kids are still fresh going into the Christmas break. We’re getting stronger as the season moves along.”

Cerrella credits forwards Nick Belger, Ori Benyamini, Vincent Caligiuri, Anthony Beaumont and goaltender Gene Lane (Plymouth, Mass.) with leading the Wolfpack to its recent success.

“Belger, who is committed to Division I Sacred Heart University, has been huge. He’s an offensive specialist and leads our team in scoring with 32 points in 22 games,” the coach said. “Benyamini is crafty and runs the point on our power play. Caligiuri works hard in both ends of the ice. Beaumont is 6-foot-3 and has drawn interest from Division I schools and Lane, who is this week’s AJHL Goaltender of the Week, has been great all season. He’s getting a lot of attention from the high level Division III schools such as Babson, Hobart and Skidmore.”

Wins and losses are important to the Connecticut Wolfpack, but to its owners and coaches, helping players achieve their goal of playing hockey and acquiring a first-class college education is a win-win situation.

 “We put ten to fifteen players in college every year. It’s our number one goal,” the Quinnipiac alum explained. “Wins and losses count but college placement is the most important goal of our staff. Whenever we recruit a player out of prep school or midget major, our first sell is our college placement success. We hang our hats on our placement.

“While they’re here, we require all the players to attend either high school or community college classes and we monitor their progress,” Cerrella added. “They must maintain a B average while they’re with us.”

The Wolfpack organization offers players everything necessary to achieve their objectives.

“Our owners, Dan McCarthy and Bob Crawford, are hockey guys,” Cerrella said. “We get all the ice time we need. We have our own gym and the goalies have their own goalie coach in Jared Waimon. We have all the uniforms and equipment from the Connecticut Whale of the American Hockey League who changed their name from the Hartford Wolfpack. We try to have the most attractable program in junior hockey for players.”

The organization has succeeded in doing just that.

“This is one of the best groups of athletes I’ve coached in my eight years as head coach of the Wolfpack. Their work ethic and chemistry is second to none.”  

With the Wolfpack in second place in the AJHL and the potential to send as many as fifteen athletes to college programs throughout the east coast, Cerrella and his staff are excited for the future.

“Our program will grow and continue to produce players who will be successful on the ice and even more successful in the classroom,” Cerrella said. “It’s not the perfect program but it’s our program and as well as we work hard, the wins and losses will take care of themselves and we will continue to attract players who will become college players.”

Game of the Week

This week’s Eastern Junior Hockey League has a number of games that deserve the attention of the hockey world but the game, actually series, that will have fans and scouts flocking to the arena will have the Islanders Hockey Club in Wayne, New Jersey to take on the Hitmen.

The Islanders have been near the top of the league’s Northern division standings all season and currently reside in second place. They trail the Boston Jr. Bruins by three points. They also have the circuit’s leading scorer (40 points in 22 games) and Yale recruit Michael Doherty (Reading, Mass.) headlining the third best offense in the EJHL. Defensively, the Islanders are number one in goals against, having given up just 51 in 23 games. Goaltender Colton Phinney is second in the league with 12 wins and third in minutes played with 1040:00. He is also brings a 2.25 goals against average and a .919 save percentage into the series.

The Hitmen are the overall leader in the EJHL standings with a record of 19-5-0-0-0. They possess the most potent offense in the circuit, having scored 129 goals. University of Vermont recruit Brendan Bradley leads Jersey with 37 points in 24 games and is second in league scoring. On the defensive side of the puck, the Hitmen own the second best defense with 53 goals against. Netminder Chris Funkey owns a 10-0-0 record along with a 2.41 goals against average and a save percentage of .923.

The two clubs have met once this season with Jersey emerging victorious (3-1) on October 13th.

NE Junior Power Rankings

1) Boston Jr. Bruins (19-6-0-0-0) 
2) Islanders Hockey Club (17-5-0-0-1)
3) Valley Jr. Warriors (15-9-0-0-0) 
4) Connecticut Wolfpack (16-5-2-1)
5) Springfield Jr. Pics (14-11-0-0-1) 

6) Northern Cyclones (16-6-1-2)
7) Boston Jr. Rangers (13-4-7-2)
8) Walpole Express (16-6-2-0) 
9) Bay State Breakers (13-10-0-0-2)
10) South Shore Kings (12-10-0-3-0) 

11) New Hampshire Junior Monarchs (11-10-0-0-1)
12) Boston Bandits (10-12-0-0-1)
13) Laconia Leafs (7-17-4-0) 
14) Connecticut Oilers (7-14-0-2-0) 
15) Portland Jr. Pirates (7-19-0-1-0) 

Shawn Hutcheon can be reached at feedback@hockeyjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter at @ShawnHutcheon.