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NJ Rockets Prepares Players For An Elite Future

by Brittany Burke / New Jersey Devils

The NJ Rockets, a junior program operating out of the Amerihealth Pavilion attached to Prudential Center focuses on the development of young players mainly from the Tristate area. (Photo / NJ Rockets Junior Hockey Club)

Do the names Kevin Lebanc, Ryan Hitchcock, Jeremy Bracco, Charlie McAvoy, or Chad Krys ring any bells? If they don’t now, they will in the future.

These are five players who have come through the New Jersey Rockets system and made it into the elite US Hockey National Development Team Program.

While at a glance, their names may not be recognizable now, but that can and will change over the next few years. Lebanc currently plays in the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) and is projected to be drafted into the NHL this year. Another 2014 NHL draft prospect, Hitchcock, has committed to play for the Yale Bulldogs.

Bracco, a forward committed to Harvard, isn’t eligible for the NHL draft until 2015, but he is already making a name for himself in USA Hockey. In his first season with the NTDP, he broke the single season scoring record previously held by Chicago’s Patrick Kane.

Chad Krys of Ridgefield, Conn., is the latest athlete from the NJ Rockets to be chosen for the USNTDP. (Photo / NJ Rockets Junior Hockey Club)

Then there is McAvoy and Krys; both expected to be drafted come the year 2016.

They are all elite players who were made better with the help of the exclusive NJ Rockets junior program run Bob Thornton, out of the Amerihealth Pavilion in Newark.

“Those names are some special players we’ve had there and had the pleasure of coaching,” Thornton said. Thornton has been running the program as head coach and director of player development for nine years.

The NJ Rockets is a unique program for players aged 15 to 20, focusing on both on and off ice training.

“We’re like an AP course for these kids. They’re going to come in and we’re going to give them a bunch of stuff in a short amount of time. Their IQs are very smart as hockey players, so we’re training them like pros at 15 and16,” said Thornton. “They’re doing off ice training. Their practices are high level. They’re playing with guys older then them, which is why I say they get almost two years in one when they come in early. They have to be good players to be there at 15 years old, which they are. They just need to get more mature when they’re around guys that are a little bit bigger and stronger, but they mix in really well and they’re just hungrier to get better faster. It’s a big commitment. These kids are in the rink three hours a day, on ice and off ice.”

The team’s reputation draws in kids from all over New Jersey, New York and Connecticut to come and improve their game. A lot of that reputation comes from taking younger, talented 15-year olds and developing them alongside the older athletes. This method pushes the players to mature on and off the ice at a faster pace than their local programs would have.

The NJ Rockets stick to a training regimen of on and off ice training as part of the player development. (Photo / NJ Rockets Junior Hockey Club)

“It’s a draw and brand that we have. We specialize in developing high-level 15, 16 and 17 year-olds. While those kids that are coming in are 15, they are high-level, elite kids that need to be pushed,” explained Thornton. “They get to play against older competition. All the other programs in our area, they just kind of keep the kids in the same age group, but we’ll take the younger kids and play them up against older and stronger players. That makes those kids stronger and more advanced as they go. So their development, they’re progressing twice as fast had they been playing at their own age group.”

Thornton’s methods come from years of experience playing in the minor league. Where programs like the NJ Rockets were not in existence while he was playing, he has been able to pass his knowledge on to the younger generation and see them flourish.

“I played in the minors, in the USHL and OHL, so I didn’t get to the NHL, but I grew up in the environment. It’s good because I can show them the way. I didn’t have this when I was a kid, so my experiences alone and the people I work with, we can show these kids what they need to do,” he said.

The program has had a history of success. John Carlson of the Capitals is the biggest success so far, however, over the past three years the program has gained more and more popularity because of the amount of players it’s sending to the NTDP. With five players getting chosen, the program has the most representation of any other on the east coast.

Nevertheless they aren’t just sending kids to the NTDP. Players in their program are leaving with commitments and scholarships to NCAA Division I schools as well as contracts with the OHL and USHL.

AJ Drobot was picked 13th overall by Sioux Falls in the USHL  futures draft. He was the second NJ Rockets athlete to be drafted after Cam Dineen went to the Tri City Storm third overall. (Photo / NJ Rockets Junior Hockey Club)

“Having Carlson make it, he was kind of like the poster boy of our program when it first started, and now we want to see more kids make the NHL. They all get Division I college commitments through our program and they go play internationally with the international team, or go play with the USHL or OHL, but the next step will be seeing kids get drafted now and signing contracts … Every kid is different. Some are going to go play college hockey get scholarships, get drafted and some are going to go to the OHL or Quebec league. There are different avenues and we are a program that is open to those different avenues. We’re not pro one or the other. That’s important. We get these kids to have all their options and they are able to make decisions when they have to,” Thornton explained.

Thornton is looking to maintain the program’s excellence for the future. He wants to see one to two of the NJ Rockets make the NTDP per year while continuing to send players on to elite collegiate and junior programs. And from the looks of it, he is meeting those goals.

This is because, as of May 6 you can add Cam Dineen to the list of players you will be hearing about in the future. Dineen, whose defensive partner Krys made the NTDP, was chosen third overall in the USHL futures draft. The defenseman will have the chance to make the Tri City Storm before heading to New Haven to play for the Yale Bulldogs.

It is apparent that Thornton’s methods are working and the hockey world will be seeing more products of the NJ Rockets making headlines.

For more, head to NJ Youth Hockey Central.

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