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Stars shine spotlight on USHL's growth

by Brad Holland

Alex Tuckerman of the West Division scores a goal during the USHL All-Star Game.
At the USHL All-Star Game this week, some of the league’s best and brightest stars were on display. The league’s top scorers were there, as were the first pair of brothers to play in the game since 1991-92, and also present was one slick puck-moving defenseman who could potentially get taken in the first round of the 2008 NHL Entry Draft.

What stood out most clearly in this game, though, was the depth of quality hockey players competing. A simple look around the NCAA, where 130-plus USHL-trained “graduates” compete annually, and the NHL, where 59 former USHL skaters currently play for NHL teams, and it becomes apparent that the USHL is likely in the most exciting phase in its short history.

League Commissioner Gino Gasparini believes the steps taken in previous seasons have led to this point, where both the current system and the potential for growth has matched and even exceeded the USHL’s loftiest expectations.

”We like where we are, we like where we’re going, and we think there’s a great future for the league,” he said. “And we think we’re servicing the players’ needs to develop them so they don’t have to go to other countries to get what they think they need in order to become not only a great college player but also have the opportunity to maybe play in the NHL

“That was our ultimate goal and we seem to be realizing it."

The main reason the USHL continues to grow and attract fans, is that the league continues to grow and attract high-caliber players, such as those on display in Green Bay this past Tuesday.

The game featured four players already drafted by NHL teams, and seven players who graced NHL Central Scouting’s mid-term rankings of the top domestic skaters eligible for the 2008 NHL Entry Draft, released early in 2008. One of those skaters, Indiana Ice defenseman John Carlson, looks to be a first-round selection. CSS has him pegged as high as No. 19 on the list.

All told, 36 of the 40 skaters who took part in the game have already committed to a Division 1 program. This from a league that annually places 130-plus players into NCAA Division 1 programs.

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With each passing all-star game, each passing season, the league more fully steps into its role as not just one of the premier developmental junior leagues in America, or even North America, but in the hockey world abroad.

All part of the plan, according to Gasparini.

”That was our goal, and really, we are still in our infancy,” he said. “Six years ago with the evolution of Tier 1, in conjunction with USA Hockey, we developed a new model that we believed would attract top-end athletes and to create an environment that would serve as a very competitive location for players not only born in America, but for other players from other countries as well.”

Even third-line forwards and second-pair defensemen in the USHL are routinely able to make the jump to the next level, speaking to the quality of talent overall. But what is most impressive, according to Gasparini, is the amount of talent that slips through the cracks of the NHL Draft each season. The top skaters in this league are often drafted to the NHL, but there are a host of other skaters who step right in and become top players in the NCAA, and beyond.

“In 2006 there were 12 free agents signed, for a total of 25 players signed that cut their teeth in the USHL that signed NHL contracts,” he said. “And, in 2007, there were 23 players, and part of that 23 there were 14 free agents that were signed. It shows you the talent of not only the top lines but also the second and third lines; these are players that turn out to be late bloomers, that when given a chance, go on to play in the National Hockey League.

Andy Miele is an example of one of those players. Miele, a four-year USHL grad, recently made a mid-season jump from the Chicago Steel to the University of Miami RedHawks. Miele, the USHL’s leading point and goal-getter at the time of his departure, made his presence felt immediately for his new team, scoring a goal in his first college period, one that would eventually prove to be the game-winner. He has since added an assist for two points through four college games.

Spencer Heichman's third period goal tied the game for the West Division.

Miele has the goal-scoring potential to play pro hockey in some capacity, judging from his USHL career and his immediate freshman impact on a Division 1 lineup.

And then, of course, you have the top-end talents, the skaters who cut their teeth in the USHL but appear poised for pro hockey from the moment they put on a USHL jersey. Guys like Sam Gagner (Sioux City), who was selected with the No. 6 overall pick in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft by the Edmonton Oilers, Phoenix’s Martin Hanzal (Omaha), Buffalo’s Tomas Vanek (Sioux Falls), or Colorado’s Paul Stastny (Omaha), all young players who are making an impact skating for NHL teams.

In fact, the speed with which players are able to develop in the USHL and the ease with which they are able to step into lineups in NCAA rosters or professional hockey, actually works to keep the talent level down. If players, especially the high-end prospects, were more apt to skate in the league until their 19-year-old or over-age years, the league could be even stronger.

That, says Gasparini is the reality of the United States hockey landscape, a landscape that the USHL is more than happy to fit into.

”The reality in our system is that college hockey is part of our culture and definitely part of our development ladder,” he said. “So the league has two goals: our first, and primary goal, is to develop players that want to maintain eligibility and want to have an opportunity to get a college degree. Secondly, it is to expand their athletic capabilities as players and to prepare them for the college game and for professional hockey.”

With 59 players who spent time in the league currently skating for NHL teams, and impact players like Vanek, Gagner, Detroit’s Brian Rafalski and Toronto’s Jason Blake on that list, the talent of the USHL is no longer a surprise to the NHL scouts who watch the weekly USHL calendar. One could even say that the USHL has never been in a more stable position in its history.

Gasparini even alluded to further expansion, and a goal of one day filling up three divisions of six teams in each, while keeping the league travel under control and continuing to build on the local rivalries like those enjoyed by Lincoln and Omaha --roughly 70 miles apart -- or Cedar Rapids and Waterloo (50 miles), who boast the league’s top attendance figures.

It is growth that the league’s commissioner looks upon with relish. He believes in what the league offers both its fans and its players, and he looks forward to what the future will bring.

“We take a lot of pride in what we’re doing,” Gasparini said. “We think it’s a highway that provides a lot of opportunities for athletes, one that keeps their options open and available for the future.”

”I think the league has a bright future when you take a look at the present.”

Blake Kessel, who scored the second goal of the game for the East Division, is a draft pick of the New York Islanders.

Around the USHL -- The Indiana Ice won both of their games this weekend, and, in true Ice fashion, they didn’t leave themselves much room for error. After a 2-1 home victory against the Chicago Steel on Friday night, the Ice completed their home-and-away sweep with a 2-1 shootout victory Saturday. With the two one-goal victories, the Ice now boast an incredible 18-2-4 record in one-goal games. … The Ohio Jr. Blue Jackets surprised division rivals, the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders, this week by sweeping the visiting RoughRiders by scores of 4-3 and 6-3. Blue Jackets forward Derek Roehl scored two goals and added two assists in the two games, bringing his totals to a team-leading 14 goals, 22 points -- second only to Tim Hall’s 24 points-- and a plus-1 rating in 31 games this season. … Nick Dineen of the Sioux Falls Stampede scored two goals and five points in two Stampede wins this weekend, vaulting him over the point-per-game clip with 37 points through 36 games. He also helped to inch his team a little closer to the Lincoln Stars. Lincoln has 45 points through 39 games this season, just three better than the Stampede’s 42 through 38. The teams sit third and fourth, respectively, in the West Division. … With one point in each of his team’s games this week, Lincoln Stars forward Jason Gregoire kept his season-high 11-game points streak alive. He has now scored 12 goals and 20 points along the way.

Western Hockey League

While the Eastern Division seems to be firmly in the control of the Calgary Hitmen, who are unbeaten in eight games and currently sit 10 points ahead of their closest competition, the Western Division seems very much up for grabs.

And it’s turning into a three-horse race.

The Spokanne Chiefs, on the strength of a seven-game unbeaten streak, are in first at the moment, but they are pursued by the hard-charging Tri-City Americans and their diminutive but dangerous leading scorer, over-age forward Colton Yellow Horn.

Yellow Horn, who earlier this season put together a 22-game points streak, scored a goal and added an assist in three games this week, all wins. He is third in the overall WHL points race and the Americans are only two points off the pace set by the Chiefs. Each team has played 53 games this season.

The third team in the hunt for the Western Division lead, the Vancouver Giants, also swept a three-game week, defeating the Lethbridge Hurricanes 3-1, the Chilliwack Bruins 6-2, and finally, on Saturday evening, the Everett Silvertips by a score of 5-2.

Vancouver has the most favorable schedule down the stretch, with 12 of their final 19 games played at home. Spokane will play 10 of its final 19 at home while the Tri-City Americans will play only eight at home, and 11 of their final 19 on the road.

Alex Tuckerman receives the Ron Woodey Award as the MVP of the game. With him in the photo are USHL President Gino Gasparnini (L) and Joe McCartan (R) of RBK, the sponsor of the award.

Around the WHL – The Prince George Cougars won for the first time in seven tries this week, defeating the Kamloops Blazers by a 5-4 score at home. However, the Blazers did not take kindly to the defeat, shellacking the Cougars the next night by a score of 8-1. … Drayson Bowman (CAR), who hadn’t played since Jan. 18, re-joined his team this week, in time for a 3-2 defeat of the Kooteny Ice on Friday evening in which he had no points. However, the following night, the No. 9 scorer in the WHL scored three times in a 5-4 victory, completing the weekend sweep of the Ice. … With the lone goal in his team’s 4-1 defeat at the hands of the Calgary Hitmen, Medicine Hat Tigers forward Tyler Ennis extended his goal-scoring streak to six games. He has scored seven goals and nine points in the six games. … The Vancouver Giants got help from the cavalry this weekend, as dynamic forward Michael Repik (FLA) returned from more than two months of concussion-related injury time. The Czech winger wasted no time getting back on the score sheet, scoring a goal in his first game back in a 3-1 defeat of the Lethbridge Hurricanes. Repik added another goal in each of the next two games and has now put up four points in three games since returning.

Quebec Major Junior Hockey League

Even a heavy workload of four games this week couldn’t slow down the Saint John Sea Dogs. Four games in seven nights, and the Sea Dogs came away with six of a possible eight points, and a loftier perch in the standings.

The Sea Dogs were paced this week by forward Alexandre Picard-Hooper, who scored five goals and seven points in the four games, and blueliner Alex Grant, who had one goal, four points, and a plus-6 rating.

Picard-Hooper was a runner-up for the Offensive Player of the Week, while Grant earned the Defensive Player of the Week honors, standing above all other QMJHL defenders and goaltenders, beating out 2008 NHL top prospect Andrew Bodnarchuk of the Halifax Mooseheads.

The Sea Dogs are now only five points behind the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies, but hold three games in hand. And with four games in hand on the league-leading Baie-Comeau Drakkar and only seven points to make up, another hard charge could see the Sea Dogs sitting atop the league’s standings, looking down on the rest of the league come playoff time.

Around the QMJHL --Acadie-Bathurst Titans forward Mathieu Perreault scored a goal and added an assist in a 4-2 defeat of the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles on Saturday night, and extended a season-high, league-high points scoring streak to 22 games. He has scored eight goals and 32 points along the way. … Offensive Player of the Week this week went to Lewiston Maineiacs forward Danick Paquette this week, as he scored four goals and five points, fired 11 shots on net and played to a plus-5 rating in only two games. He also recorded a hat trick in an 8-3 victory against the Voltigeurs on Wednesday night. … With a goal and an assist in a 3-2 defeat of the Saint John Sea Dogs on Saturday night, Jakub Voracek (CBJ) extended his season-high points streak to 15 games, during which he has scored 12 goals and 29 points, and Halifax has put together a 10-5 record. … The Gatineau Olympiques, despite sitting fourth overall in the QMJHL, have fallen on hard times lately. They have dropped their past four games, two in extra frames, and are now in danger of being passed by the high-flying Mooseheads.

Ontario Hockey League

With two goals in a 4-2 win against the Windsor Spitfires on Saturday evening, it would be safe to say that Akim Aliu is running hot. It would also be safe to say that his London Knights have joined him for the ride.

Aliu’s two goals gave him a total of seven goals and eight points in his past six games. The Knights have won each of those six games, plus two more, giving them an eight-game winning streak and a total of 64 points through 50 games this season.

Despite moving their No. 1 goaltender, Steve Mason (CBJ), at the deadline – to divisional rival the Kitchener Rangers – the London Knights have far from packed in their 2007-08 season. In fact, they find themselves within striking distance of the third- or even second-overall spot (by points) in the Western Conference.

The Knights trail the Windsor Spitfires – whom they beat Saturday – by only three points, and the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds by seven, though they have two games in hand on each team.

Around the OHL -- The only team as hot as the London Knights in 2008 might just be in their own division. The Guelph Storm, undefeated in eight games to the tune of a 7-0-0-1 record, are doing their best to keep pace with the charging Knights. Led by top prospect Drew Doughty, who has eight points in the eight-game run, a team-first balanced approach -- their top scorer, Brandon Buck, is No. 62 in league scoring -- and another top NHL prospect in goaltender Thomas McCollum, who has started and won six of the eight, the Storm are heating up at the right time. … New York Rangers prospect Bobby Sanguinetti scored twice – his first goals since Jan. 10 – and added two assists for four points in a 7-3 defeat of the Erie Otters on Sunday, giving him seven points in his past three games. The Battalion won each of those three games. … Mississauga St. Michael’s Majors goaltender Chris Carrozzi, the No. 5 goaltender in the CSS mid-term rankings, bounced back from a tough start in which he allowed six goals on 42 shots in his first appearance this week, and posted back-to-back wins against the CHL’s top team, the Kitchener Rangers, on Friday, and the Sunday against the Sudbury Wolves. Carrozzi stopped 34 of 37 shots – including 14 in the third period – in his best game of the week, against the Rangers, defeating goaltender Josh Unice in the process. Unice was a third-round pick of the Chicago Blackhawks in last season’s NHL Entry Draft.


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