USPHL Premier 2023-24 Division Preview Series: Northwest

The Northwest Division was brand new to the USPHL Premier last year and the division definitely caught folks’ attention, especially as they finished with the league’s leading scorer in Vernal’s Alex Rene Bartakovics (121 points in 40 games). In Seattle, Raine Hodge’s 40 goals in 24 games gave him the best goals per game average in the league (1.67) among players with at least 20 games. 

Vernal became the division’s first Nationals representative and put forth a good first-year showing, but were left hoping for a much better trip if they can make it back in 2024. The Seattle Totems will have something to say about the Oilers’ travel plans. The Bellingham Blazers also picked up wins against all teams in the division last year, showing just how powerful a team they could become. In Oregon, the Rogue Valley Royals put up terrific performances throughout and joined the Blazers in an exciting race for the final playoff spot, which the Royals just barely nabbed by four points. 


The league welcomes one of its newest organizations for 2023-24, the Casper Roughnecks, run by the former Rock Springs Prospectors coach Danny Randall, so he comes in with plenty of familiarity with the division. His former team finished third in the division last time around.


Order is 2022-23 regular season finish


Vernal Oilers

Season Opener: Sept. 29 at Bellingham Blazers

The Oilers were able to return some of their most dependable regulars, but President/General Manager David Imonti believes that this will be a much deeper team than the superstar-led squad that hit the ice in 2022-23. There still exists the possibility for some superstars to arise, but Imonti did notice that the Oilers’ depth issues cost them wins at Nationals.

“Although we had a strong team last season, the primary focus this season has been adding depth to our roster, as I feel we lacked the organizational depth required to really make noise at Nationals last season,” he said. “We’ve addressed that by putting together a deep team with players capable of playing a variety of roles, something that I hope will pay off in the postseason.

“While a player like Alex Bartakovics was great to have last season, we will have a more balanced attack this season with production coming from multiple areas,” Imonti added.

Among the returning Oilers are defenseman Filip Lezzani as well as forwards Marco Casinelli, Greener Cho and Presley Toth – and all are ‘04’s meaning they have eligibility to come back for another season beyond this one if they choose to do so.

Additionally, the Oilers are bringing in even more USPHL experience in the form of five-year USPHL veteran Mario Paganini, who scored 55 points in 31 games in his first Premier season last year.

Preston Laupitz joins the defense from the Canadian-American Junior League, where he had 64 points in 39 games and was named Top Defenseman and helped his Hinton Timberwolves win the title. Nick Moore is an impressive ‘04 forward coming out of Tier III leagues in Canada, where he also had a call-up to the BCHL.

The Oilers still have time to prepare for their first game with the latest start in the division, but once they get going, they know it’ll be one long series of battles and depth could be a defining factor for everyone in the Northwest.

“I think a lot of teams have made strides with their recruiting, and a few have utilized NCDC Mountain Division relationships to build a stronger division than we had last season,” said Imonti. “I expect more parity and closer games most nights.”


Seattle Totems

Season Opener: Sept. 22 at Bellingham Blazers

Seattle enjoyed a fairly successful, and winning, season in 2022-23, but they would prefer to be the team at the top and the one that goes to the USPHL Nationals when the division dust settles. The Totems made some office changes that include the hiring of Mike Butters, a veteran junior coach going back to 2001 who has also served in recent seasons as a Tampa Bay Lightning scout.

The former President and Head Coach of the Sno-King Jr. Thunderbirds AAA program in Washington, he returns to the junior world with the mission to make the Totems even better than the offensive power they were last year. It seems like a perfect match to have a coach of Butters stature with his background – he also owned the Helena Bighorns when they won the 2011 Tier III Jr. A National Championship – as the Totems are also coming into their 24th year of existence.

“The Seattle Totems return to the ice with an opening day roster with a balanced mix of returning players, seasoned veterans of junior hockey and good, young prospects,” he said. “The general sentiment is one of unfinished business as the Totems fell one game short of qualifying for the USPHL National Championships. With this group, the Totems brass feel they have a team worthy of competing each night.”

Similar to the Vernal Oilers, their rivals at the top of the division standings last year, the Totems feel they have greatly improved their depth.

“The major difference is depth. While the Totems lost 14 skaters and two goalies from last year’s squad, they have brought in nine players with junior experience and a host of young talent from 18U AAA and various European junior leagues,” said Butters.

The team has some big guns returning, including the All-Stars Hodge at forward and Peter Konopka on defense. Also up front, Jesse Aiken (26 points in 29 games) and Jonas Rattell (23 points in 36 games) are back.

“Offensively, high-scoring forwards Raine, Jesse and Jonas will be joined by several USPHL veterans and a whole new crop of young forwards with impressive numbers in their respective leagues,” said Butters.

Konopka (35 points in 41 games) and fellow veteran Totems blueliner Joel Lyrintzis (26 points in 40 games) are back to the blueline. Some of the newcomers are also greatly impressing the coaches and management.

“With newcomers, Michael Karvelas, Dan Radvevich and Drew Heiser, Seattle has assembled a solid core of defensemen with the potential of even more depth,” Butters said. “At the time of this article, The Totems have four other defenseman still competing for positions with Tier 2 Jr. A teams throughout North America.”

Daniel Cleofe returns in net, after posting an 8-5 record in 15 games played, while he will be joined by fellow USPHL Premier veterans new to the Totems Casey Johnson and Carsten Shrimpton.

“This trio should give the green and white the opportunity to challenge for victories on any given night,” said Butters.

Another pair of USPHL Premier players newly joining the Totems are Roman Wolynec (55 points in 36 games) and Trevor Loucks (35 points in 42 games). Additional impressive forwards include Seth Morris, Vaclav Sedivy, Keegan Kazikiewicz and Kai Williamson. Maddox Caie and Michael Karvelas are also new to the team’s defense.

“The Northwest Division will be far from a two horse race this year as all teams have made major improvements to their respective rosters,” said Butters. “The Northwest should be the most improved division of all in the USPHL as each team has made major upgrades. With five teams in the division, no team will have a night off due to the solid recruiting efforts of each team. With each team’s vast upgrades, it is hard to predict which team will have the biggest improvement from last year.”


Rogue Valley Royals

Season Opener: Sept. 22 at Casper Roughnecks 

They are ready to go in Rogue Valley. The Royals have worked hard to build an even better team for Year 2 of their existence. “Hunger” is a great trait that Co-Owner/Head Coach Bobby Ruddle sees in his new team.

“We are very excited about this season’s roster. There is a lot of depth and a variety of skill sets,” said Ruddle. “Our first impressions of the group we have is that we have a hungry group of players. They have shown us through their preseason work that they are gunning for that division title.”

Although the Royals do have a few returning veterans, it’s a lot easier to spot the differences between last year’s team and this year’s team than similarities.

“We are night and day different from last season!” said Ruddle. “Last year, we had a young rookie-filled team, and we are proud of what we were able to do with that group of guys. This season, we have our core group of returners, as well as a group of experienced and talented players!”

Among the returning veterans is Tyler Hanson, a Northwest Division All-Star and local Medford, Ore., product who put up 70 points in 38 games last year. They also return one of their top defenders in Blaze Ebbinghaus and goaltender Emile Taillefer-Anctil.

Looking at newcomers that have Ruddle and the Royals staff excited, he mentioned Andres Kehl, Mitchell Elliott and Josh Aridano. Kehl is an ‘03 from Budapest, Hungary, who put up 51 points in 12 games of the Greater Metropolitan Hockey League in Ontario last year, his first North American season. Aridano and Elliott, also both ‘03’s, come in as a defenseman and forward, respectively, with already two years of USPHL Premier experience as teammates.

“I think we have upped our competitiveness this season. Having a more experienced, mature team is going to serve us well and we are looking to winning the Northwest Division this year,” said Ruddle.


Bellingham Blazers 

Season Opener: Sept. 22 vs. Seattle Totems 

The USPHL’s northernmost American team is hoping to fire and defend its way to the northernmost point of the division standings this year, and they certainly have brought back some top talent that can help them do so.

“I’m really happy with the roster we’ve put together this season. Every guy in that locker room wants a shot at the next level and they’re all putting the work in to get there,” said Head Coach Mark MacDonald. “Their commitment, work ethic, and team mentality are some of their biggest strengths. Our results in pre-season are a strong statement of where we are now compared to this time last season.”

In terms of top veterans, you have to start in net, where returning goaltender Kai Rivas made the Northwest Division All-Star team as an ‘05 junior rookie. His .908 save percentage was a good number in a division where most every other goalie not on the Vernal Oilers struggled, especially in such a goal-heavy division. For example, Rivas saw an average of 44 shots against per game last year.

He is joined this year by fellow returning Blazer forwards Brady Beliveau, Tyler Chapman and Bellingham native Blake Phillips. Chapman brings back the most points of this all-2006 group, as he put up 24 points in 25 games last year. On defense, the Blazers welcome back ‘04 Kaiden Large.

MacDonald and the team are looking forward to what they’ll see from newcomers Alex Clark, an ‘06 forward from CDA Hockey Academy (coached last year by Seattle’s Mike Butters), Australia’s Mackenzie Bolger (an ‘03 who has represented Australia internationally), ‘05 forward Owen Sutherland and ‘05 defenseman Tanner Hampton.

“I’m excited for this season because I think every team is going to be much more competitive,” said MacDonald. “With a year under our belts as a division, I know it’s going to be a much closer year.”


Casper Roughnecks

Season Opener: Sept. 22 vs. Rogue Valley Royals

The newest members of the Northwest Division (and one of three new teams in the whole USPHL Premier this year), the Roughnecks do bring a loud voice of experience in the form of Danny Randall, who was the Head Coach for the former Rock Springs Prospectors. That franchise was sold to the group that now owns the NCDC’s Rock Springs Grizzlies, but Randall – also the Roughnecks’ owner – wanted to keep in the division and founded the Roughnecks in the eastern Wyoming oil-rich city. 

“We have put together a team that has a little bit of everything: Size, speed and some high-end skill,” said Randall, who pushed his Rock Springs Prospectors, also a first-year franchise last year. “We are going to be hard to play against from start to stop. “Although we are a new expansion team, we do have nine returners from our [Prospectors] team last year, and a great core to work around,” he added. 

The former Prospectors that have become Roughnecks include Ondrej Matas (39 points in 41 games), Yianni Tzatzalis (26 points in 41 games), Aiden Ma (22 points) and Tyler Rayner (18 points), along with January 2023 arrival Dom Griessmer (nine points in 18 games). 

He is excited for a number of new-to-the-USPHL players as well, including ‘05 veteran USPHL Premier forward Cameron Krause, ‘05 forward Kananga “Kane” Mangala (Laval/Quebec Junior Hockey League), Marcus Glenn (Atlanta/NA3HL) and Joseph May (Rocky Mountain Roughriders AAA). 

Randall is right alongside his fellow coaches and other Northwest Division management when he looks at what should be a division featuring more parity this year. 

“I believe that the Division as a whole will be much closer in terms of competition top to bottom,” said Randall. “I think we are going to be the sleepers in the division due to our late announcement and start. Our boys are well-conditioned, well-coached, have a great community behind them, and are hungry to compete.”