By Joshua Boyd / USPHLPremier.com
The Fort Wayne Spacemen made quite the statement in their first season of winning the division title. Their title was followed up by their first trip to the USPHL Nationals, where the Spacemen made their way to the Round of 8. It’s not expected to be a standalone chapter in their history, as the Spacemen have put together strong teams since the moment they entered the league in 2019.
That said, they still regularly have to contend with perennial division title contenders the Chicago Cougars and the Metro Jets Development Program. The MJDP made their third straight Nationals trip, and in their first game, pushed one of the league’s best programs – the Florida Eels, eventual semifinalists – to a shootout.
The Motor City Gamblers experienced a 46-point improvement for their best season since making the Nationals in 2019, so watch for them as a revitalized power. The Chicago Crush and Battle Creek Kernels were new to the league in 2022-23 and will likely make big steps forward while the Decatur Blaze are determined to put their toughest season in their history far behind them in this new campaign.
Order is based on 2022-23 finish
Fort Wayne Spacemen
Season Opener: Sept. 29 at Chicago Crush
The Spacemen seem to be continuing to gain altitude and will do everything in their power to keep the division title in Fort Wayne and send themselves back to Nationals for the completion of unfinished business. The team lost some of their longtime name-makers to college and even pro teams, but they’ve built enough recruiting brand power that they’re able to quickly reload with talent. That said, their scoring may be more by committee this year than by a smaller pack of All-Stars. Noah Maine is not walking through that door, fans, to paraphrase Rick Pitino.
“We’ll be a fast team. We’ll be deeper than last year especially at forward but may not have the star power. It will take all four lines to produce,” said Lincoln Kaleigh Schrock, the Spacemen’s head coach and a local celebrity from his days as longtime captain of the ECHL’s Fort Wayne Komets. “We’re definitely younger. Not as much top end talent, but we still have core pieces coming back from last year’s team.”
Those that helped the Spacemen become one of the feel-good stories of Nationals include Tucker Tone, Dyllan Uehlin, R.J. Rollman, Noah Takitani, Danylo Shpak, Reece Lukowiak and Fisher Moore. Tone, Rollman, Takitani and Moore were all top 15 scorers for the Spacemen last year and they’re all a year older and wiser to the ways of the Premier now.
Adding to this group are some exciting newcomers, like goaltender William Ferland, an ‘05 from Ulysse Prep in Quebec, along with forwards Oscar Axelsson and Alexis Toussaint (a Ulysse teammate of Ferland’s) and defenseman Brandan Young, who has three years of USPHL Premier and Elite experience already.
It’s going to be a tough road ahead for the Spacemen, because everyone in the division has made improvements.
“The Chicago Cougars and Crush will be better than last year. Battle Creek as well,” said Schrock. “I expect MJDP and hopefully Fort Wayne to be top teams. The division should continue to improve. Last year was a step in the right direction.”
Metro Jets Development Program (MJDP)
Season Opener: Sept. 23 at Chicago Crush
As mentioned above, the MJDP has become both regular contenders for the Midwest East title as well as now regular attendees at the USPHL Nationals, making the trip three straight years alongside their Great Lakes Division Metro Jets brethren. The MJDP won the Midwest East Division in 2020-21 and they have registered at least 50 points in each of these three seasons.
“We were one of the youngest teams in junior hockey and our group did a great job with a difficult schedule,” said General Manager and Head Coach Justin Quenneville. “Making Nationals again was a great story with such a young core and a challenging schedule with so many out of division games and showcases.”
Goaltenders Austin Muirhead and Andrew Parmentier, both ‘04’s, and ‘03 forward Lucas Millmine are the key returning players that will drive the MJDP this season.
When Quenneville looks at the Midwest East, he sees a rising group amongst the USPHL Premier that is improving in terms of both parity and its National-level competitiveness.
“Last year was another step forward for the Midwest East Division and it does not look to be slowing down,” said Quenneville. “Fort Wayne will be tough competitor as always and others look to be building strong rosters.”
Motor City Gamblers
Season Opener: Sept. 22 vs. Battle Creek Kernels
The Gamblers had the Premier’s best year-over-year improvement last season, improving by 46 points (the best year-to-year improvement in Premier history) to claim third in the Midwest East Division. Of course now, they want to keep it going in the right direction and hope they can stand atop the division for their first time.
The Gamblers (formerly known as Motor City Hockey Club) were back-to-back Nationals competitors in 2018 and 2019, so despite a couple tough seasons, they know how to win. On top of that, owner Jason McCrimmon even has an NHL award to his name, having captured the Willie O’Ree Community Hero Award, which he accepted as part of the NHL Awards Night this past June.
“We are incredibly excited about the roster that we have put together. We have a group that is going to build off of our strong 2022-2023 campaign,” added General Manager Chase Crawshaw. “Our roster is very well-rounded with a strong returning group of leaders ready to strengthen the standard set last year.”
The team really did its rebuilding already following the 2021-22 season, so they actually have a very strong core coming back including 2023 Midwest East Division All-Stars Jake Mullins (defense) and Brian Bell (forward). Add to these statistical leaders returning forwards Preston Stenzel, Nathan Ayuyu and Shaun Zatelli, and defenseman Jace Weimer.
“Jace is looking to bounce back from a season-ending injury,” added Crawshaw.
“Our squad from the previous season was built completely from scratch, with very few players returning from the 2021-2022 season. It took time for a brand new roster to gel,” said Crawshaw. “Our players this year have already begun to integrate both the returners and new signees. Not having to overcome that hurdle is the biggest difference between the two seasons.”
New forwards to watch for include Angelo Massaro (St. Viator High, Illinois), Jaxson Wesley (Florida Alliance) and Patrick Patton (Dayton Stealth), and defensemen Richard Biszant (Tampa Bay Juniors / USPHL Elite) and Brody Vachon (Timmins Majors 18U AAA).
The Gamblers were in the middle of a lot of the talk about greater parity in the division last season and they see a number of other rising teams who are likely to make trouble for the established order this year.
“The division had a lot of major turnover as a whole. I am more excited than ever for this division as I think it will be the most competitive it has been in years,” said Crawshaw. “Battle Creek’s Triston Jensen did a good job laying the foundation in Year 1, and I think he will have the Kernels on the rise in Year 2.”
Season Opener: Sept. 29 at Decatur Blaze
Chicago Cougars ended last season with a large class of college commitments, which was a testament to the program. This left the Coaching staff with a summer focused on recruiting new talent.
“With just eight returning players, the Cougars are fortunate to have a solid core of players that will be a great mix for our team to feed off of,” said Premier Head Coach and GM Josh Dallmann. “Our team displays a lot of toughness and grit.”
The veteran core will certainly help push the younger players to new heights.
“We have a lot of older leadership to guide our new young players,” added Dallmann. “We will be relying on the new recruits to make a big impact for us this season. I’m looking forward to seeing how they grow.”
Coach Dallmann believes that the Midwest-East has made huge strides from top to bottom the last few years.
“The division’s talent level has increased tremendously making each game a battle with no days off.”
Season Opener: Sept. 16 at Battle Creek Kernels
The Crush are back for Year 2, and will start to face their fellow “Class of 2022” league entrants, the Battle Creek Kernels, in their season opener. The organization is very excited about where things could go this year, especially with former NHL player Steve Maltais. In addition to his NHL career, Maltais was a legend with the AHL’s Chicago Wolves, who retired his number and whom he captained for 11 seasons.
The Crush look forward to continuing their mission of building the Path to College Hockey as well as higher levels of junior hockey in the Chicagoland area. Maltais worked hard throughout the off-season building 2023-24 rosters alongside GM and Elite Crush Head Coach Phil Bushbacher.
“The success from last season can be measured in the fact that there are over 60 percent returning players from that roster,” said Maltais.
“We have been solely focused on player experience, development, and advancement,” added Pete Olson, owner of both the Crush and the Chicago Cougars. “With this many players returning, it proves the program is delivering a true junior Hockey experience, developing players, and helping players on their journey to the next level.
“We have invested heavily this summer to prepare for the season and are very excited to be adding the Elite Level to the clubs as it provides further opportunities and options for local players here in the area,” he added.
The Crush are able to return All-Star defenseman Jonathan Wood (‘04), as well as their leading scorer from last year, Nick Zehelein. That is only the tip of the iceberg.
“With the return of our Captain and leading scorer Nick Zehelein and Jonathan Wood, many key returners that were part of our core group and some new additions, the Midwest East Division will see a deeper team, allowing us to keep taking strides, moving forward and getting better in all facets of our game,” said Maltais.
Battle Creek Kernels
Season Opener: Sept. 16 vs. Chicago Crush
The Kernels hope to keep building a fantastic franchise in Cereal Land in mid-Michigan, with Triston Jensen building a reputation as a consummate builder. The Kernels picked up some big wins last year against established teams like Motor City and Decatur, along with the Dells Ducks outside of division play. They won all four of their games against Decatur, and also swept their four games against the Crush.
“We have a roster full of players who are hungry to leave their stamp on Battle Creek hockey. A group of dogs,” added Jensen. “Overall, between returners and adding free agents we have gotten older, bigger and faster.”
For returning players, Jensen is looking to ‘03’s Ryan Jaros and Connor Hasse to be leaders. They had 44 points combined last year, while defenseman Josh Getson saw regular time last year as an ‘05. Galvin Reagan (‘05) led all Kernels goaltenders with 20 games in net last year.
Among newcomers, keep an eye on forwards ‘04 Connor Barone (Connecticut Chiefs 18U AAA) and ‘05 Alex Yeung (Elmira Jr. Enforcers / USPHL Elite) along with ‘04 defenseman Eli Bailey (Wenatchee Wild 18U AAA).
“The division is going to be wide open,” Jensen added. “A full-on race for first. MJDP is always solid, and Motor City returns an excellent forward group. Should be a dogfight.”
Season Opener: Sept. 29 vs. Chicago Cougars
It really wasn’t very long ago in the grand scheme that the Blaze qualified for the 2020 Nationals, so this is an organization that certainly knows how to win in the Midwest East Division. The 2022-23 season is well behind them now and it can’t be far enough in the rearview mirror, as just about anything could be an improvement on last year.
“We are excited to get the season rolling after having a down season last year. We decided to do a rebuild and bring in a new staff and almost a whole new team. We have only two returning Premier players coming back so we look forward to having a fresh start for the upcoming season. We will be young so we will be looking to outwork the other team every chance we get,” said Blaze Owner, GM and Head Coach Zac Pearson. “We do have less experience, but I think our goaltending is stronger this year than it was last year.”
The team is returning only ‘04 forward Connor Wilson and ‘05 forward Bruin Schwendeman.
“We are looking for Connor to make the biggest difference for us. Bruin will also be returning after playing only half of last season for us,” Pearson said.
With essentially the whole team being newcomers, it was impossible more than two weeks out to predict who will be the top contributors in that group.
“I think we have so many newcomers that I am excited to see who will step up and take the opportunity that they are given,” he added.
The Blaze, celebrating their 10th anniversary season here in 2023-24, are excited to see what the next chapter in Blaze history looks like, especially in the battleground of the Midwest East Division, of which they were charter members.
“I think our division has gained a lot of respect the past year and I think, with adding the Elite Midwest Division, it will continue in that direction as well,” said Pearson.