Warm weather year round, sandy beaches and some of the best hockey you’ll find in the USPHL Premier. It’s the Florida Division. Along with Nationals staple the Florida Eels, their Gulf Coast rivals the Florida Jr. Blades found the right chemistry at the right time and punched their ticket to the big dance in Hudson, N.H. last year. They are pushing for a return trip – and the Eels will never settle for anything but the best. The Tampa Bay Juniors, Atlanta MadHatters and Palm Beach Typhoon join newcomers the Columbia Infantry to crash the Nationals party this year.
Four years straight, the Eels have been the leaders of the Florida Division and become National Championship residents, including an appearance in the 2021 Premier title game. General manager Frank Scarpaci has lots of confidence in his team thanks to the efforts of a global scouting team and intense off-season vetting of players, including multiple high-level summer tournaments.
“We have the most aggressive recruiting staff in junior hockey – western Canada, Quebec, two permanent guys in Europe. It’s gotten easier to recruit because of what we’ve done here. No one says ‘why would I want to play in Florida’ anymore,” said Scarpaci. “We brought in a team that was as good as last year’s team and the year before. We put 10 teams in the off-season USPHL Spring Showcase, Pre-Draft and Chowder Cups, so we really put our guys through the wringers. On top of that, we put these players through four weeks of training camp.”
Scarpaci said that the scouting staff hit the money mark on each player, so there have been no surprises in camp.
“We already have NCAA Division III coaches calling us about the players we have brought in,” said Scarpaci. “We are excited and optimistic. Our goal is to put kids in college, that’s our 100 percent focus.”
Several Eels are returning, including goaltender Duncan Rolleman, defenseman Eric Hambling, and several forwards including Kayde Budgell, Anthony Zebley, Damon Kiyawasew, Maverick Crupi, Devin Shepherd, Noah Trathen and Easton Moore, a top candidate for the team’s captaincy.
“Moore-Kiyawasew-Budgell might be the best line in the league this year,” said Scarpaci.
Jared Salminen joins as a player who’s already proven himself in the USPHL Premier. He’ll join with Trathen and Shepherd to form a very potent line along the aforementioned unit.
The team also regularly utilizes their Elite squad as a stepping-stone to Premier, so watch for Braeden Bzovey, Spencer Carpenter and Alexander Clingerman. Additional newcomers include two additional USPHL veterans in Keith Orlando and Bryson Miller.
Tampa Bay Juniors
The Juniors would love to flip the script and jump in front of the Eels after taking second the last four years after winning the Division in the first year of the current USPHL Premier. Head Coach Garrett Strot looks at a powerful group of returning veterans helping to push the Juniors through the season.
“Last year, the Premier team was all new. [This year], with a solid core of returners plus five to six players moving up from Elite it should be an easy transition,” said Strot. “We have six returning forwards and both our starting goaltenders back, which is good as we only have one returning defenseman.”
The Strots’ pipeline from Minnesota to Florida has always been productive, and with Beau Courneya and Connor Nelson returning from the land of 10,000 lakes, the Juniors have 115 points back between the two. Additionally, Noah Weisjahn, Jack Fleer, A.J. Beugen and Judd Ginther come back to the forward ranks. Blake Mons and Onni Taskila both come back to the nets, while defenseman Jackson Studebaker is at the helm of a mostly new blue line corps.
The USPHL Elite’s Tampa Bay Juniors, who have been to Nationals four of the last five years, continue to produce talent for the Premier squad. Coming up to the top team are forwards Tyler Cullen, David Wawrzkiewicz, Jake Duhaime, Bryson Uhrig and defenseman Philip Wsol.
Florida Jr. Blades
The Jr. Blades made their big return to Nationals after previously reaching the final tournament in 2019. However, don’t expect to see much of the same anything with this Jr. Blades group.
“We have a complete overhaul. We are young and definitely a different type of team than we had last year, for sure,” said second-year Head Coach Rod Simmons. “We want to continue the change in culture, and we wanted to start giving some younger guys options.”
Though only one veteran is back in Estero, he’s a huge get for Simmons and Co.: Goaltender Sal Carabelli. The ‘02 from Shelby Township, Mich., put up a .911 save percentage in 24 games and added a .938 mark in five games, including at the Nationals.
“He is looking really good. He will be as big a part of us as he was last year,” added Simmons. “We’ll continue to get NCAA looks for him.”
He’ll be joined in net by two strong tendies in Andrew Quarles (‘02) and Ryan Mellia (‘04). Quarles is already a USPHL Premier veteran.
Like Quarles, Braden Mayer is a California-born newcomer to the Jr. Blades with USPHL Premier experience. Additionally, the team has brought in fellow Premier veterans Nicholas Obourn, Ray Olson and Aidan Fenton, a teammate of Mayer’s last year.
“All of them are looking for opportunities for NCAA commitments and they feel this is a good situation for us to help place them,” added Simmons. “Throughout the team, we have good young people, and we will continue to create good young people for society.”
As for the Jr. Blades return to Florida Division action, it’s anyone’s guess how everything will shake out.
“It’s always very strong,” Simmons added. “We’re not sure where we will fall in the midst of it, but there is no such thing as a night off.”
The boys from Atlanta continue to trend in the right direction, increasing their wins each of their three seasons. What happens next, here in Year 4, is completely in their hands – and if they continue moving upwards, that can only mean trouble for the teams listed above. And it can only mean even more excitement in an already intense division.
“We have a nice balance of returning players with new additions. Our leadership group will help the new players get caught up quick,” said second-year Head Coach Paul Flache. “Guys arrived bigger and stronger and the core group is looking to take a big step this year.”
Both of the MadHatters’ All-Stars – forward Ben Baker and defenseman Owen Larson – are back in the Green and White for another season. Larson, as a defenseman, already leads the MadHatters all-time in points with 81 in 123 games, while Baker is entering his third season at fourth all-time with 69 career points. His 46 points in 40 games last year set a single season record for the squad. Larson and Baker will both sport “A” on their chests as assistant captains, joining returning forward Gavin Graham, the Captain, in the leadership trio.
Additionally, the MadHatters bring back Cam Grajewski on defense, forwards Kalen Draper and Logan Gallagher, and goaltender Ryley Gross.
Coming in new are Patrick Colburn, an experienced Premier goalie, along with creasemate Byron Bayer, defenseman Alex Boileau, and forwards Maclain Boyd (no relation to the author), Dom Mascieri and Brendan Bourne.
“It’s too early to tell” how the division will look over the year, Flache said, “but the competitiveness and parity of the division will always be great and there will be no easy games.”
Palm Beach Typhoon
The Typhoon completed Year 1 and with any new franchise entering its second season, the goal is to continue to improve the product on the ice, its advancement and its stature. Co-owner, GM and Head Coach Joe Flanagan feels the Typhoon are on the right track in their sophomore year.
“We have a lot of new players, only two players return. We have six players advancing from our Elite team,” said Flanagan.
John Brace and Josh Levesque return with one year of experience playing Premier hockey for the Typhoon. They will be joined by organizational promotions including Elite All-Star Zach Zammiello and Brayden Curry, both of whom were NCDC Draft Picks this year by the Northern Cyclones. Additionally, last year’s Elite Captain Garrett Jackson, Declan Stitt and Giuseppe Murano are up from the Elite Typhoon.
The goaltending ranks are completely new for the Typhoon. Minnesotan Easton Haglund has looked very strong during the preseason and training camp, and he is joined in the crease by Victor Appelqvist of Sweden and Logan Givens, who comes in with Tier III experience.
Additional newcomers the team is excited about include ‘05 Floridian Aiden Farro, USPHL veteran Kieran Nordman, junior veteran Derwin Hauser, along with Quebec native Adrian Gonzalez.
“He’s a big strong kid, a good centerman who’s ready to make a good college opportunity for himself,” added Flanagan.
With an almost entirely new team at the Premier level, the message has gone out that everyone needs to be ready for the battles of the Florida Division.
“You have to bring your top game to be successful in every game against every team,” said Flanagan. “This division is probably one of the strongest in the USPHL.”
Last year it was the Palm Beach Typhoon who were new to the pack. Columbia takes that mantle this year and hopes to make a big first impression.
“I am very excited about our team, even though we are a first-year program,” said Jacob Smulevitch, who had taken a second-year organization – the Charleston Colonials – to the Elite Nationals in 2021, and then coached the Elite Charlotte Rush back to Nationals last year. “I think we will build an identity of physical, disciplined, and exciting hockey that combined with a family-oriented culture off the ice will bring us high levels of success.”
The Infantry were very aggressive in their recruiting, picking up some players with great junior and USPHL experience.
“I am very excited about some of the veterans we have signed this off-season. Nash Cobbs is a player who has dominated the Elite level and has experience at the Premier level – we expect him to anchor our defense this year,” said Smulevitch.
“Forwards Quinten Shaffer and Dmitriy Ignatov will be expected to be big pieces of our offense this year with their very high skill levels. Forward Gavin Cline comes in after being a captain at the Premier level last year and playing for me in a National Championship game two years ago. Goaltender Parker Dietz is a veteran ‘02 goalie and a native of South Carolina. We have very high expectations of him this season.”
Every team has its share of junior rookies, and the Infantry are happy with their group.
“I am very excited about ‘05 defenseman Ryan Coots, whom I believe has the capability of being one of the top defenders in the Florida Division even at his age coming from the Colorado Roughriders 16AAA program,” said Smulevitch. “Another rookie we are very excited about is goaltender Ben Norton who hails from England and has already competed at the 18U World Championships.”
Smulevitch has every confidence that his team can not only compete but make noise in the Florida Division in Year 1.
“Even though we are a new team, we fully expect to compete in the Florida Division. We will be aiming to prove to a lot of people that we belong in the conversation of Nationals come March,” he added. “Our team has adopted the motto ‘Through The Mud Together’ and I fully believe that we will be one of the hardest teams in the league to play come crunch time.”