By Joshua Boyd / USPHLPremier.com
We’re back and just days away from the start of the 2023-24 USPHL Premier season! The Great Lakes and Southeast Divisions both kick off play on Friday, Sept. 8 and then we’re off and running until the final puck is dropped at the USPHL Nationals in March! Below, we take a look at the six-team Great Lakes Division and hear from the coaches on what they expect this season.
Order is based on 2022-23 regular season finish.
Season Opener: Sept. 15 at Columbus Mavericks
The Cherokee hope to continue their roll of making the USPHL Nationals, having been there three straight years now, but they hope to be able to get to that final game and try to win that cup. Their 345 points since entering the Premier Conference in 2018-19 is in the top 10 of the league, showing that they are always a powerhouse. The Cherokee’s 38-6 regular season gave them the Great Lakes Division championship for the first time, knocking off the previous winner of four straight – and not coincidentally their historic rivals – the Metro Jets. Optimism reigns supreme for another great year in 2023-24.
“I really like the team Nic Saenz (Director of Player Personnel) has assembled so far. The returners we have coming back were difference-makers last year and we feel they should take their games to the next level this season,” said Head Coach and General Manager Kenny Miller. “We have added some really good young players that will be difference-makers for us this season.”
“We are going to be younger this season but I think we still have good veteran leadership up and down our lineup that will lead this year’s young players,” Miller added.
Watch for second-year forward Cameron Reel (‘03) to build upon his 57-point campaign last year, and fellow second-year forward Jacob Ammar (‘03) is coming off a 23-25-48 point season in just 37 games. Reel and Ammar had 10 points in six postseason games apiece last year to help lead the Cherokee after February and right through their time in Utica.
Additionally, watch for veteran forwards ‘04 Brett LoGelfo (43 points) and ‘03 Santino Multari (32 points) to continue their great contributions, as well as ‘03 defenseman Nick Minghine.
Other USPHL Premier veterans joining the Cherokee are ‘04 Grant Hendrickson and ‘05 Alex Atchison. They will help to lead some other newcomers that include ‘04’s Leo Crawford on defense and Austin Nowak in goal, and forwards Will Poolton and Justin Wen, as well as ‘05 forward Aidan Gonzalez.
The Cherokee know their road to potentially repeating at the top won’t be a clear one.
“I think the division got stronger adding Nashville and Buffalo. We went from a four-team division to a six-team division, so we know that every night we are going to have to be ready to play,” added Miller. “I really like our showcase schedules as well. We get some really good teams when we go to Detroit and Tampa.”
Season Opener: Sept. 30 vs. Cincinnati Jr. Cyclones
The Jets did not like coming in second in the division, so many familiar faces are back and looking for redemption as well as that long-sought National Championship (the Jets played in the final game in both 2019 and 2022). No organization has a better winning percentage going back over their first five Premier seasons than the Jets’ .855 mark, and they also are the current Premier leaders for wins (207) and points (424) since they entered the league in 2018.
“We are excited about our group this year,” said longtime Head Coach and General Manager Justin Quenneville. “We are returning nearly 75 percent of our roster while adding some additional experience and leadership from last year. Our goal is to be more consistent out of the gates and play a full 60 minutes. With more experience in the roster, we know that has been addressed.
“We are not only a little older, but a little bigger. We expect to be better and tougher to play against in the hard areas,” Quenneville added.
Devon Mastay (‘03) will play his third year with the Jets as their Captain for this season. Fellow returning ‘03 players include forwards Alex Bedenko (who split last year with the NCDC’s Northern Cyclones), Carson Finney, Seve Litz, Ugo Lollier, and Yarne Vaerewyck, as well as ‘04 forwards Ethan Hellman and Tyler Husted and ‘03 defensemen Michael Lucia and Alex Blankenship.
Among the most promising newcomers to the Jets are former Metro Jets Development Program (MJDP) goalie Taylor White, who led the USPHL Premier in save percentage last year at .944, as well as other USPHL veterans in Brock Hart, Luke Gaffney and Emrik Froding. Lucas Cassel is a new ‘03 defenseman from Sweden’s Vannas program and is definitely someone to watch.
The Jets know what they’re getting in the reigning champ Toledo as well as many other Great Lakes veteran teams, but Quenneville said to keep an eye on the new division entry Nashville Spartans.
“We are expecting a tough division again this year. Newcomer Nashville looks to be building a strong program and our long-standing rivalry with Toledo is always a must-watch matchup,” Quenneville added.
Season Opener: Sept. 8 vs. Nashville Spartans
The Columbus Mavericks are hitting Season No. 5 here in 2023-24, and heading into this next phase of their future, they’ve made a lot of changes – from ownership to the bench and many places in between.
Joey Recktenwald not only became the full owner of the Mavericks this off-season, but also took over the GM and Head Coach positions.
“The Mavericks have a roster with a lot of new faces this year. As always, it’s a work in progress, but the staff and myself are pleased with what we’ve accomplished so far. This should be a fast group that plays wide open,” said Recktenwald. “A lot of our work so far has been to erase the fear of making mistakes, and replace it with the confidence to make plays. Hockey is supposed to be fun, and we’re going to focus on what we do right. With that in mind, as well as creating a culture where guys are constantly improving and competing, we’re only going to get tougher to play against as the year goes on.”
Three Maverick veterans that Recktenwald is looking forward to seeing hit the ice are ‘04’s Graham Wood, Hunter Gentz and Kyle Diehr.
Wood is three games away from his 100th career USPHL Premier regular season game, all with Columbus.
“ I expect him to take on a big role. Our D-men will go as he goes and I’m excited to see him thrive in a leadership position,” said Recktenwald. “Hunter Gentz is a guy that has come in faster and stronger than last season and looks like he’s ready to make a big impact.
Kyle Diehr returns in net with a new confidence and knows what it takes to compete in this division and lead our goalie group.”
Tryston Harrell comes out of Northview High School in Ohio as “a high-energy, high-skill rookie who gelled immediately with our group.”
Two other newcomers, both ‘04’s like Harrell, bring prior year USPHL Premier experience. Dalton Zulka played in 2021-22 for the former Pittsburgh Vengeance while also playing for Montour High School, also in Pennsylvania. Defenseman Braden Medved, another Pennsylvanian from West Allegheny High School, played the entire 2022-23 season for the Wisconsin Rapids Riverkings.
“Zulks is a junior vet who checks a lot of boxes for the systems we’re installing,” added Recktenwald. “Bringing in Braden Medved was huge for our D group. He’s a USPHL veteran who will have a big impact on our roster.”
Recktenwald is excited for the position-jockeying in the expanded Great Lakes Division in 2023-24.
“This division is a whole new beast this year. Adding Nashville and Buffalo brings new challenges and welcome competition,” said Recktenwald. “We’re also eager to keep chipping away at the clubs who finished ahead of us, and growing our rivalry with our neighbors in Cincinnati.”
Cincinnati Jr. Cyclones
Season Opener: Sept. 16 at Toledo Cherokee
The Jr. Cyclones enjoyed some moderate success in Year 1 in 2021-22 winning 19 games as a first-year franchise, but struggled more during the 2022-23 season. Head Coach Jim Mitchell expects more parity in the division this year with the expansion to six programs.
“We are aiming to build our culture in Cincinnati to one where our players develop both on and off the ice, and make the Cincinnati Jr. Cyclones an integral part of the hockey community,” said brand new Head Coach Lee Lansdowne. “Player development is going to be the major focus for this upcoming season and with that, we hope to be a competitive organization in a very difficult division.”
The Jr. Cyclones are bringing back a couple veterans that they hope can teach so many new faces what the USPHL Premier is all about. One is goaltender Jadon Atchison, an ‘06 from Louisville, Ky., who played in five games last year. Additionally, Jack Kirschling is entering his fourth USPHL season, playing one year in the USPHL Elite and the last two in the Premier conference.
“I hope [Atchison and Kirschling] make big steps and play like veterans this year,” said Lansdowne. “Among newcomers, Tyler Hilliker is a guy I expect big things from.”
Hilliker, from Muskegon, Mich., comes in with 57 games of USPHL Premier experience earned between 2020 and 2022.
Season Opener: Sept. 15 vs. Nashville Spartans
One of two existing USPHL Premier teams moved into the Great Lakes Division, the Buffalo Stampede joined from the Atlantic Division. Head Coach Brian Thompson can’t wait to get started, although the Stampede have a lot of experience against Great Lakes opponents. They played 12 games against GLD opponents last year, representing more than one-quarter of their overall schedule.
“We’re really looking forward to playing the top teams around day in and day within our division. I think the greatest strength of our division is the depth. From top to bottom there are no easy nights,” said Thompson, who coached with Columbus prior to taking the head coaching position with Buffalo last fall.
With one full year behind the bench, Thompson was also able to work with his staff on getting more of his own recruited players on the ice for this year.
“Overall I really like where we’re at. We’ve added depth across the board which will allow us to be difficult to play against while establishing a competitive, development driven culture,” he added. “The biggest difference [from last year] is our depth. I feel we’ve built a roster from top to bottom that can compete with anyone.”
Among the team veterans, watch for Caden Cavalieri and third-year Stampede Cameron Coogan to help lead this year’s first Great Lakes Division team. Cavalieri posted 18 points in 26 games last year as a junior rookie, and Coogan comes in with 34 points in 75 career Premier games.
The team added three-year junior veteran ‘03 Gennaro DeMaio in net. DeMaio comes in after two years in the NA3HL with Danbury, and he’d also played the 2020-21 season with the Jersey Hitmen Premier team.
James Somero joins the Stampede after last year captaining the Bloomfield Hills (Mich.) High School team and Brendan Reetz is joining from Pittsburgh’s always strong Shady Side Academy. Both are ‘05’s.
Season Opener: Sept. 8 at Columbus Mavericks
The Spartans, a new USPHL organization in 2022-23, joins the Great Lakes Division from the Southeast Division. Their trips to face some Southeast opponents were longer than their shortest trips in the Great Lakes, so they have proven to be a good fit geographically for the GLD.
They may as well be in a new division because they are essentially new from top to bottom. Liam Tully is a first-year Head Coach who has put together a largely new squad from the team that finished just outside the Southeast Division top four playoff picture last year.
“This will be my first year coaching in the USPHL. I expect every team to be competitive,” said Tully. “We have a tremendous amount of depth this year, especially defensively. I have high expectations from our goaltenders as well. I was not here last season, this will be my first year with the Spartans. However, I expect to have more production spread throughout the lineup.”
The team’s most experienced player is Ryan Grant, a third-year USPHL veteran with 78 games of combined Elite and Premier experience. He joined the Spartans in a trade from the Carolina Jr. Hurricanes last year.
“One of our top returning players would be Ryan Grant. He is a highly skilled offensive player with a great deal of junior hockey experience. We are excited to have him back,” said Tully.
On the defensive side, keep an eye on junior veterans Austin Micale and Duncan Chisholm. Micale played last year with the Atlanta Capitals in the NA3HL and had also played with the Jersey Whalers’ former team in the USPHL Premier in 2021-22. Chisholm is a big 6-foot-3-inch hard-nosed defenseman who played with the Provo Predators in the USPHL Premier last year. Adding to this group of defenseman newcomers is Cooper Walling, an ‘05 from the Atlanta Fire organization, with whom he won the Tier II 16U National Championship in 2021.
Kyle Flynn, a forward, was a teammate of Chisholm’s on the Predators last year. Flynn scored 44 points in 48 games. Hunter Mangan comes in with USPHL 18U experience (Northern Cyclones Academy) and also with one ACHA season under his belt (University of Northern Colorado). Gus Immken, ‘04, is another former NA3HL coming to the USPHL Premier after two seasons with the St. Louis Jr. Blues.