The Junior Hockey Scene on the Shore

Junior hockey in New Jersey has boomed in the last five years with multiple Tier 3 teams throughout the state and one Tier 2 team here in Monmouth County. The NAHL is the only Tier 2 league in the United States and the New Jersey Titans play their home games at Middletown Sports Complex. The Eastern Hockey League has two levels, EHL and EHL Premier, and the NJ 87’s is the league’s representative on the Shore playing home games at the Jersey Shore Arena in Wall. The Titans also have a Tier 3 team in the NA3HL that plays at the same facilities in Middletown. The Titans have been in Middletown since the 2015-2016 season, adding the NA3HL affiliate in 2020. The 87’s started their premier team in the 2017-18 season, expanding to have two teams, one in both the EHL and EHLP, the following season. They moved to JSA this year after being playing home games at Middletown before that.

Colts Neck NJ native Jake LaRusso, here takes the shot that scored the Titans first goal of the game, had two goals during the NJ Titans vs the Johnstown Tomahawks NAHL Hockey Game at Middletown Sports Complex, Middletown, NJ. 11/29/20. Tom Smith | tspsportsimages.com

The Titans are currently in 4th place in the NAHL East Division with 15 points in 16 games played so far this season, which has been slowed due to a late start and an early holiday break due to New Jersey’s Covid restrictions. Inconsistent is the word that Titan Coach Graig Doremus used in describing the team, explaining further, “Sometimes we looked better than we are and sometimes we looked worse.” Doremus continues to explain that with the loss of experience, only five skaters returning from last year, “We knew that there was going to be some ups and downs due to the loss of veterans from last year, and when you add that many new faces to the NAHL I think you can expect some growing pains.” The Titans are expecting better when the season continues as Coach Doremus is enthusiastic to get back to playing, stating, “that our best hockey is still in front of us.”

87’s goalie Jeremy Conner, who is second in the EHL in save percentage, makes the stop as defenseman Spencer Whilte looks on during the NJ 87’s vs Philadelphia Little Flyers EHL Hockey Game at Ice Line Arena, West Chester, PA. 12/11/20. Tom Smith for EHL Hockey

The NJ 87’s in the EHL are in first place in the South Division with 38 points in the 21 games they have played this season. The EHL went to a neutral ice format when states went on heightened levels of restrictions to help get more games in during the early part of the season. Coach Adam Houli of the 87’s describes the season so far as, “Where expectations were thought to be. The EHL team is veteran-laden team so we expected success early, we want to make sure we maintain success throughout the sevenmonth-long season and we are where we want to be at this time.” The 87’s are on a holiday break until Jan 11th with a home game at JSA in Wall looking to extend their 3 game winning streak.

Titan’s goalie Berk Berkeliev keeps his eyes on the puck as he stops Jay Ahearn on the first shoot out attempt during the NJ Titans vs the Johnstown Tomahawks NAHL Hockey Game at Middletown Sports Complex, Middletown, NJ. 11/29/20. Tom Smith | tspsportsimages.com

As with all sports this year the pandemic has played a big part in how teams stay healthy and focused. It has to be extremely difficult for the young men to be away from home and in a new environment. Most Junior Hockey programs utilize local billeting to support the players for housing, and as Coach Doremus explains, “The players have to make the right decisions every day, mask-wearing and minimizing their exposure off ice. We want to create as much of a bubble as we can and we believe the players have bought into the plan, understanding the rewards of keeping themselves on the ice.” The inability to do team bonding and group off ice events has to be hard on the social needs of 20-year-olds, as Doremus explains, “It has been a real challenge for them to find team activities to do away from the rink, so it’s probably not real glamorous in terms of free time, a lot of relaxing and a lot of video games. Unfortunately, that’s the world we live in now, but it’s better than the alternative of not playing at all.”

87’s Nick Swain, picked as the top performer in week3, comes off the boards with the puck during the Philadelphia Little Flyers vs NJ 87’s EHL Hockey Game at Iceworks Skating Complex, Aston, PA. 10/12/20. Tom Smith for EHL Hockey

The one thing that drives Junior Hockey is getting the young men to college. The clubs operate on the pretense that colleges will come and look at their players and commit to them a college education in return for playing hockey. The 87’s are on course to get its age out commitments this year even though the pandemic has changed it up a little. Coach Houli says the difference is it’s more old school, “it’s more man-hours, which is fine, it is what the job entails. It’s more getting on the phone to talk it through, and working with college coaches to get them to practices and whatever games we get to play. We try to be unique and creative in doing our job through these different times.” There is also a difference for the players. Both coaches, Doremus and Houli agree, the players have to do their homework and select schools that fit their priorities for the education side of the commitment. Houli emphasizes that, “The players have to do a lot of work, they need to do a lot of research to hone in on what schools they want to target because just as much as being recruited they need to recruit the school that bests fits their educational needs.” Both the Titans and the 87’s, along with each league, are meeting or exceeding the yearly average commits this year, even with the changes the pandemic is forcing the NCAA to make.

Johnstown Tomahawk and Middletown NJ Native John Gelatt gets ready to take his turn in the shootout during the NJ Titans vs the Johnstown Tomahawks NAHL Hockey Game at Middletown Sports Complex, Middletown, NJ. 11/29/20. Tom Smith | tspsportsimages.com

Both of these teams, and the organizations they represent, are conscious of what it takes to play this year. They are trying to create the tightest bubble possible for the players, coaches, and organizational people that are needed to allow the games to go on. Keeping the teams isolated from the community by making team functions within the team facilitiesis one thing along with monitoring each player and helping them to understand that following the team, local and state protocols are important, not only for themselves, but their teammates as well. Every one of these players are looking to move up to the next level, whether it’s DI, DII, or DII hockey, and a lapse of judgment by any one of them could knock them all out of that opportunity.

So, what is next for Junior Hockey during this season of changes? I hope that USA Hockey, the organization that sanctions junior hockey in the US, and Gov. Murphy’s office find a way to let the leagues play. These leagues are not youth hockey and shouldn’t be grouped in with them when Covid Restrictions are placed on sporting activities. USA Hockey has been lobbying to separate Junior Hockey from youth hockey and both organizations and the leagues have been included in these conversations. I believe that they should have the same restrictions place on them as professional and NCAA sanctioned sports have. If the NFL, NBA, NHL, and multiple sports in the NCAA, including hockey, can travel freely to play sports to empty arenas and stadiums I think the same opportunity should be given to these young men.

All of my game galleries are located here.

Featured Image Caption: 87’s Kei Yasuda (9), who leads the EHL in assits and points, here scores the opening goal during the NJ 87’s vs Philadelphia Little Flyers EHL Hockey Game at Ice Line Arena, West Chester, PA. 12/11/20. Tom Smith for EHL Hockey

Recent Photos

87’s Matt Herrick with the puck at the point looking to make a play during the NJ 87’s vs New York Apple Core EHL Hockey Game at Hatfield Ice Arena, Colmar , PA. 12/10/20. Tom Smith for EHL Hockey
Little Flyers goalie Jakub Kubik making one of his 32 saves during the NJ 87’s vs Philadelphia Little Flyers EHL Hockey Game at Ice Line Arena, West Chester, PA. 12/11/20. Tom Smith for EHL Hockey
87’s Joe Guercio looks to get the puck toward the net during the NJ 87’s vs New York Apple Core EHL Hockey Game at Hatfield Ice Arena, Colmar , PA. 12/10/20. Tom Smith for EHL Hockey
Titan’s Jake LaRusso celebrates after scoring during the NJ Titans vs the Johnstown Tomahawks NAHL Hockey Game at Middletown Sports Complex, Middletown, NJ. 11/29/20. Tom Smith | tspsportsimages.com
Middletown South’s Luke Albrecht grabs the ball for an interception during the Mater Dei Prep vs Middletown South Shore Conference Football Game at Mater Dei Football Field, Middletown, NJ. 10/17/20. Tom Smith | tspsportsimages.com
87’s George Weiner, who leads the teams defensemen in scoring at the break, here is skating the puck through center ice during the NJ 87’s vs New York Apple Core EHL Hockey Game at Hatfield Ice Arena, Colmar , PA. 12/10/20. Tom Smith for EHL Hockey
Charlotte Bednar crosses the finish line with a time of 17:21, the second of all time and the fastest time by a NJ runner during Girls Race at the Holmdel Invitational at Holmdel Park, Holmdel, NJ. 11/25/20. Tom Smith for NJ MileSplit
87’s Mattheww Bielinski celebrating after his second goal during the NJ 87’s vs Philadelphia Little Flyers EHL Hockey Game at Ice Line Arena, West Chester, PA. 12/11/20. Tom Smith for EHL Hockey

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