By Jim Clare
In the last issue of SNAPSHOT we took a closer look at Junior Hockey in Illinois focusing on Tier I (USHL) and Tier II (NAHL) teams. This week we finish up with Tier III and the two leagues that have teams in Illinois (USPHL and NA3HL). As we mentioned in the last issue, Tier III Junior Hockey encompasses multiple leagues across the United States. It is a pay-to-play level of Junior Hockey, and is more akin to how AAA hockey works; players pay a fee to play and a monthly billet expense. Let’s look at the 4 teams in Illinois that play Tier III Junior Hockey.
Tier III – NA3HL
The Chicago Jr. Bulldogs are one of 2 Tier III Junior teams located in the Chicagoland marketplace. Skating out of Canlan Ice Arena in Romeoville, IL, the Bulldogs have seen their fair share of success including a National Championship in 2009 when they were still called the Hitmen. They have also made appearances at USA Hockey’s National Junior Championships in 2009, 2010, 2011, and 2012.
Team owner Ken Kestas explains, “The USA Hockey sanctioned Junior Program is available to high school graduates who seek a greater or different challenge. The principal purpose of the NA3HL and the Bulldogs is to prepare the athletes for advancement up through the Junior ranks, collegiately, or beyond to the professional ranks.” Kestas takes great pride in the fact that over 50% of his players are from Illinois.
The Bulldogs recently joined the NA3HL, which provides some new opportunities for the players. Kestas states, “The NA3HL provides a path for players to grow, develop, and be seen.” The NAHL (Tier II Junior League discussed in last week’s article) organizationally manages the NA3HL. This relationship benefits the players by giving those deserving skaters a chance to play on an NAHL team during the season.
As we heard from the other junior teams, community service is an important part of developing the complete player. The Bulldogs support the local association and rink they play at every Wednesday with on-ice support. Three Bulldogs players join the Canlan Ice Sports Youth Hockey League players and assist in a practice with the newest skaters to the game of hockey. It’s a great way to give back and promote the game of hockey locally.
With a great location off of I-55 in Romeoville, the Bulldogs give the local hockey fan a great opportunity to see some up and coming players working hard for a spot at the next level. It also gives the local community a chance to play a major role in their development off the ice by billeting an out of state player. Kestas puts it this way, “The billet families play a huge part in the success of any Junior organization. When the players’ families send their sons to another state, the players and parents trust us to provide them with a good home. Their host family provides great memories which players will carry with them from their time in Junior Hockey. For many of the players this is their first time being away from their friends and family. Their billet family becomes their surrogate family, and the lasting relationships that are formed are often the more valued aspect of hosting. Players range in age from 17 to 20 and want to take part in many aspects of a normal family life with their hosts from family meals to taking on active “big brother” roles with the younger host brother and sister.
Click HERE to check out the Chicago Jr. Bulldogs 2015-16 schedule and head to Canlan Ice Arena for some great hockey this Fall!
Tier III – USPHL
The newest entry into Illinois Junior Hockey is the Chicago Cougars who will play their games out of the Sears Center off of I-90. A great opportunity for hockey fans in the Northwest part of Chicagoland to catch some talented young hockey players try to reach their dream. The Cougars will play in the newly formed USPHL Midwest division. The United States Premier Hockey League was formed a few years ago after the highly successful Eastern Junior Hockey League split up. It has since expanded down the east coast and now to the Midwest. This affiliation will give the league access to teams beyond the Midwest as it showcases the players across the country.
John Schwarz, part of the ownership group of the Cougars, brings his success with the Dells Ducks junior program to Chicago. “The Cougars will provide fun, affordable, and action packed entertainment for the entire family”, says John. “At the Sears Center, you can get up close to the players, meet them after the game, and hopefully come back again!” One of Schwarz’s keys to success with his junior experience is immersing the players in the community whether it is within the local schools or a variety of charitable endeavors; it is vital to the team’s integration with the surrounding area.
Like their counterparts in the NA3HL, billet families for the out of state players is of utmost importance. As Schwarz puts it, “becoming a billet family is a win-win situation for the players and the families”. Another win-win is for the local youth hockey community in the Northwest Suburbs. You will see the Cougars players on the ice with the little ones, from learn to skate programs to youth team practices. Schwarz encourages the youth teams in the area to take in a Cougar game and skate on the ice with the team.
The USPHL Midwest division should prove to be a competitive league, featuring skilled and hardworking players all fighting to take the next step in their development. Schwarz says, “Parents and kids alike will get a feel for what it looks like to play junior hockey and educate themselves as their children approach that age.” We are excited to have the Cougars in our backyard here in Chicago. Reach out to them for ticket information and game day events. With a stellar leadership team, including NHL goaltender Craig Andersen (a Chicago native), the Cougars look to have a great inaugural season.
Tier III – NA3HL
Central Illinois benefits from several junior teams as well. Last week we introduced you to the Bloomington Thunder and Springfield Jr. Blues. In Peoria, the Mustangs have roamed the ice for 16 years. They are a staple on the sports landscape in Peoria, with hundreds of players passing through the Mustangs over the years. “The Mustang family is strong. Our annual alumni night brings back former players to renew old friendships,” says owner Paul Wayvon.
Like the Bulldogs, Peoria participates in the Tier III NA3HL junior league. This past season several Mustangs players were able to move up to play in the Tier II NAHL. The relationship between the leagues, as discussed, is a benefit to its players. Speaking of players, one thing Paul is excited about is the number of players from Central Illinois that play on the Mustangs, “The Mustangs select 8 to 12 players that played their minor hockey in Central Illinois”. Paul emphasized that it’s not just Illinois players, but a heavy focus on skaters from the Midwest.
As with all our junior teams, the Mustangs are and have been involved with the local community for almost two decades. Visits to local hospitals, Pink in the Rink Night for breast cancer, food drives, and local events are just some of the outreach programs the Mustangs are involved with.
Come out to see the Mustangs at the Owens Center this fall, and if you are down in Peoria for a youth game take advantage of watching some exciting Junior hockey!
Tier III – USPHL
You may recognize the name, but the location has changed. The Blaze moved their home from Bloomington to Decatur this year and boy what a welcome they have received. Decatur took second place in the National Kraft Hockeyville contest this past year and received $75,000 to improve the arena where the Blaze ply their trade. Due to a generous donation and community fundraising, another $75,000 was raised for a total of $150,000 for improvements to the Decatur Civic Center which the Blaze call home. The local Decatur Youth Hockey Association drove this amazing campaign as the Blaze moved in to make Decatur home. The relationship between the two is fast growing as many Decatur youth families are billeting Blaze players.
As part of the USPHL Midwest, along with the Chicago Cougars, Decatur is excited to be involved with the local community. The energy created by the youth association should bode well for the Blaze as they begin their second year in this tight knit community.
AHAI had the pleasure of attending the Decatur Days Parade honoring the Decatur Youth Hockey Association for their work on the Hockeyville campaign and subsequent fundraising campaign. It was great to see the Blaze players marching in the parade and spreading the word about their team. Sharing the rink with the youth team allows them ample opportunity to be part of the development of these young skaters. We met several billet families on our visit and they couldn’t have been more excited to be a host family to these players.
When in Decatur, check out the Civic Center and the Decatur Blaze!