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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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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