Gone Gone Gone…

Talking about the people his hockey club put in place, Brad Kwong knew this particular blueprint could work.

He just didn’t see it working out this well.

For a league which promised multiple first-round draft picks, the USHL delivered during last Friday’s first round of the NHL Draft. The league had seven players taken and of those seven, the Dubuque Fighting Saints had three players in forward Zemgus Girgensons (Vermont), defenseman Michael Matheson (Boston College) and forward Mark Jankowski (Providence), a prospect who said repeatedly he would be playing next season in Dubuque.

Three first-round selections comes in Year 2 of a franchise which made its way into the league winning a Clark Cup in its inaugural season. Kwong, one of the team’s principal owners, said there was a plan but even now, what has occurred with the Fighting Saints has gone well beyond what was expected.

“I think it was surprising and we didn’t expect to win Clark Cup in the first year,” Kwong said. “We had a good sense with the hockey people and staff we had that we’d be successful.”

When it comes to those “hockey people” the first place to start should be with Kwong and the rest of the ownership. Kwong was a former hockey player at Harvard while the rest of his fellow owners Philip and Mark Falcone, brothers who are part of the Minnesota Wild’s ownership group along with Peter Chiarelli, the general manager of the 2011 Stanley Cup Champion Boston Bruins.

The group returned a USHL team to Dubuque following a 10-year hiatus and made hires which they believed could have a major impact. The franchise hired up-and-coming executive Adam Micheletti as its director of hockey and business operations. Former Maine great Jim Montgomery was then hired as head coach along with hiring Bobby Kinsella as an assistant and Joe Coombs, as an assistant and director of scouting.

All four worked together in the franchise’s first year to bring a Clark Cup and this year surpass whatever NHL Draft expectations there might have been.

“If you would have asked (about three first-round selections) four months ago…we had a good sense (Girgensons and Matheson) would go in the first round,” Kwong said. “When all those different names went up we thought Mike was going to go down and when it happened, it wasn’t a total shock. Jankowski was a surprise and we’ve heard a lot of great things and we’ll see what kind of player he is.”

USHL commissioner Skip Prince, who said he has known Kwong for 20 years, said when the two talked about bringing a team to Dubuque, Kwong’s group had an idea.

The philosophy was to take what had been done in the NHL in terms of the quality of items such as marketing and scouting then applying those ideals to work on a smaller scale to work within the USHL’s parameters.

It has turned into an organization which has used the draft to get players who had an impact with Dubuque and in the case of some, beyond. The Fighting Saints took the promising yet high-risk project that was Vinny Saponari and got him back into college hockey at Northeastern and scored 23 points in 34 games.

They helped John Gaudreau go past being a 5-6 forward into being a Calgary Flames draft pick who might have been the most impressive freshman in the nation last year at Boston College.

Maybe the success wasn’t expected this quickly but Kwong’s ownership has put together a successful model which could continue to have strong results.

“We know it is ultra-competitive and we know going on with only six or seven returnees, we are going to be a new team,” Kwong said. “That first part of the season – in the fall – there is going to be a lot of learning to be done with the talent we have coming. With Jim and his guys coaching, we are confident we can make a good run at it.”

Right Back At You…

So last night’s Force-Musketeers game wasn’t exactly the most exciting game in the world.

Force defenseman Willie Corrin (Minnesota-Duluth) scored the game-winning goal in overtime giving Black and Blue a 1-0 series lead in a best-of-three campaign. With a win tonight, the Force could close out the series and get a few days rest before heading south to Lincoln for a best of five.

Or it is extremely possibly Sioux City could tie the series at 1, forcing a Game 3 on Wednesday.

Either scenario is possible so let’s take a look at what to watch for in Game 2:

FORCE:

On offense: The High School Musical Line – Gabe Guertler (Minnesota)-Alex Iafallo (Minnesota-Duluth)-Dave Gust – was about the sharpest line for either team in Monday’s game. All three were constantly attacking the net looking for a goal. Guertler got one in the first 20 seconds of the game. Look for them to continue that pace but also look for them to get some help too namely in the form of the FCC Line. Austin Farley (Minnesota-Duluth), Bryn Chyzyk (North Dakota) and Colton Hargrove (Western Michigan) had spurts last night where they looked good and at times, didn’t look so hot. Don’t be surprised if those three take a more aggressive approach.

On defense: A one-goal game could very well be in the cards. If so, then its up to the Force’s defense to make sure it keeps the net clear in front of Zane Gothberg (North Dakota). If you’re looking for a player to keep tabs on, look for Brian Cooper (Nebraska-Omaha), who is easily capable of destroying an opponent’s flow and creating an odd-man rush all in the same series.

On goaltending: Gothberg said after last night’s game he expects for there to be close games where offense is at a premium. Fair enough. Gothberg had moments where he didn’t face too much action but when he did, he was ready for it. His lone blemish was a rebound leading to a game-tying goal. Look for him to be more aware on second or even third-chance opportunities.

 

MUSKETEERS:

On offense: Offense hasn’t been kind to the Musketeers this season. They’re actually one of the teams who gave up more goals (189) in the regular season than they scored (181) already putting them in a hole. Facing Gothberg and a defense that ranks in the Top 3 in the league doesn’t help. Finding someone to replace David Goodwin (Penn State), who is out with an injury is key. Kyle Criscuolo (Harvard) has been a pest for the Force to deal with at times and he could be the guy to jumpstart an offense in severe need of goals.

On defense: Other than stopping The Musical, there really isn’t much else this defense could have done last night. Considering the Force will be in attack mode to close out the series, looking for Geoff Ferguson (Dartmouth). Ferguson is one of the better shutdown defensemen in this league and he could be one of the big reasons between a Force win or a Musketeers win.

On goaltending: Skoff was pretty upset with himself following the game last night. His main point was that he should have stopped Corrin’s game winner. But there were positives. He did say his defense did a really good job getting in front of net to block shots with their bodies. Another positive is knowing they can go a while with the Force. If Skoff can do what he did last night, he gives his team a fighting chance. But if he even gives up two goals, then it might be fair to say the Force advance.

 

PREDICTION:

Defense will be a priority but don’t be too shocked if both teams try to ramp it up a notch. After all, the Force are trying to close out a series while the Musketeers are looking to force a Game 3. When at their peak, these are both solid teams but in this case we’ll say Force win 3-1 with an empty-netter.

When We Ride…

Lost in the Fargo Force’s winning streak coming to an end could be the team which snapped it, the Sioux City Musketeers.

Sioux City picked up the 2-0 win on Thursday night and have now won two games in a row. The two wins came against Omaha, which had a five-game winning streak and of course Fargo, which had been the hottest team in the league.

“You know what, I think it goes the other way,” said Sioux City coach Brett Larson. “We got nothing to lose and sooner or later they have to lose one. They’re not going to win the last 30 games of the year. People expect them to win at home and you just come in, throw everything you have at them and try to steal the two points.”

You really can’t blame Larson and his team for taking the approach they did entering the game.

Winning streak aside, the numbers hinted this could have easily been a Force win. Force goaltender Zane Gothberg (North Dakota), was 7-1-0 lifetime against the Musketeers heading into last night’s game.

The Force had also beaten the Musketeers the last two times they played.

“It was a tough game,” said Musketeers forward Kyle Criscuolo, who scored both goals in the win. “The whole game they were coming at us and I think we did a good job to weather the storm.”

Fargo outshot Sioux City 15-4 in the first period and finished with 31 shots on net and it wasn’t like these were just simple shots from the perimeter either.

Just about every line combination at some point at least had two or three quality chances on net which were turned away by Musketeers goalie Matt Skoff (Penn State) en route to the shutout.

Skoff managed to stop what had been the hottest line in the USHL between Austin Farley (Minnesota-Duluth), Bryn Chyzyk and Colton Hargrove, all of whom had personal point streaks snapped.

The Force’s No. 2 line featuring Gabe Guertler (Minnesota) had its chances too only to have Skoff turn them away.

Skoff’s biggest save of the night came late in the third period when he got just enough of his left leg pad on a puck to preserve the shutout and annoy what was easily a visibly frustrated group of forwards.

“I was just thinking before the game, let’s just flat out go for it,” Skoff said. “We just said we wanted to compete no matter who we were playing against.”

Larson laughed when he was asked about the “insider information” he had on Farley coming into the game.

After all, it was Larson who recruited Farley to Minnesota-Duluth when he was an assistant there before taking the Musketeers job in the summer. His departure, in turn, led to the Force losing their third head coach in as many years with Jason Herter replacing Larson at UMD.

Larson said he had nothing special planned with Farley and his line and gave all the credit to his team.

“Against Farley’s line you have to be disciplined and play defense as much as you can,” Larson said. “We wanted to make sure we had our best defensemen out there and it was hard to get our best forwards out there when we could. For the most part, we thought we competed with that line.”

Getting shutout against a team featuring the USHL’s second-leading scorer and two players in the Top 5 in goals could easily instill confidence in a young defense trying to establish a foundation.

Sioux City’s defense has allowed 127 goals, the second-most in the entire USHL.

It is a defense which has been under some pressure ever since star Jordan Schmaltz (North Dakota) asked for a trade out of town and eventually landed in Green Bay. The trade resulted in Sioux City getting a few pieces most notably Andy Ryan (Notre Dame) to add experience to what was a defense featuring four players who entered the year with no more than five games between them.

The defense against the Force, however, did more than just assist Skoff with the shutout by doing a variety of things. Alex Kuqali (RIT) broke up the Force’s attempt at getting some rhythm and it turned into his team getting a 2-on-1 and an eventual 1-0 lead.

Dane Cooper, a first-year defenseman, had no problem going up against Dominic Racobaldo, one of the league’s heavyweights, in a fight. Cooper held is own until Racobaldo got some leverage and ultimately won the fight.

“The amount of goals we’ve given up has been through no fault of Matt,” Criscuolo said. “But we’ve had a really young defense and we were just trying to work things out.”

If Sioux City has worked things out, it appears this could be the time to do it.

The Western Conference is getting tighter by the weekend and it won’t be long before a bad weekend here and there could take a serious blow at a team’s playoff seeding or even playoff chances.

With Sioux City currently in sixth (the last playoff spot), it is pretty clear what must be done from here on out.

“We know we’re in a certain position,” said Criscuolo, a Harvard commit. “We’re chasing people and we’re also being chased too. We just have to keep winning games.”

 

Punching In A Dream…

Lincoln Stars coach Chad Johnson said this afternoon forward Kevin Roy will not join the Quebec Remparts of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League this season.

Johnson said Roy, who leads the USHL in scoring with 38 points this season, was recently approached by a Quebec City television station about doing an interview when he returned home for the Christmas Break. Roy is from Lac-Beauport, which is 15 miles or 25 kilometers from the province’s capital city.

“Both myself and (Stars assistant Jimmy) McGroarty spoke with the family. Jimmy spoke with his father and I spoke with Kevin at length and it started out as a TV station that wanted to do an interview and turned into a local player the Remparts are interested in,” Johnson said by phone. “Now he’s supposedly going to meet with the organization and Patrick Roy with him being the owner. We were told the family is not interested. They are interested in the college route. (The interview) was not blown out of proportion, but it was twisted around into him wanting to play in the QMJHL.”

Roy is committed to Brown University and is easily the jewel of the school’s recruiting class.

The 18-year-old came into the USHL with prominence after coming to the Stars from Deerfield Academy (MNHS-MA) where he became a bit of an internet sensation following a YouTube video showcasing his talents during a skills competition.

Roy, who was draft-eligible last season, missed out on being drafted but his stock has risen in his first USHL season.

Aside from leading the league in points, he leads the league with 20 goals. He’s tied for first in power play points with 10 and also has a league-high 113 shots through 25 games helping the Stars to a 15-8-2 record tying them for first in the USHL’s Western Conference.

In short, he has helped make Lincoln one of the most formidable teams in the entire USHL.

“They put a kid in a tough spot,” Johnson said. “One thing about Kevin, he’s a loyal player. At 18 years old, that can be overwhelming. But he’s thinking about where he could be at 39 or 40. Academics are important to him and his family. Bottom line is if Kevin keeps progressing, he is going to play in the NHL regardless of where he’s playing.”

The Stars coach clarified an earlier statement about the Remparts offering Roy a car.

He said early Thursday evening Roy was not offered a car by the Remparts but meant to say teams in the CHL could offer players certain items such as a car and cash.

Johnson said when he spoke with Roy he asked him what would he rather have on his resume: An education from an Ivy League university or the fact he played Major Junior hockey in Canada.

Johnson, who along with his brother played college hockey at North Dakota, said he isn’t against the Major Junior route by any means.

His point was if a player goes to college, they at least have something to fall back on though the CHL does offer an education package for players when their time in the league is done.

“I don’t know how much recognition he got before, but with the year he’s having, he’s becoming a great player in one of the top-end leagues in North America,” Johnson said. “He’s not a secret and we knew there would be interest.”

Johnson compared Roy’s situation to that of fellow Canadians Louis Leblanc and Jaden Schwartz.

He pointed out how both Leblanc and Schwartz were rumored to leave the USHL at any point in the year to go play Major Junior in Canada.

Leblanc, who played with the Omaha Lancers, was a first-round pick of the Montreal Canadiens. He went to Harvard for one season before leaving the school and playing with the Montreal Juniors in the QMJHL for a season. Leblanc is now playing with the Canadiens.

Schwartz spent a season with the Tri-City Storm and like Leblanc, was a first-round pick. He was drafted by the St. Louis Blue and is currently in his second season at Colorado College.

Johnson said Roy is in a position to really show people how good he can be with the second half of the season just around the corner. He said Roy could make a name for himself the same way John Gaudreau did last season with Dubuque.

Gaudreau, who is now at Boston College, broke out in the second half of the season helping the Fighting Saints win the Clark Cup title. In turn, he was drafted by the Calgary Flames.

“Those are the types of games he wants to be involved in,” Johnson said. “Now is his chance to show he’s going to be a pro. It is easy for some players to not want to accept that but we don’t see that in Kevin. He’s a gamer, playmaker and makes his team better and the players around him better. He hates losing and he plays the game the right way.”

He’s Got The Whole World In His Hands…

You’d think after a 7-1 win all would have been great in Forceland on Friday night.

Think again.

Force coach John Marks following the game showed his displeasure with how the game ended. The Force held a 7-0 lead with 26.2 seconds left until forward Bryn Chyzyk cleared the puck out of the crease with his hand. Referee Ken Anderson awarded the Lancers a penalty shot much to Marks’ displeasure.

Marks said there was a call Anderson didn’t make earlier in the game where a similar thing happened with an Omaha player and the Force were not awarded a penalty or a penalty shot.

“I mean there’s 23, 26 seconds left on the clock and it’s a 7-0 game,” Marks said. “I could understand if it was a 2-1 game and the opposition would have a problem with it because they’re trying to win the game. But at 7-0, you just cost a kid a chance for a shutout.”

For those who missed it, there was an interesting exchange between Marks and Anderson after the game. When the Force left the bench to celebrate the win, Marks walked onto the ice to speak with Anderson. He was visibly furious when he spoke and Anderson eventually skated away.

Marks still followed him and the two met near the scorer’s box where Marks launched into him. He had a clipboard in his hand waved it around in anger to show how upset he was with the call that was made and the call that wasn’t made.

Anderson told Marks if he kept going, he’d get a game misconduct. Marks kept going and Anderson gave him the penalty.

Even 30 minutes after the game was over, Marks was still heated about what happened.

“I got pissed off at the end of the game. In the second period, right at the end of the power play, Willie Corrin’s shot came off the backboards to the side of the net and their guy was on his belly and had his hand on the puck and swept it out. Their goalie later covered it. The initial play was their guy swept it out and no call,” Marks said. “With 26 seconds left in a 7-0 game, yeah, our guy swept it up. If you are no going to be to consistent than don’t make the (expletive) call. That was inconsistent refereeing on his part. I told him it was a (expletive) call. He said say one more word and he was going to give me a game misconduct. It’s a $750 fine. It’s right here. Here’s the rule…I am going to fight it because he was not (expletive) consistent in his call from the second period to the third period. I am not (expletive) paying it.”

Force goaltender Zane Gothberg (North Dakota) said he really wasn’t too worried about the referee’s decision.

Gothberg said he just saw the penalty shot as a chance to make one more good save.

It didn’t happen. Omaha forward Greg Gozzo (Harvard) scored on Gothberg ending his bid for what would have been his second shutout this year and the fourth in his USHL career.

“I had Colton Hargrove come up to me before the penalty shot,” Gothberg said. “He told me, ‘You got this, you got this.’ and I told him that’s what I had been telling myself.”

Gothberg was his usual easy-going, laid back self when it came to talking about the goal he gave up. He wasn’t upset about loosing the shutout.

Now Marks and team captain Brian Cooper (Nebraska-Omaha), well, they wanted someone’s head on a stick.

Cooper, at the end of the game, shouted at the Omaha bench letting them know he wasn’t pleased with some of the things they did.

“I know Buggsy (Austin Farley) was going up and getting in a guy’s ear because that’s what he does,” Cooper said. “Then a guy came from behind him and gave him a stick to the leg.”

Cooper’s outburst was nothing compared to what Marks said after the game to Anderson and in his interview.

Cooper and Gothberg both said they were impressed and happy with Marks talking with Anderson at the end of the game.

They saw it as he was sticking up for the team.

“That shows a lot of class and respect on our team,” Gothberg said about Cooper and Marks. “They see a guy working his butt off and they want to see him get rewarded. We want to have success for each other. It wasn’t a crushing win but we put pucks in the back of the net.”

Back For The First Time…

Former Illinois-Chicago coach Val Belmonte, who is part of an ownership group looking to bring a USHL team to Marion, Ind., said Tuesday the league is finalizing plans to bring a team to the city by the start of the 2012-13 season.

Belmonte said the new Marion franchise is awaiting a decision from the league’s executive committee and they are reviewing a number of items before giving Belmonte’s group the green light to give the league what would potentially the USHL’s 17th franchise and ninth in the Eastern Conference. Belmonte said his group purchased the old Thunder Bay Flyers franchise’s membership. The Flyers creased USHL operations in 2000.

“That discussion is being finalized as you and I speak right now,” Belmonte said. “The last time we talked to the league, we were finalizing the process of the design, finalizing getting the property, getting our financing in order and things we had to get in line before we move forward. We wanted a franchise that has dormant…it is the old Thunder Bay franchise based on approval from the league. I am very confident we should get their approval. It is going to be a dynamic approval.”

Belmonte said the deal to bring Marion into the league could be finalized in early January, less than one month away. Once the deal has been finalized and the second construction phase begins on a $30 million, 5,400-seat facility, the Marion franchise will begin operations.

When that happens, it will start the search for a head coach/general manager for the USHL Futures Draft in April and the USHL Entry Draft in May to build a team for the 2012-13 season which will start in late September or early October depending upon scheduling. That is also when the team will focus on finding a nickname, mascot and jersey design.

Belmonte, who was also an assistant at North Dakota, UIC and Harvard, said he would not be the team’s general manager/head coach but entrust someone else with the role.

The 2010-11 season it the last time the league expanded and it added two franchise in the Dubuque Fighting Saints and the Muskegon Lumberjacks. Belmonte said he didn’t know if the league was looking at adding a second franchise to accompany Marion pending league approval.

“To me, the only (new franchise) that I am familiar with is our franchise,” Belmonte said. “I have not heard of another new franchise. That doesn’t mean there hasn’t been discussion of one, but I am not aware of it.”

Bringing a franchise to Marion has been discussed since May when the city issued a press release announcing it would be constructing the Marion Sports and Entertainment Complex along with making a USHL franchise its primary tenant.

Belmonte’s ownership group, the Chicago-based Game 7 Seven LLC, will own the franchise and operate the facility. The ownership group also includes attorney and Chicago Wolves owner William Buddy Meyers and Minneapolis-area executive Kevin Dulin, who is president of an equity company specializing in the sale of companies along with providing strategic plans for clients.

It took about a year, Belmonte said, for him and his partners to come up with a business model along with the type of venue they wanted to build. Once it was decided they wanted a USHL franchise, the focus turned to using a feasibility study to find a community which would fit the league’s blueprint and benefit from hockey.

“This is a multi-sport facility and we are going to have to put in 130 events a year and hockey is going to be 30 and it is only going to be 25 percent of our business,” Belmonte said. “We had to make sure it would fit into the other type of events. At the same time, it had to be a community that was missing a component to fulfill its needs. There are a lot of great places in the Midwest and we wanted to stay in the Midwest.”

Marion became the best fit following conversations with the city’s mayor, Wayne Seybold, a former figure skater who along with his sister represented the United States in pairs figure skating.

Belmonte said Seybold told him about the land, which is now the site for the arena and following conversations with multiple parties including Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, an avid sports fan, a partnership between Game 7 Seven and the city was forged.

Yet it isn’t all about hockey in Marion. The arena would be part of a project which would include a few residential areas, shopping centers and restaurants in the hopes of expanding Marion, a city of less than 30,000 people.

“We got there and we said in our minds it was a good spot and the feasbility study proved it would sustain this type of building, this type of income,” Belmonte said. “We’re trying to build a building and there is nothing on the site except of 188 acres of old farm land. The other thing I liked was in the last year, was as of August there are over $500 million worth of economic devleopment projects in Marion.”

Plans for the arena show it will hold 4,100 people for hockey and will have a second sheet of ice, which will be used for a variety of other activities.

If the league approves the Marion franchise, it would give the USHL a second team in Indiana. The first being the Indiana Ice, which were created in 2004 after the franchise moved from Danville, Ill. after its first season.

The Ice have become one of the league’s most successful franchises having won the Clark Cup in its fifth season and last year was second in attendance.

Night and Day…

An ownership group led by former Illinois-Chicago head coach Val Belmonte are behind a bid to put a USHL team in Marion, Ind. by the start of next season.

Belmonte’s group, Game 7 Seven LLC, is a Chicago-based firm also comprised of Chicago Wolves (AHL) principal owner William Buddy Meyers, who is also listed as a principal partner, according to the group’s Website. Minneapolis-area executive Kevin Dulin is listed as a senior executive vice president with a business background who is the president of an equity firm specializing in the sale of companies along with providing strategic plans for clients.

The City of Marion said in a May press release a 5,000-seat facility would be constructed with the hopes of being completed prior to the 2012-13 USHL season. A recent report in the Marion Chronicle-Tribune states the facility is in the initial step of construction with the project waiting for buyers to purchase $30 million Midwest Disaster Relief bonds issued by the city’s council in May..

City development director Darren Reese told the Chronicle-Tribune movement on the final bond package could come soon.

Game 7 Seven said on its Website it will own the franchise and be responsible for all facility operations. The company’s website had a list of specific amenities the arena will feature upon its completion. It lists the arena’s maximum occupancy will be 5,400 people and for hockey it will hold 4,100 people.

A small blueprint of the arena is on the company’s website in regards to what the Marion Sports and Entertainment Complex will offer.

The arena will have suites and a private luxury club and attached to the arena will be space for a second ice sheet, which will be used for youth hockey, figure skating and a variety of other uses.

Game 7 Seven also stated on its website the USHL team will be the primary tenant of the facility.

USHL spokesman Brian Werger referred to league commissioner Skip Prince, who was not immediately available for comment.

Both Werger and Prince have said on multiple occasions over the last year the process for adding another USHL franchise typically begins 18 months prior to a team’s inaugural season.

“They have applied to the league and it’s been submitted to a review,” Werger said in May when the City of Marion sent out its press release regarding the arena and the team. “Just because an arena has gone up there, it does not qualify them for the team.”

Considering the city first announced its plans in May, it is conceivable a team could be in place as it would have taken at least 17 months to get things in order for the 2012-13 season given the USHL season usually starts in late September/early October.

Should Marion get a USHL team, it would expand the league’s footprint out east and give the league its second team in Indiana. The Indiana Ice were created in 2004 after the franchise moved from Danville, Ill. after one season. The Indianapolis-based Ice have become one of the league’s more successful franchises producing copious NHL Draft picks along with making the playoffs every year and winning the Clark Cup in its fifth season.

It has also been one of the league’s best franchises in regards to attendance with the Ice currently third in crowds this season and last season drawing more than 110,000 fans ranking second in attendance.

Yet a question that remains is: Will Marion be given an expansion team or will a team relocate from another market?

The league’s last expansion effort came in 2010 when the Dubuque Fighting Saints and the Muskegon Lumberjacks joined giving the Eastern and Western Conference eight teams each.

Should Marion get a team for the upcoming season, it would give the Eastern Conference nine teams.

Werger said in April the league gets phone calls from quite a potential parties wanting to own a franchise. He said there is a footprint the league likes to stick with making items such as travel easier for teams in the league.

Marion would indeed fit in the blueprint given its proximity to Indianapolis (85 miles) and other teams in the Eastern Conference.The 2010 Census reported Marion’s population to be 29,948 people. If the league were to put a team in Marion, it would be the smallest market in the USHL.

Given Belmonte’s and Meyers’ hockey background, having a team in Marion could work after all.

Belmonte has held a variety of positions within the game. He was an assistant at North Dakota, UIC and Harvard before taking over the UIC program in 1985 leading the team to a 25-win season. He coached at UIC for five seasons winning 97 games.

In 1990, Belmonte became the Director of Coaching at USA Hockey in Colorado Springs, Colo. until 2000 when he became the athletic director at Union College. He spent four years at Union and later became the vice president for athletic marketing and external relations at Quinnipiac University. Belmonte’s bio on the Game 7 Seven website states his duties at Quinnipiac meant he oversaw the school’s 21 varsity sports and its business-related activities including the $52 million TD Bank Sports Center, which opened in 2007.

Meyers is a former certified NHLPA agent and was an attorney for the CSKA Moscow (KHL) hockey team. He is the principal owner of the Chicago Wolves having been part of the ownership group since 1994, the team’s inaugural season. The Wolves are the current AHL affiliate of the Vancouver Canucks.

All For One…

We’re around halfway done with touring the Western Conference and today’s entry will be centered around the Sioux City Musketeers.

The Musketeers had a pretty interesting season to say the least grabbing the final playoff spot down the stretch last season. A good bit of their late season run was fueled by defenseman Jordan Schmaltz, who could be a first-round pick in the upcoming draft.

Here’s a look at this year’s group:

Sioux City Musketeers (31-23-6; was eliminated in the first round of the playoffs)

Coach: Brett Larson

Who’s Gone: Caleb Herbert (Minnesota-Duluth), forward; Ryan Carpenter (Bowling Green), forward; Jake Suter (UMass-Lowell), defenseman; Alex Velischek (Providence), defenseman; Max McCormick (Ohio State), forward; Max Gaede (Minnesota State-Mankato), forward; Adam Krause (Minnesota-Duluth), forward; Matt Paape (Wisconsin), forward; Tommy Olczyk (Penn State), forward.

Who’s Back: Jordan Schmaltz (North Dakota), defenseman; Brad Robbins (Bemidji State), forward; Tim O’Brien (Dartmouth), forward; Brett Patterson (Dartmouth), forward; Matt Skoff (Ohio State), goaltender; Jake Hildebrand (Michigan State), goaltender; Sam Piazza (Boston College), defenseman; Jose Delgadillo, defenseman; Larry Smith Jr., defenseman; Maxim Gaudreault (New Hampshire), forward; Noah Nelson, forward.

Who’s New: Geoff Ferguson (played last season at Wenatchee/Aberdeen (NAHL)/committed to Dartmouth), defenseman; Kyle Criscuolo (played last season at Choate Rosemary Hall/committed to Harvard), forward; Cliff Watson (played last season at Appleton United/committed to Ohio State), defenseman; Jackson Leef (played last season at Texas (NAHL)), forward; Josh Erickson (played last season at Roseau (MN-HS)), forward; Kirill Vorobyev (played last season at CSKA Moscow Youth), defenseman.

What’s Going On: Sioux City was one of the seven teams this offseason looking for a new head coach and they hired Larson, who was an assistant at Minnesota-Duluth. His departure, oddly enough, is what led the Bulldogs to hire Fargo’s coach Jason Herter creating another opening.

Sioux City last season was a very tough, physical team that didn’t mind sticking up for one another. But they could also score goals too and they could score them at the right time. In a sense, they were a good representation of what the Western Conference in relation to how tough of a league it was last season.

This season’s big theme, yeah, shocker here, is going to be Schmaltz. The OHL tried prying him away this season but he decided to stay and is now one of the players being talked about in regards to being a first-round draft pick. Offensively, he’s the most gifted defenseman in the league and showed it last year scoring 44 points (13 goals, 41 assists) in 53 games making him the team’s third leading scorer. Expectations suggest that Schmaltz will have another big year and when looking at the roster, that could happen.

Robbins, the team’s fifth leading scorer, and O’Brien, the team’s seventh leading scorer, return from last season so there is some experienced, proven firepower up front. Then there are players like Gaudreault and Patterson who had solid seasons but will be asked to score and do more this season. In all, the Musketeers have 11 returning players with the breakdown being: 5 forwards, 4 defensemen and two goaltenders. That amount of returners places them at the high end when it comes to teams with returning talent.

As for what’s coming in, this should be a group that could complement what’s already there and make Sioux City strong for another year. Criscuolo is the incoming forward that jumps out based on what he’s previously accomplished. For starters, he tore it up at the Fall Classic scoring 5 points (4 goals, 1 assists) in four games. This really isn’t a surprise considering he’s been a consistently good scorer at every level he’s been at. He scored 186 points in 107 AYHL games while scoring 98 points in 48 high school games back in New Jersey, according to Elite Prospects.

Having Schmaltz is a plus. So is having a defenseman like Piazza, who with time will be able to show is offensive skills. But an incoming d-man to look at has to be Vorobyev. The Russian played in the famed CSKA Moscow program and he’s only 16 years old making him one of the youngest players in the league this season. Stats on Vorobyev were hard to find, but usually when a Russian makes their way to the USHL, most times they turn out to be pretty successful. So keep an eye out on Vorobyev to see what he does this season.

The Musketeers have a stud player that can win games, experience that’s gone through a grinding season before and incoming talent that should be able to adjust quickly. Sioux City appears as if it should have no problem getting a playoff spot this season and perhaps make a bit of a run in the postseason.

 

Thursday’s Preview: Sioux Falls Stampede

Omaha…

Our tour of the Western Conference continues today with the Omaha Lancers.

The Lancers, once again, had another solid season finishing second in the Western Conference yet was knocked out in the second round following a first-round bye.

Here’s a look at this year’s team:

Omaha Lancers (2010-11: 34-19-7; lost in the second round)

Coach: Bliss Littler

Who’s Gone: Ben Marshall (Minnesota), defenseman; Seth Ambroz (Minnesota), forward; Nick Oddo (Ohio State), forward; Stefan Demopoulos (Providence), forward; Michael Chiasson (Michigan), defenseman; Aaron Ave (Princeton), defenseman; Todd Mathews (aged out of league/ineligible for college due to playing in Major Junior), goaltender; Ryan Daugherty (Northern Michigan), forward; Justin Crandall (Minnesota-Duluth), forward; Mike Tabrum (Denver), forward; Colin Markison (Vermont), forward.

Who’s Back: Michael Ferrantino (committed to Michigan State), forward; Anthony Hamburg, forward; Jonathan Liau (Princeton), forward; Ken Babinski (Ferris State), forward; Adam Chlapik, forward; Nathan Widman, defenseman; Dominic Racobaldo, defenseman; John Keeney, goaltender.

Who’s New: Kenny Gillespie (played last season at Shattuck-St. Mary’s (MN-HS)/committed to UMass), forward; Matt Gaudreau (played last season at Team Comcast/committed to Boston College), forward; Alex Lyon (played last season at Lake of the Woods (MN-HS)/committed to Yale), goaltender; Myles McCauley (played last season at Penticton (BCHL)/Peterborough & Sault St. Marie (OHL)), forward; Jimmy Murray (played last season with Texas (NAHL)/Fargo Force); Ben Ostlie (played last season at Edina (MN-HS)), defenseman; Casey Bailey (played last season at Alberni Valley (BCHL)), forward; Peter McMullen (played last season at Delbarton School/committed to Boston College), forward; Greg Gozzo (played last season at Avon Old Farms/committed to Harvard), forward; Victor Newell (played last season at Nanaimo (BCHL)/committed to Harvard), defenseman.

What’s Going On: Omaha enjoyed another strong season fighting off teams like Fargo for the second seed in the West and making the most of it until its second-round exit after getting a first-round bye.

Omaha was loaded with talent last year the most notable names being Marshall, a Red Wings draft pick and Ambroz, a guy who entered the season as a first-rounder and fell to Columbus in the fifth round. Point is, the Lancers had a lot of talent last year up front and on the blue line and as you can see, a lot of it is gone. But then there’s the flip side of all this and noticing that Omaha has a LOT, maybe too damn much, coming into the team. The Lancers have a good number of returners with eight so there’s that. Yet its what they have coming in is what will make this team pretty appealing to watch.

Considering there are so many options, let’s look at one player at forward, defense and goaltender (OK, that’s real easy) to watch for that’s new. At forward, the guy with a lot of talk has been the 17-year-old Gillespie. The UMass commit had 55 points (13 goals, 42 assists) in 49 games last season at S-SM. He’s 6-feet and 201 pounds and could be that explosive forward that could win games for the Lancers. Not to mention, he’s a guy that plenty of UMass fans are excited about. If Gillespie lives up to what’s been promised, the rest of the league will quickly understand why.

Defensively, there are so many options but the spotlight here goes to Newell. At 5-10, 176 pounds, he fits that physical model that Marshall has last season. His numbers last season also suggest he could be a guy that runs the power play as he scored 35 points (12 goals, 23 assists) in 58 games last season. The fact he’s committed to Harvard shows he’s smart but another thing that proves it is his penalty minutes. He only had 12 last season. Having a defenseman that makes smart decisions with and without the puck is never a bad thing.

Finally, there’s this goaltender Lyon, who was kind of, sort of a big deal in Minnesota last year. All he did was win the Frank Brimsek Award for Senior Goaltender. All Lyon did was prove he was the best goaltender in the state by making 743 saves. He just only had a 1.60 GAA and a .945 save percentage through the regular season and playoffs. In a 5-1 loss, he stopped 66 shots. So in short, he’s kind of good.

Omaha has a lot (can’t stress that enough) of good incoming talent and this year they play in a conference that should be easy to win in. That could come in handy because this is a team will be working in players that are new to the league and how it works. But even if this Omaha team played in last year’s Western Conference, something says they’d do well. Expect to see the Lancers in the playoffs again this season.

 

Wednesday’s Preview: Sioux City Musketeers

Things Are Getting Better…

Imagine being in a picturesque town that loves hockey so much that one of its crown jewels is an $85 million dollar arena.

Inside this arena are championship banners, references to NHL legends like Brett Hull and current-day stars like Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Duncan Keith. Continue walking around the arena into the locker room where you’ll find everything from a state-of-the-art video system to a power skating coach ready to work with anyone who needs the help.

Then have up-and-coming players like Pittsburgh Penguins first-round draft pick Beau Bennett tell you that this is the place to be.

Doesn’t sound like a hard sell does it? Well, that’s just a slice of what the Penticton Vees in the BCHL have to offer and this off-season it has worked out well. The Vees have managed to snag some of the nation’s top talent such away from the likes of the USHL.

“I think the biggest ting is a lot of players at this age want to learn how to win but the biggest thing is they want to get better,” said Vees coach Fred Harbinson. “We’ve shown in my time in Penticton how we’ve been able to attract good players and have very good facilities. We’ve hired a power skating coach, we have a top video system and everything you need to train players and get them to the next level.”

Harbinson, a former St. Cloud State assistant, has had an off-season many, if not all, junior coaches would be pleased with. Harbinson acquired recent NHL Draft picks Mario Lucia (Minnesota Wild) and Steven Fogarty (New York Rangers/Harvard) within the last two weeks. On Tuesday, he said the team also got Virginia phenom Garrett Hendrickson (St. Cloud State) to go along with the Reilly Twins and their brother, Mike (all three are going to Minnesota), who said earlier in the summer they’d play for the Vees.

Add that talent on top of the fact that Joey Benik (St. Cloud State) is returning for a second season after scoring 30 goals as a rookie sets up what could be a promising season in Penticton. What’s could be considered even more impressive is how the Vees have been able to add this many American-born players without violating the league’s import rules.

Basically, each team can have up to eight players born outside the province. In the case of Benik, because he will be a second-year player, that rule does not apply to him anymore, Harbinson said.

It also sets up quite a few questions that have been asked in the junior hockey world as of late. The biggest one being: Can the BCHL challenge the USHL in regards to getting top American-born prospects?

Here’s why that question has been asked. Let’s start with the Reillys. Twins, Connor and Ryan, were both with Sioux Falls last season and their brother, Mike, was slated to join them there for the upcoming season. So was Lucia who’s rights were also owned by Sioux Falls.

Then this off-season the Reillys, all three of them, left for Penticton and Lucia quickly followed. Fogarty, who played high school hockey at Edina last season, had his rights owned by the Chicago Steel and on Sunday he decided that he would skip USHL in favor of playing in the BCHL.

And with Hendrickson going to the Vees, that’s what’s making some wonder what’s going on.

“When the Vees recruited Beau Bennett, a #20 pick in 2010 [he could have played in Tri-City (USHL) or Calgary (WHL)], the USHL didn’t seem to take much note with him being a Californian,” said Vees play-by-play announcer Ryan Pinder, who has covered the league for four seasons. “Now that three of the top four drafted Minnesota High School players have gone to Penticton, the message has been sent. USHL teams can’t take players showing up for granted. Players have options, and teams have to actively work to recruit, not expect kids just to show up because they were drafted.”

Those not familiar with Penticton, know this. They have a way of doing things that has allowed for success. The Vees are one of the three oldest franchises in the BCHL. They have won multiple titles and have sent more than 30 players to the NHL including Hull, who scored a record 105 goals in his last season with the Vees.

As for the BCHL, it has been a league that could claim the title as Canada’s best and strongest Junior ‘A’ league and this past season made a serious run at rivaling leagues like the USHL and the NAHL in regards to commitments.

The USHL won last season’s commitment race by a large margin having 270-plus commits while the BCHL had around 90 kids going Division I while the NAHL had 70. But if teams like the Vees can continue to attract top American talent, specifically the top Minnesota talent, there’s a strong chance that number could increase.

“It doesn’t make a difference where they are from,” said Harbinson, who is heading into his fifth season with the Vees. “We need to keep on bringing strong players. I am not here to bad mouth any league. I loved my time coaching in the USHL and in college but we’re working hard to make our program better.”