When the wheels were set in motion last May to architect a Tier I Midget league specifically designed to develop, expose and promote its student-athletes to the fullest, the North American Prospects Hockey League (NAPHL) was hatched.
And, with its first season in the books, few could have anticipated the glowing reputation it’s established across North America in such short time.
“I don’t think there’s any question this first season exceeded all of our expectations on a number of levels,” said NAPHL director Denny Scanlon. “From the competitiveness to the organization to the scouting presence, I think we hit the ball out of the park.”
“The purpose of creating the NAPHL was twofold,” said North American Hockey League (NAHL) commissioner Mark Frankenfeld. “For one, we wanted to expose prospective players to our league and all it has to offer, and with that provide our teams an opportunity to scout some of the best players in North America in a league setting with events held under one roof.”
Dean Dixon, who heads the Lansing Capitals’ U18 and U16 teams, agrees the 34-team NAPHL delivered with precision in its first year.
“I can clearly say, without a doubt, this season was the best for exposure for our players,” he said. “For that alone, the NAPHL accomplished a major goal.”
The season’s first event was held in September in conjunction with Minnesota’s Sherwood/NAHL Showcase Tournament - widely considered the top scouting festival for junior, college and professional teams - before heading to the St. Louis suburb of St. Charles, Mo., for its second event in October.
After making an East Coast swing to Rochester, N.Y., in December, the NAPHL headed to Ann Arbor, Mich., for its fourth and final regular-season showcase, which was held in conjunction with the Sherwood/NAHL Top Prospects Tournament - another event that annually delivers a strong scouting presence.
That led to February’s NAPHL Championship Tournament Series in San Jose, Calif., where the No. 1 seeds in each division - the Southern California Titans (U18) and the Pikes Peak Miners (U16) - lived up their top regular-season billing and skated away with the league championship.
“There was great energy in the building the entire weekend,” said San Jose Jr. Sharks U18 head coach Tony Zasowski. “The competition was great and it was neat to see players and fans standing three-deep along the walls watching the games.
“It was great for the West Coast and Pacific District, too, to have teams from all over the U.S. competing in San Jose. Teams had a chance to see the (NHL’s) Sharks practice facility and all the great sites the Silicon Valley has to offer.”
“The support staff was fantastic, both for the league as well as the arenas,” Dixon said of the NAPHL’s events overall. “Each showcase was very well run and nobody could imagine this was our first season, as a league. That and all the facilities and locations gave all of our organizations great exposure across the country.”
And with the improved play and competitiveness on the ice throughout the season, that led to budding working relationships between NAPHL coaches and junior and college coaches, specifically the NAHL, which tendered 25 players heading in the NAPHL Championship Tournament Series.
As of early March, the NAHL’s Motor City Machine locked in on two NAPHL tenders: Southern California Titans forward Josh Batch and Team Maryland forward Maxim Gaudreault.
“We’re very fortunate to have signed two high-end prospects, both from teams we might not have seen outside of the NAPHL,” said Metal Jackets head coach David Cole. “We were very pleased with the talent level in the league and it’s a big advantage for NAHL teams to be able to see Midget players from non-traditional hockey markets.”
“We had the opportunity to observe a number of excellent prospects in the NAPHL,” added Wenatchee Wild head coach Paul Baxter. “I think a lot of players involved in that league will make an impact in the NAHL, some next year and more in the following years.”
With four players signed to NAPHL tenders, along with interest from other junior leagues around the country, Boston Jr. Rangers U18 head coach Bobby Kinsella knows full well his teams got plenty of attention from scouts.
“The exposure was excellent,” he said. “Our players and their families were very impressed with what the league offered.”
That’s a direct result of the commitment every NAHL ownership group has in the NAPHL and its growth and success. By icing a team with the same name in the league’s U18 division, the Texas Tornado has taken that endorsement literally.
“For us, (the NAPHL) has been a nice addition because it helps brand us across the country, and even more importantly it allows us to develop some players who we’re going to be able use in our program next year,” said Tornado president and head coach Tony Curtale.
Three players - forward Mike Fleming and defensemen Tyler Rostenkowski and Mico Solorzano - made the jump from the Tornado’s U18 team to the NAHL club this season.
“We’ve done a lot of on-ice work with both teams’ coaches at the same time, so it’s been a nice development process for both sides,” Curtale added. “It makes the transition easier, makes the Midget guys realize early in the process what they need to do to get here (to the NAHL) and it’s much easier when you’re on the same ice as them and talking to the same coaches.”
“They’re obviously an important part of the equation in terms of making this league a reality, and, ultimately, prosperous,” Frankenfeld said of the NAHL’s ownership. “What’s most important, though, is that they all see the value in creating more opportunities for players - that’s very important to them.”
Speaking of opportunity, the NAPHL earned some major recognition when Team Maryland forward Casey Thrush committed to the University of New Hampshire, a Hockey East powerhouse, as well as being recognized by NHL Central Scouting on its midseason rankings for draft-eligible players.
Jose Delgadillo, a defenseman on the Milwaukee Jr. Admirals’ U18 team, was also recognized by NHL Central Scouting on its Players to Watch list in the fall.
“It was exciting for parents and players to see a few NHL scouts at the events,” said Jose’s father, Bob Delgadillo, the team manager for the Jr. Admirals. “Our experience with the league and those we met in the higher levels of hockey will definitely pay off for many of our players.”
What’s more, a number of NAPHL standouts made their junior hockey debuts during the season, many in the NAHL.
“This is the type of environment we were out to create from the start, and we’ve done that,” said Scanlon. “To see players recognized by top junior leagues, Division I programs and the NHL speaks volumes about the NAPHL, the caliber of play and the exposure the players are getting. It’s tough to beat.”
“The concept of the league is great,” Curtale added. “Hockey costs a lot of money these days, and to maximize the scouting opportunities, along with the travel, is fantastic. I don’t think there’s a Midget tournament anywhere that gets scouted more than ours do.”
And it’s going to continue into May, when four all-star teams from the U18 division will play in the NAPHL Top Prospects Tournament from May 6-9 in Wenatchee, Wash. The showcase will be held in conjunction with the NAHL’s Robertson Cup Championship Tournament, offering more opportunity for exposure prior the NAHL Entry Draft, which will be held on May 26.
The Top Prospects Tournament Selection Committee will offer invitations to prospective players on Wednesday, March 10. Those players are required to commit to their participation in the event by Monday, March 15. The teams will be announced on Monday, March 22.
“The Robertson Cup attracts a lot of people, especially scouts, so it’s going to be an exciting opportunity for these players,” said Scanlon.
The NAPHL, which broadcasts many of its events live over the Internet for fans and players’ families to watch, has also received unwavering support from USA Hockey, including the Officiating Development Program, which oversaw every league event this season.
“We’re very excited about the avenues the NAPHL presented us in terms of the development of our future NAHL officials,” said Scott Brand, coordinator of the USA Hockey Officiating Development Program.
The NAPHL will announce its year-end awards on Monday, March 8, including its All-NAPHL First, Second and Third Teams in both the U18 and U16 divisions, as well as its Top Forward, Top Defenseman and Top Goaltender. The league will also recognize its NAPHL Honor Roll in each division.
“I like the structure,” Pikes Peak U16 head coach Luc Trombetta said of his NAPHL experience. “I like a lot of the personalities involved who’ve made the commitment to making the league a success, from the NAHL staff on down to the coaches in the trenches.”
Making the NAPHL hit on all cylinders is a team effort. Scanlon and Frankenfeld are quick to credit all of the coaches, team mangers, players and their families, along with all of the supports staffs at each of the five facilities, for their assistance throughout the season.
“A league of this scope doesn’t come together and have any lasting success without everyone putting all hands in the middle,” said Scanlon. “I can’t say enough about what every program and facility has brought to the table to help make the NAPHL such a success.”
“A lot of people deserve a lot of thanks,” Frankenfeld added. “From all of the teams and their coaches, managers and players to the arenas staffs and our marketing partners, everyone went above and beyond to help the NAPHL become the premier Midget league in the country.”
And the league is already setting its sights on an even bigger and better next year. All clubs that participated during the 2009-10 season must apply for entry for next season. The application will be posted on Monday, March 8 on NAPHL.com with a return deadline of Friday, April 2. The participating teams for the 2010-11 NAPHL season will be announced on Friday, April 16.
“The amount of phone calls and e-mails we’ve been receiving from programs wanting to get into the league is unbelievable,” said Scanlon. “And that overwhelming demand says a lot about what we accomplished this first season.”