What began in Michigan 35 years ago, the North American Hockey League (NAHL) has ventured as far west to Alaska and as far south to Texas; never, though, had it made its way east of Pittsburgh.
That was until earlier this month, when the NAHL brought many of its best and brightest to New England - Iorio Ice Arena in Walpole, Mass., to be exact - for the first time ever to showcase its first Top Prospects Tournament of the season.
An appearance out east was a long time coming, according to NAHL commissioner Mark Frankenfeld, but certainly worth the wait given the hordes of college and professional coaches and scouts that converged on the three-day festival.
“It was a tremendous event, and, to be honest, one that was overdue because of the concentration of NCAA programs in the vicinity,” said Frankenfeld. “A lot of these schools - not to mention a lot of regional NHL scouts - don’t have an opportunity to see our league too often, so it was a great experience to bring our league to them.”
At the Top Prospects Tournament, which was held from Dec. 5-7, four teams comprised of the NAHL’s top committed and un-committed college players, including those recognized on the NHL Central Scouting Bureau’s Players to Watch list for 2011 draft-eligibles, played a three-game round robin.
Team Weight, consisting primarily of players from the league’s Central Division, won the championship in a goal-differential tiebreaker over Team Miller and Team Rafalski; all three teams finished the event with a 2-1 mark (Team Legwand finished 0-3).
“Not only do we want to expose as many of our players as we can to colleges and professional scouts out east, but we also want to make prospective players aware of what our league has to offer, both in terms of competitiveness and exposure,” said Frankenfeld, whose league will host its second Top Prospects Tournament of the season from Feb. 20-22 in Ann Arbor, Mich. “Given our recent growth, that’s really what this event was designed to accomplish, and, from all of the feedback I received, we exceeded our expectations on both fronts.”
And make no mistake, scouts at all levels were impressed with what they saw in Walpole, both on the ice and organizationally, from USA Hockey’s only Tier II Junior A league.
“I’d like to see this happen every year,” said Carolina Hurricanes amateur scout Bob Luccini, who lives in Massachusetts. “It was a very well-run event which gave the eastern NHL scouts, as well as college scouts, a chance to see the top players in the North American Hockey League under one roof.”
Steve Lyons, an amateur scout with the Phoenix Coyotes who also calls Massachusetts home, agreed, especially with seven NAHL players pegged by NHL Central Scouting on its Watch list.
“To have the opportunity to see the NAHL’s top prospects and players rated by (NHL Central Scouting) at one venue in the East is very valuable,” said Lyons. “The league is big and spread out and our viewing period is relatively short, and I thought the event was very useful and well-organized.”
To no surprise, college evaluators were also front-and-center at the Top Prospects Tournament. Those situated in the East, in particular, jumped at the opportunity to scout the league in their own backyard.
“Being an eastern school, it’s sometimes challenging for us to see a lot of NAHL games and we appreciate the league’s efforts to make their players more accessible for our recruiting efforts,” said RPI assistant coach Bryan Vines. “I think it speaks volumes of the integrity of the NAHL and the league’s commitment to their players’ futures.”
“It was a great opportunity for the eastern Division I schools, especially, to see some of the top talent the NAHL has to offer,” added Holy Cross assistant coach Rob Godfrey. “It was very well run with all the important information about players readily available. I hope this becomes and annual event for the NAHL.”
Armed with the task of not only developing their players but advancing them to the collegiate and professional ranks as well, NAHL coaches also gave the event high marks.
“It was huge success and another step in the right direction for the NAHL in terms of promoting and showcasing its players,” Topeka RoadRunners head coach Scott Langer, one of the coaches behind Team Miller’s bench, said of the Top Prospects Tournament. “The exposure of this event brought in college and professional coaches from all over the country and the competitiveness of our brand surely opened some eyes.”
“It was great for our league to get exposure out east and show what our league has to offer,” added Coulee Region Chill head coach Garrett Strot, one of Team Weight’s coaches. “All of the games were very competitive and really showed how much talent we have in the NAHL.”
But the NAHL wasn’t the only league on display in the Bay State; the third event of the North American Prospects Hockey League (NAPHL) season took place over the same weekend at both Iorio and the Foxboro Sports Center in Foxboro, Mass., where the circuit’s Midget Major (18U) and Midget Minor (16U) teams competed over four days.
The event marked another prime scouting opportunity for all of the participating programs and players, and one that didn’t disappoint.
“I always make it a point to go upstairs (to the scout room) and see who’s signed in, and Massachusetts was very impressive,” said Indiana Jr. Ice head coach Mark Catron, whose team leads the 18U division. “The whole year has been good, but this showcase seemed to bring out more than I can remember.”
“The chance showcase our league in New England was a great experience and one that only makes sense given all the junior, college and professional teams in the area,” said NAPHL director Denny Scanlon. “And to host the event in conjunction with the NAHL Top Prospects Tournament only enhanced the exposure.”
The experienced and accommodating staffs at both arenas, in particular Rob Barletta and Cathy Harrop at Iorio to Scott Harlow at Foxboro, also played an integral role in seeing both events flourish in no time at all.
“Running events of this magnitude at two facilities can present its challenges, but we can’t say enough about the staffs at both Iorio and Foxboro and their hospitality the entire week,” said Frankenfeld. “Everyone was great to work with and deserves a lot of credit for not only helping get these showcases off the ground, but succeed in only our first year out there.”
“We couldn’t be happier to have the NAHL showcase one of its events at our facility,” added Barletta, general manager of Iorio. “We’re looking forward to another great tournament next year.”
And with its first trip out east an unequivocal success, Frankenfeld is already anticipating a bigger and better return next season - one that’s again sure to benefit all of the participating players as they pursue their goals on the ice and in the classroom.
“It’s events like this that make the NAHL so special and set us apart from any other junior league in North America,” said Frankenfeld. “The opportunities we provide our student-athletes is unmatched, and this is just another glowing example.”