A couple of main goals of the North American Hockey League (NAHL) are to see its players develop then move onto collegiate programs, and see member teams thrive in the community with success both on and off the ice.
A shining example of both is the Traverse City North Stars. Celebrating their fifth anniversary season, the North Stars not only continue to thrive within their community, but their players are moving onto the NCAA at a very high rate.
To date, the North Stars have as many NCAA commitments (six) as any team in the NAHL this season and the number will continue to rise, according to head coach Anthony Palumbo, who’s expecting a couple more signings in the next few weeks.
So, what’s the secret to this success for the North Stars and Palumbo?
“I think we have a very good situation up here in Traverse City because it’s in close proximity to some NCAA schools, and, being a former NCAA guy (Palumbo played at Lake Superior State), we have some valuable connections with schools that get our players a fair look,” said Palumbo. “Each season, we continue to set the bar higher and I think that’s translated into some success for our players when it comes to college commitments.”
The six this year that Traverse City can lay claim to include: Kelin Ainsworth (Lake Superior State), Doug Clifford (Niagara University), Tyler Marble (Lake Superior State), C.J. Motte (Ferris State University), Nilan Nagy (Holy Cross) and, the most recent, Alec Shields (Mercyhurst College), all of whom committed while playing in a Traverse City uniform.
“The encouraging thing to us is, there’s going to be more commitments this season,” noted Palumbo. “You still have the NAHL Top Prospects Tournament (next month) and we have guys out there like Tim Opie and Travis White who’ve been the backbones for this team for many years that are very close to getting an offer as well.”
However, the success may also go deeper into the development and recruitment of players for Palumbo and the North Stars.
“We look for the right players at the Midget level who are to come in and fit in well in our system,” said Palumbo. “With the growth of youth hockey and leagues like the NAPHL (North American Prospects Hockey League), it’s become easier for us to identify the type of player we want. That’s been a huge reason we’ve been able to recruit the players we have.”
The on-ice success and growth for Traverse City in the last five years hasn’t hurt either. Ever since Traverse City joined the league back during the 2005-06 season, they’ve improved their win totals each season.
The lone exception was last year when the North Stars won 33 games verus 34 the year before, but the payoff came in Traverse City going undefeated through the North Division playoffs last season, which earned them their first trip to the Robertson Cup Championship Tournament last season.
At the Robertson Cup in Wenatchee, the North Stars defeated the Wild in the opening game and then national finalist Fairbanks in the final round-robin game to finish in third-place.
With 22 wins already this season, the North Stars, who’ve only played a league-fewest 35 games and are still in playoff position, are on track once again to raise the bar.
“The race for the playoffs in the North Division is going to be crazy, we know that,” said Palumbo. “It does nothing but help our players become better, more well-rounded individuals and hopefully colleges will see that and take a chance on some of these guys. I know they’re deserving of it.”
NORTH DIVISION NOTEBOOK
CHICAGO HITMEN: The Hitmen dropped two home games last week to Traverse City by scores of 5-1 and 6-1. Gabe Gervais scored the lone goal on Friday night for the Hitmen, while Austin Cihak scored the lone Hitmen goal on Saturday night. Cihak continues his hot play for Chicago, as he now has at least a point in eight out of his last 10 games. He’s also the only player on the Chicago roster to have appeared in all 37 games this season. In the four games against Traverse City this season, Chicago has been outscored by the North Stars, 29-9. Chicago faces a tough road test this weekend as they travel to Janesville to play the second-place Jets. However, Chicago has beaten Janesville this season, shutting them out 3-0 back on Nov. 13.
JANESVILLE JETS: With two more wins last weekend at home against Springfield, the Janesville Jets remain one of the hottest teams in the league. The Jets have lost just once in regulation in their last 12 games and are 8-1-1 in their last 10 games. The Jets have the league’s best home record with a 16-2-2 mark. Defenseman Alex Brooks netted North Division Player of the Week honors thanks to his four-point weekend, scoring a goal and assist in each Jets win. On Friday, Brooks scored the game-winning goal in overtime and on Saturday he scored a power-play goal. Brooks is sixth among league defensemen in scoring with 29 points. The Jets host Chicago for two games this weekend.
MICHIGAN WARRIORS: Although the Warriors split the weekend in St. Louis, they came away with perhaps their biggest road win in the team’s short history with a 4-1 win against the Bandits on Friday night. Ryan Green had a goal and assist in the win and Robert Tadazak was solid between the pipes, stopping 36 of 27 shots. Even though Michigan lost the next night to the division-leading Bandits, Tadazak came in relief and stopped all 14 shots he saw. Forward Andrew Kolb scored a goal in the 4-1 win on Friday night and, even though he went scoreless on Saturday, he has recorded a point in all but three games this season for Michigan. This week, the Warriors travel to Port Huron for a game on Wednesday night and then to Motor City for two more road games on Friday and Saturday.
MOTOR CITY METAL JACKETS: Forward Cody Wydo continues his impressive offensive season, becoming the first NAHL player to reach 70 points this season. Wydo is just the fourth player in the NAHL in the last three seasons to reach the 70-point plateau, and he still has 21 regular-season games remaining. Meanwhile, the Metal Jackets took two of three games from Port Huron last week. Wydo chimed in with another seven points in the three games, while goaltender Jimmy Hamby recorded both wins and stopped a combined 62 of 69 shots on the weekend. Motor City remains in third place in the North Division, four points behind second-place Janesville and two points ahead of fourth-place Traverse City. The Metal Jackets host the Warriors for two games this weekend.
PORT HURON FIGHTING FALCONS: History was made last weekend as the Fighting Falcons picked up their first road win in the organization’s history with a 3-2 win at Motor City on Sunday. Late in the second period, Logan Lemirande scored the third goal, which would end up as the game-winner. Another big key to the win was goaltender Alex Cantrell’s 35 saves. Goals by James Rudi Pino and Nicholas Sierra gave the Fighting Falcons the first two goals of the game, before Motor came storming back. Port Huron looked like they were going to pull the upset over the Metal Jackets on Friday night, but Motor City scored four goals in the third period to win, 8-5. Pino and Sierra also scored in that game. The Fighting Falcons host Michigan Wednesday night before traveling to Traverse City for a pair of games this weekend.
SPRINGFIELD JR. BLUES: The Jr. Blues dropped back-to-back close 3-2 decisions to the Jets last weekend in Janesville. Springfield did earn a point in the overtime loss on Friday; it had a 2-0 lead before the Jets came back. Taylor Wolfe and Mike Williams lit the lamp for the Jr. Blues. A night later, Springfield came back from a two-goal deficit thanks to goals from Gavin Tufte and Chris Sitler, but it wouldn’t be enough as Janesville scored a late third-period goal. Andrew Martin was in goal for both games and stopped a combined 50 of 56 shots. The Jr. Blues face another tough road challenge this weekend as they go out of the division to play the South Division-leading Roadrunners.
ST. LOUIS BANDITS: The Bandits split a pair of home games against Michigan last weekend. The 4-1 loss on Friday was the first at home for the Bandits since Dec. 11, which is a testament to how well their recent play has been. The next night, the first-place Bandits were able to bounce back in a big way with a 5-0 win. Goaltender Tom Comunale made 18 saves for his fourth shutout of the season and forwards Evan Stibbard (two goals) and Brad Smith (two assists) each had multi-point nights. The Bandits currently enjoy the biggest divisional lead (nine points) of any team in the NAHL. After a bye weekend this weekend, the Bandits face the rare four games in four nights scenario next week in Port Huron and Motor City.