No one knows when the NHL is coming back. Alex Ovechkin is playing in Russia, in one of those ugly jerseys they insist on wearing over there. Regular season Caps games are being cancelled.
But in the hockey hotbed of Woodbridge, at the newly rebuilt Prince William Ice Center, two top flight junior hockey teams are playing quality, entertaining hockey as the Potomac Patriots. They’ve got Olympic and NHL-sized rinks, professional in-house announcing, a mascot, teams coming in from throughout the East Coast, live online video streaming, and admission is free. No beer, but the rink’s owners are working on that.
In Canada, junior hockey is a very big deal. Almost every young player who wants to make the NHL or college plays juniors — Gretzky, Lemieux, Crosby, Orr all came up through juniors — from their mid-teens up to age 20, hoping either to get drafted by a pro team or offered a scholarship by a school. Teams in small towns become powerhouses, recruit players from across Canada and the U.S., and draw big crowds to their games.
And the Eastern Junior Hockey League is one of America’s versions of Canadian junior hockey. It started in the Northeast, and has now added the EJHL-South, of which the Potomac Patriots are one member in a league with teams in Florida, Georgia and North Carolina. The EJHL has placed over 1,500 players into NCAA hockey, and 25 into the NHL.
Here’s a highlight reel from the Patriots first win in the EJHL-South, courtesy of Cross Ice Feed, and more about the team after the jump:
Now the D.C. area has its own top flight juniors franchise, and the hockey they play is first rate. And they have a gorgeous new rink on Dale Boulevard, which also hosts teams from Osbourn, Woodbridge and Robinson high schools, the National Capital Region Military team, the George Mason and Northern Virginia Community College teams, speedskating, figure skating and more. This Monday night, ex-Capital Craig Laughlin, the inimitable color commentator on Caps TV broadcasts, will be running a clinic on the Woodbridge ice.
Before the Patriots joined the EJHL-South, they had to overcome the collapse of their home rink during the gigantic snowstorm of 2010. So they took over an abandoned Hechinger’s store in Haymarket, built a rink there and dubbed it The Lumberyard, team general manager R.J. Zeigler said.
“It was a tough year,” Zeigler said. “You can’t sustain a junior hockey program with a facility like that.”
But Prince William Ice Center owner Bill Hutzler was determined to rebuild, and Zeigler gave him a list of items he needed to launch a quality hockey program — weight room, locker room, video equipment. ”There was nothing I didn’t get,” Zeigler said.
The Patriots have 48 players divided between the A squad, which plays in the EJHL-South, and the B squad, which plays in the Empire Junior Hockey League, where the A squad played until this season. As with the Canadian junior teams, the Patriots have some “billeted” players from New York, Cleveland and Sweden, but most of the players are from the D.C. area, some of them graduates of the Washington Little Caps program.
“There’s a tremendous amount of talent in the D.C. area,” Zeigler said. ”I grew up playing hockey in this area. I played with guys who were drafted by the NHL. It’s been a long time since there was a program that could really really help these kids have their talent exposed. That’s what we’re trying to do.”
Though most NHL and college scouts are located in the Northeast, the EJHL-South recently pooled their funds to bring in 20 NCAA scouts for a showcase tournament in Charlotte. The Patriots had only played their first game in the league last month, but they went 4-0 on the weekend, and “really put their program on the map,” one NCAA scout told the team. Of the nearly 500 players in Division I hockey, about 400 were recruited from junior hockey, the Patriots said.
Kenny Turgeon said he’d been hauling his son Andrew to Prince William from Owings, Md., in Calvert County, for three years, and was very happy with the program. (The players, or their parents, pay to play on the team.) “We’re hoping we can get him to play at some college level next year,” Turgeon said. The last name alone should be worth something.
In their debut game in the EJHL-South, the Patriots had far fewer 19- and 20-year-old players than the East Coast Eagles from Charlotte, and no players with any Junior A-level experience. But after falling behind 3-0, the Patriots scrapped back with three goals in the third, including one by Andrew Turgeon and two by 15-year-old dervish Cameron Smith, and lost only 5-3.
The league plays Saturday night-Sunday morning doubleheaders. On Sunday, the Patriots bounced back for a 6-1 win, with Turgeon posting a hat trick, Smith scoring again and goalie Alec Yutzler making 20 saves.
If you can’t make the games, a group called Cross Ice Feed streams every game live, archives the video, and also does podcast interviews and features with the players. David Stearns and Brian Schrembs do a quality job of calling the games while Jason Wakeley handles the technical end.
In the rink, public address announcer Jarrod Wronski, a W.T. Woodson High grad, keeps things lively and is on top of every development on the ice. Off the ice, beer is not yet sold, but “we’re exploring ways to make the atmosphere more like that of a professional sporting event,” Zeigler said.
This is full-contact, high-speed hockey with a lot of experienced players who are well-coached and well-equipped. For Caps fans who haven’t been able to get their hockey fix, and who want to help support a stellar launching pad for area players, this is a great place to go.