This Tuesday will begin the Community Vote of the All About the Jersey Top 25 New Jersey Devils Under 25. An annual look at the younger players in the system for us writers and you, the People Who Matter, to rank who is the best among them. To that end, I have prospects on my mind. Coincidentally, today is the start of the 2023 Hlinka-Gretzky Cup. An international under-18 tournament that features plenty of 2024 draft eligible players (and some 2025s like Canada starlet forward Michael Misa and Sweden goalie and All-Name candidate Love Härenstam). It is the unofficial start to the draft season. The USNTDP is not in full effect but the American squad features several USHL players, an AJHLer (Finn McLaughlin of Canmore), an OHLer (AJ Spellacy of Windsor), and New Jersey-born Callum Hughes. This young man, unrelated to the Hughes, is from Basking Ridge and he cut his teeth on local youth teams before moving on to prep hockey elsewhere and West Kelowna of the BCHL next season of all places. I want to focus a little bit on those local youth teams.
It is something to highlight in the middle of this offseason and something I have been meaning to do at one point. This is All About the Jersey - a New Jersey Devils blog for the New Jersey Devils fans, also known as the People Who Matter. We are here because of the Devils, the team we love. However, hockey is more than just the NHL and the state of New Jersey is no different. The sport is just as prevalent in recreational, school, club, and in other league settings. The NHL absolutely matters a lot and the Garden State has produced players who have made it to the world’s best hockey league. For the thousands who do not reach that goal, these teams are where an appreciation of the game is formed and keeps a sport going at a grassroots level. As this All About the Jersey, let us walk through most of the other hockey teams in this state beyond the Devils. If only to get a sense of the history and breadth of squads that play here - especially at the youth levels.
The Devils, You Know
The top of the New Jersey hockey mountain is the New Jersey Devils. Obviously.
One of the ways the Devils give back to the community is through their support of multiple hockey-related initiatives. They have a Youth Foundation. The Prudential Center hosts the multiple public and prep high school hockey championships. They sponsor a hockey academy for all ages and skills levels. They have multiple sub-initiatives for youth hockey development. They do (did?) have a street hockey program. They highlight team captains of prep and public school teams. Youth teams play on the rink during the first intermission. The team’s President, Jake Reynolds, is a trustee of Hockey in New Jersey and their Advisory Board includes Ken Daneyko and Grant Marshall. Outside of outright building rinks and funding teams, the Devils do have a role at the grassroots level. And, no, the New Jersey Devils Youth Hockey Club is not affiliated with the organization. They just use the name and logo.
In terms of pro teams, the Devils are it. The most recent men’s minor professional teams in the stat were the Trenton Devils and Atlantic City Boardwalk Bullies of the ECHL and both have moved on. Incidentally, the Bullies eventually would become the Adirondack Thunder, who is the the Devils ECHL affiliate.
There was the Metropolitan Riveters in the women’s professional game. The Devils partnered with them for a bit (2017 to 2019) as they played in the Devils’ practice rink. However, that was short lived and the Riveters had to move on. They were last seen playing at a rink inside the American Dream mall in East Rutherford. Yes, the mall. Their future is in doubt though. The Premier Hockey Foundation (formerly the National Women’s Hockey League) was bought out at the end of June by Mark Walter, who intends to merge the league with the Pro Women’s Hockey Player’s Association. The PWHPA was the fall-out of the not-so-professional Canadian Women’s Hockey League that did not want to be a part of the NWHL at one point. With the acquisition, all contracts will need to be re-done and new teams may be announced. The Riveters were one of the league’s founding teams as the New York Riveters back in 2015. It is unknown if women’s pro hockey will return to New Jersey. If it does not, then the Devils will once again be the only professional team in the state. (And depending on what you believe about the PHF/NWHL, it was anyway.)
Princeton and a Heap of College Club Teams
Moving down the proverbial pyramid, the state of New Jersey has exactly one Division-I school in the NCAA for hockey: Princeton. The Ivy League school began its hockey program way back in 1894 and it joined the Intercollegiate Hockey League with other Ivy League teams. The school’s biggest name is Hobey Baker, whom the top collegiate player’s award is named after as well as the tiny rink established in 1923 that the Tigers still play in.
(Aside: Why didn’t the Riveters play there? Rather than playing in front of tens of mallgoers, have a couple hundred sound more lively in a rink built for 2,000 people? Maybe they tried and Princeton said no. I don’t know.)
As college hockey developed, Princeton was a founding member of the Eastern College Athletic Conference when it formed in 1961 along with five other Ivy leaguers (Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, Cornell, Brown) as well as Boston College, Boston University, Northeastern, Providence, Colgate, Clarkson, St. Lawrence, Army and New Hampshire. While some have moved on, Princeton remains and the ECAC is a viable conference for the sport.
Princeton is hardly a power in the game like, say, Harvard. There have been some NHL players to play for the Tigers: George Parros, Jeff Halpern, Taylor Fedun, Mike Condon, Darroll Powe and Syl Apps Jr. all stand out as they made it to the show. There was some recent interest in UDFA forward Max Veronneau, although his move to Ottawa did not quite work out. The women’s team has developed some notable players too such as the Patty Kazmaier, Kelsey Koelzer, Denna Laing, and Kelly Cooke. However, the big thing that holds Princeton back from developing more pros is the same thing that holds them and most other Ivy League teams back in other sports. Ivy league schools do not issue athletic scholarships. While financial assistance is certainly made, the player still needs to qualify to enter the school regardless of athletics. The standards at these schools are quite high. Unless Princeton finds its Ted Donato - the head coach leading the Crimson since 2004 - I doubt it will change.
In terms of NCAA hockey, that’s it for New Jersey. There are no Division-II (which is an old standard but persists as the Northeast-10 conference is still around with six teams) or Division-III programs. While D-III rarely yields pro players at all, it is still varsity hockey that plays for a championship. That scene is dominated by a lot of smaller schools. Loads are in New York and New England but none are in New Jersey.
However, the American College Hockey Association has plenty of New Jersey colleges. This is effectively club hockey. It is amateur, non-varsity hockey. It is still a level to achieve as these are not simply squads to walk on to. Plenty of NJ colleges have an ACHA team. Rutgers has one. The College of New Jersey has one. Seton Hall has one. William Paterson University has one. NJIT has one. Stevens has one. Even Princeton has an ACHA team. The ACHA set up is large with three divisions consisting of hundreds of teams. Again, this is not a platform to the pro game but it is something for young players to strive for and keep their playing days going as well as an appreciation of the game.
If there is an area I would love to see hockey grow in this state, it is here. As a Rutgers alum, I would love nothing more to see someone pull a Terry Pegula (who pretty much bought Penn State a program) and just give Pat Hobbs a blank check to build a D-I program. Yes, building a rink will be a massive challenge. Yes, it would be an added cost to the department. Yes, there will be further griping from the haters and losers of the Rutgers 1000 and the Star Ledger. But the opportunity is massive. In being the one state school that can give out scholarships to play hockey, they would immediately become a top program in the state. Rutgers is already a member of a conference that has strong hockey teams and can honestly afford to add some more teams, so finding a conference will not be a challenge. And Rutgers is surrounded by four NHL teams with plenty of boys and girls programs in the state and just outside of it to provide talent. Unfortunately, I do not have Terry Pegula’s money or know anyone who does. And so this is nothing more than a scarlet dream. Still, I shall keep dreaming of a day where people in New Jersey want a cannon to go off in a rink and those people are not Columbus Blue Jackets fans.
Jersey Fresh: The Garden of Youth Hockey in the State
There are three national tiers of junior hockey in America as per the USHL. There is the United States Hockey League at the top in Tier 1, the North American Hockey League in Tier 2, and the North American 3 Hockey League in Tier 3. There is also the Eastern Hockey League, but they primarily focus on commitments to D-III schools so I do not know if they are not in the USA Hockey junior set-up. (The NA3HL says they’re the only Tier III sanctioned league by USA Hockey so...) The goals of these leagues is to develop players, pick up college commitments, provide superior resources, and increase awareness for scouts. As such, USHL players can and do get drafted, NAHL players occasionally do, and NA3HL players have to make a move elsewhere if they want a shot at that. But D-I scholarships are earned throughout all three tiers.
Where does New Jersey fit in these leagues? There is no NJ representation in the USHL. (Although the Red Bank Generals are an affiliate of Muskegon.) In the NAHL, there is the New Jersey Titans. They have the old Titans name and logo, but they play out of Middletown, New Jersey. The Titans also ice a team in the NA3HL, too. As far as I can tell, their alumni seems to stop at college but it is where the state is represented in this system.
In the Eastern Hockey League, while the aims are far more modest, there are three Jersey-based teams in the main league. Wall has the New Jersey 87s. Flemington has the New Jersey Bears, who are joining the EHL in 2023-24. While they are called the Philadelphia Hockey Club, they play in Sewell and that counts. There is a development league for the EHL called EHL Premier and that has the 87’s; the Union Junior Thunder in, well, Union; and the New Jersey Renegades in Randolph. The Renegades interestingly have ties to the drafted Matt Beattie and former NHL player, current SHL player (!) and Rumson-native Joakim Ryan.
While these leagues are aiming to get players into college, there are other, lesser tiers in more local leagues where the programs have multiple youth levels. And it is here where it is not only the grassroots of the game, but also where plenty of notable names have come through this state. Here are the major ones that have junior teams but may be just as well known for how they develop players at younger ages.
Callum Hughes of the American team at the Hlinka-Gretzky Cup played for the Colonials before moving on to prep hockey and eventually a move to British Columbia for Junior A hockey. He could be the next alumni of note from the Colonials, who have been around since 1971. The Colonials are based out of Morris County. They have teams in the Atlantic Youth Hockey League, the New Jersey Youth Hockey League, and in many age groups. Colonial alumni include Kenny Agostino, Alex Carptenter, John Farinacci, and Marshall Warren. Their coaching staff includes Henrik Tallinder and Travis Zajac, too.
The Hackensack-based Avalanche are about to celebrate 25 years. They are a part of the AYHL as well as the Atlantic Hockey Federation. Their alumni list includes Bret Pesce and Nick Ebert of the NHL. They have also put a lot of players into college and their list includes quite a few junior players from the USHL to the USNTDP to a couple of major junior players.
Out of the teams in this post, the Rockets may have the best alumni list. NHLers like Jeremy Roenick, Brian Mullen, John Carlson, Charlie McAvoy, and Bobby Ryan have been Rockets at one point in their lives. Kelsey Koelzer, Bobby Sanguinetti, Adam Erne, and Zach Aston-Reese too. The Rockets started in Totowa and moved to Bridgewater in 1990. They recently joined the National Collegiate Development Conference too and their youth teams develop talent often for future collegiate and junior levels.
Mercer also joined the NCDC recently and has a history of putting out talent. Their most current star alumni is Ross Colton. They were also stops for recent Devils signing Kyle Crisculuo, Chicago’s Evan Barratt, and infamous defenseman Anthony DeAngelo among other pro players.
Playing out of the Ice Vault in Wayne, the Hitman are in the NCDC, the USPHL, and elsewhere. The Hitmen clearly enjoy their success. Long Branch’s Connor Clifton was a Hitman. Edison’s Anthony Stolarz was a Hitman. The recently signed Union (College) goalie Connor Murphy was a Hitman. Brett Pesce was a Hitman after two seasons with the Avalanche’s U-16 team and before going to New Hampshire.
No overview of youth hockey in New Jersey is complete with out Brick. New Jersey legend Jim Dowd was a member of this team before absolutely dominating New Jersey high school hockey. (Aside: Jim Dowd’s 300+ points in high school probably will never be beaten as anyone that good probably jumps to a prep or junior program instead of staying at a public high school for four years. Dowd’s option in the 1980s was literally just Brick High School). But Brick Hockey Club is more than just Jim Dowd. James van Riemsdyk and his brother Trevor played there. Mathieu Schneider played there. It’s an organization that goes back 50 years and remains a place where those can grow their game to the next level.
Rather than go through each one, the NJYHL is a Tier II league that features many of the other youth organizations in the state (plus Staten Island’s Metro Militia and the Ramapo Saints, which is led by Randy Velischek.) The Titans and Colonials have a team in this league. As do the Union Thunder. Some organizations have a history in their respective towns, such as the Cranford Hockey Club going all the way back to 1956 and the Jersey Colts (formerly the Kinnelon Colts) that has a history dating back to 1967. Others are more recent such as Wolfpack Hockey in Woodbridge. There is a history at each place and, for many, this is what hockey is for them beyond being a fan of a NHL team.
Delbarton (among other Prep Schools)
While the high schools of New Jersey definitely have their rivalries, traditions, and so forth, the prep schools in New Jersey have been the hosts of many talented athletes. For hockey, Delbarton is the recent standout. Parros went there. Kenny Agostino was an absolute stud and has a case of being the best NJ high school player ever (not named Jim Dowd). Just read that last link of the 30 best high school players in NJ over the past decade from 2020 and note how many prep school players and how many were at Delbarton (9). This makes sense as Delbarton won the private school championship in New Jersey nine times from 2008 to 2018 as well as running up three times in the last four years.
This is not to say other prep schools have not had their notable players. The recently drafted Aram Minnetian was an alum of Bergen Catholic. The also recently drafted Drew Fontescue spent time with Don Bosco Prep. Johnny Gaudreau had part of a season at Gloucester Catholic before going to Dubuque of the USHL. James van Reimsdyk and his brother Trevor was at Christian Brothers Academy before joining the USNTDP. The Pride of Montvale New Jersey, Kyle Palmieri as well as Zach Aston-Reese went to St. Peter’s Prep in Jersey City. Again, this is not to say that public schools are not worth it. They are as part of the New Jersey hockey picture as are the youth programs and prep schools and junior teams and more. It is just that most of the Big Names to come from this state came from prep schools or entered them. Not unlike some of the top prospects in other sports like football (especially football), baseball, lacrosse, or basketball.
To tie all of these different teams together, while I highlighted the players who made it all the way to the NHL, their various alumni pages are loaded with collegiate players. That is what they tend to aim for as someone getting to play for a school is an achievement for the team off the ice. Even if it is to a D-III or ACHA program, it is still a higher level of hockey and evidence that the youth or school program developed someone. That is the sort of thing that can and does sell the program to others trying to decide what path they want to take. And even if the player only spends a season or two with, say, the Colonials or Rocket, before moving elsewhere - like Callum Hughes - it is still a success for the program’s development.
This is effectively a surface-level overview from an outsider who just dug into what is out there. And I am sure there is more that I’m missing, particularly on the girls’ side of the game since I am just not familiar with it. I apologize to those who play or have played for the other teams in the NJYHL or participate in other schools that at least have their own history in New Jersey hockey (shoutout to Randolph and, of course, Brick). And the other programs that help people get into the sport. This overview is to go over what else is there hockey-wise beyond the Devils in this state. While it may not be the powerhouse like Minnesota, Michigan, or Massachusetts, or a burgeoning source like Texas and California (seriously, look at the WHL’s U.S. draft results), a New Jerseyan can absolutely make it in hockey. Whether that is to make it to the college level, a national junior team, or even at a professional level. Perhaps Callum Hughes is the next one. And the ones after him are already on teams at various age groups, forging their path in this great sport through the Garden State.
Now I want to know what you think. Have you played for any of these programs? Or against them? What was that like? Are there other NJ programs that are worth touting? How would you like the sport to grow in New Jersey beyond the Devils? Feel free to just leave that last one to wishes as building rinks and creating programs cost money, land, and resources that may not be so available in New Jersey. Please leave your answers and other thoughts about non-NHL hockey in New Jersey as it currently stands. Thank you for reading and, again, Tuesday will open the Community Vote for the 2023 AAtJ Top 25 New Jersey Devils under 25.