A new season. A new league. A new team. A new opportunity.
That is how Head Coach/ General Manager Andy Heinze feels about the upcoming nine months as he debuts his Valley Jr Warriors Junior A team in the Eastern Hockey League (EHL).
“It’s hard to say what will happen, but I know going in that I am excited to be here,” said Heinze, who is entering his 14th season at the Warriors’ helm. “There has been good direction from [EHL] league management and the board of governors about how they want to run the league. It will be well run and the competition is going to be there.”
Warriors & The EHL
The Warriors joined the EHL this off season after the Eastern Junior Hockey League (EJHL) dissolved. This new league not only offers a wider range of competition from a geographic standpoint, but it is also nationally known for placing players in top collegiate institutions. Five of the 17 EHF teams were part of the EJHL so there will be some familiarity for Heinze.
“This year was different because these kids didn’t know which end was up with the junior landscape,” said Heinze. “For us it is not just about the wins and losses. You will get more and better players into your program when you place them into college programs. That has been our philosophy through the years and it will continue on.”
The Warrior’s commitment to developing student athletes was in admirable form last season as Heinze placed 16 players in collegiate programs. Included in that impressive list were Ryan Fitzgerald (Boston College), Devin Tringale (Harvard University), Brendan Collier (Boston University), Jake Schechter (Northeastern University), Julian Fialkow (Colgate University), Jake Kulevich (Colgate University) and Ryan Badger (University of Maine).
“When you do a good job of placing kids, you know that you are going to have a lot of recruiting to do the next year,” said Heinze, who is assisted both on and off the ice by Jeremy Tabb. “This year it is about the unknown because of the fact that all of these kids aside from Andrew McAvoy are new.”
Heinze feels fortunate to welcome back McAvoy, who is going to be a key force along the Warriors blueline. He will be paired to start the season with Hunter Wilhoite (Brentwood, TN), who is the only right-handed defender on Heinze’s squad. That means three of the lefties will have to play on their off side.
“We just have to teach them how to set themselves up and how to let their partner know where they want the puck on the off side,” said Heinze. “You had Hal Gill and Ray Bourque play together. I am not saying that our guys are of that caliber, but the point is that you just have to get used to your partner and it generally comes together.”
McAvoy will be joined on defense by a promising crew that is a healthy blend of size, speed and agility.
Cole Karklins (Boca Raton, FL) will be paired with Rudolfs Kalavitis (Riga, Latvia), who has spent several years playing for Shattuck-Saint Mary's. Robbie Klein (Bedford, MA) and Conor Frazier (Reading, MA) as well as Tanner Cowieson (Sarasota, FL) and Justin DeWitz (Rochester, MN) will round out the four lines of defense for Heinze.
“Everyone is going to contribute,” said Heinze. “We have a real solid defensive core and it will be interesting to watch them develop. With such a young crew coming in you have to have some patience because they are not used to our system and what we are looking for.”
While development will come over time, Heinze is already impressed with the improvement that they have made in just two weeks of practice.
“It is clear that they all made an effort during the off season to come in prepared and we are seeing that now,” said Heinze. “In just those two weeks they are making strides and really coming along.”
Strength In Net
That defensive core will look to protect a pair of netminders who are making their Warrior debut.
Matt Penta (Waltham, MA) and Ross Bendetson (Andover, MA) will have big shoes to fill. After all, Brendan Leahy was considered one of the top EJHL goaltenders last season and he replaced 2012 EJHL Goaltender of the Year Fabian Sivnert.
“Matt is a kid who like Brendan played elsewhere last year but his positional coach believes that he can be a top flight goaltender in the league and move onto a Division 1 program,” said Heinze. “His character is unbelievable, and I have seen enough of him already both on and off the ice to know that he is going to be very good for us this year.”
Penta has an opportunity to play for Providence College this season as a third-string goalie, but he made the decision to spend another year in junior hockey to hone his skills and be better prepared for the next challenge. His impressive size (6-2, 185 pounds) and his reputation as a smart, athletic goalie with excellent net coverage is something that Heinze knows will be a huge asset.
“He graduated top of his class at Belmont Hill,” said Heinze. “He is a great kid. I have good relationships with goalie coaches out there who are very high on this player.”
Much like Penta, Bendetson already has options for the next season in sight. The Phillips Andover Academy graduate has committed to Tufts University for the 2014-15 season.
“He is all set for next year and we will continue to bring him along,” said Heinze. “Our ability to place these kids is very strong and [VJW Junior A goaltending consultant] Bill Berglund has a lot to do with that.”
Offensive Familiarity & Homegrown Talent
Offensively, Heinze is starting the season with lines that have existing connections. Earlier this summer, Shane Tracy (Bow, NH), Elliot Polanchyck (Plano, TX) and Charlie Widmar (Northbrook, IL) played together for the Warriors at the 2013 Eastern Summer Showcase. Heinze was so impressed with how they jelled that he decided to see how that chemistry would translate in the EHL.
“They formed a real bond and played well this summer,” said Heinze. “They all see the ice and skate well as far as pace goes so we thought that it would be a good idea to put them together.”
Tracy, who last year was the leading scorer for the New Hampshire Monarchs Junior B team, is yet another Warrior with early interest from top programs.
“He has a good knack for finding the net,” said Heinze. “West Point has some real interest, so we will see how that goes. He has a good shot, is accurate and can really release the puck too.”
Another trio that should connect early is that of Troy Sutherland (Delta, BC), Van Sullivan (Brentwood, TN) and Christian Elsborg (Frisco, TX). Sutherland and Elsborg played together last season with the TPH Thunder program. In fact, a total of four players – Sutherland, Elsborg, Cowieson and Wilhoite – were teammates last season.
“It certainly helps for some of the guys to have existing relationships,” said Heinze. “It isn’t often that you have so many players from one program, but they are all good kids who bring a range of talent to us.”
Heinze is also excited about what he calls his “local” line that features Dan Holland (Woburn, MA), Rory O’Connor (Lowell, MA) and Brendan Heinze (Danville, NH).
Holland has played junior hockey both locally and in Canada, while O’Connor spent last season competing for the VJW Junior B team. Heinze is the son of Andy’s brother Peter, who was a standout player for North Andover High School and then U-Mass Lowell. He was drafted in the 1986 supplemental draft by the Edmonton Oilers.
Dom Corsetto (Derry, NH) is another local player who comes to the Warriors from Pinkerton Academy. He will play alongside PT Prins (New Canaan, CT) and Will Platt (San Francisco, CA). Filling out the offensive corps will be Kris Holmes (Newburyport, MA), Nikola Lazarevic (Serbia) and Griffin Dyne (Malibu, CA).
“We have a nice mix of flavor,” said Heinze. “Holmes is another kid from Newburyport who went away to school but came back. His brother played in our program about three years ago, so it’s great to have players who have a history with our program who can help the others get acclimated.”
For a coach who has spent nearly two decades in junior hockey and before that leading Division 1 teams to into the national championship races, Heinze is comfortable with the unknown. After all, he has won Coach of the Year honors three times and has been at the helm of a perennial playoff contender.
“I like this group and I think that our overall depth is pretty good,” said Heinze, who holds the Merrimack school record for most games played with 144 and currently ranks 10th on Merrimack's all-time scoring list with 77 goals and 89 assists for 166 points. “I like how they move and read the play and attack areas. They have decent hockey IQ which will continue to improve over the course of the year.”
Having just one returning player is just another challenge he looks forward to this season.
“This year it is about the unknown because of the fact that all of these kids aside from Andrew are new,” said Heinze. “We are OK with that. There have been a number of years where we have had very few players return and it worked out just fine. I almost enjoy it more because the sky is the limit and you can really have an impact on these kids.”
The Warriors will hit the road for the team's first away game on Sunday, September 29 against the Northern Cyclones.