The leadership of the Florida Junior Blades had a vision for a key change, even after what would generally be considered an incredibly successful start for the franchise.
In its first three years, Florida won three regular-season championships and made it to nationals twice. But the Junior Blades felt the disappointment of a semifinal elimination from the Empire League playoffs last year and tried to come up with a plan on how to avoid having that happening again.
“Last season, we had a very strong team, but we were front-heavy,” said Junior Blades general manager Tad O’Had, who was the coach last season. “As we got deep into the playoffs, we had a few players who worked very hard. They logged a lot of minutes and scored a large majority of our points.
“We had a double-overtime loss to the Boston Junior Bruins in the playoffs, and one of the reasons was we were relying so heavily on a small group of guys to contribute offensively.”
When O’Had moved up to become assistant coach with the professional Florida Everblades, Todd Pococke moved up from assistant coach to head coach of the Junior Blades and Tyler Carlston came on as assistant coach. Together, they formulated a plan to create a team that was harder to defend and less susceptible to wearing out key players.
“That was one of the things Todd and Tyler discussed early in the year in training camp,” O’Had said. “In the past, the guys that we had on the power play maybe would also be on the PK and play a regular shift.
“We had regular-season success, but maybe people burned out a little bit. One of the things we looked at was let’s have our power-play guys and let’s have our PK and let’s work on really sharing some of those minutes throughout.”
Pococke stayed committed to that ideal and the players have produced to make it work remarkably well.
The Junior Blades set a series of franchise records, including a late 21-game winning streak and finished up the first season of the Empire Division of the United States Premier Hockey League as the Western Conference champion. Their 37-1-0-2 record was the best among the 24 Empire teams and their 61 goals allowed, with the help of workhouse and division statistical leader among goalies Eric Sugrue, was by far the best.
“Eric has been with us the last few years and he has continued to blossom,” O’Had said of the 21-year-old from nearby Naples, Fla.
Florida also built the Empire’s third-highest scoring team, despite not having any of its top 26 individual scorers.
“We have four lines contributing,” O’Had said. “You always have a strategy or plan, but it doesn’t always come to life. The players have done a great job of all carrying the load at different times.”
The Junior Blades had four players within two points of each other at the top of the team scoring list. Chaise Howard led the way with 18 goals and 24 assists in 39 games. Trevor Mullaly added 41 points. Austin Hefferin, who had a team-high 20 goals, and Shane Visnick, who tied Howard for the assist lead among forwards, each added 40 points. Defenseman Jacob Leonard had a team-high 27 assists while also contributing four goals.
Howard is a hometown player from Estero, while Mullaly, Visnick and Leonard are also from Florida. Hefferin came to the program from Maryland.
While no one on the team was relied on for more than 42 points, the Blades got at least 30 points from six players, at least 21 points from 11 players and at least 14 points from 17 players.
“We don’t take anything for granted,” Pococke said in a story on the league website after the Junior Blades produced a pair of shutouts in the final weekend of the regular season. “We prepare for every game with intensity and a desire to win. The players know what it takes.”
That attitude and the team’s make-up has O’Had looking forward to the postseason, which begins with the USPHL Empire playoffs in Wayne, N.J.
“The whole focus is that, hopefully, come the playoffs and nationals, we’re able to be cruising on all cylinders to go as far as we can,” he said.
O’Had said Pococke and Carlston have stayed true to the team’s preseason vision.
“To Todd and Tyler’s credit, they’re doing a phenomenal job balancing out the responsibilities, and it looks like we’ll continue to have legs into playoffs and hopefully into nationals,” O’Had said.
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.
If you’ve ever called USA Hockey with officiating registration questions, you’ve likely heard the voice of Helen Fenlon. As the manager of officiating administration, Fenlon is the brains behind registration operations. She started working with USA Hockey in 1991 and joined the officiating department in 1993.
Fenlon took a break from readying eager officials for the upcoming season to tell us more about herself and the registration process.
USA Hockey: How did you first get involved with USA Hockey? Did you lace up the skates or make the call on the ice a time or two?
Helen Fenlon: (Laughs) No, I wasn’t a ref or player. I was a mom and I had a child that played. I volunteered at the local association for a number of years and volunteered at USA Hockey. Before I knew it I was employed by them and have been doing this job ever since. It’s nice because I’ve seen the volunteer side and know how the local and state boards work because I did all of that when my kids were growing up.
USA Hockey: What’s a typical day like for you?
Helen Fenlon: I work on the officiating registration. When everyone registers (to be an official) they are mailed out books to do the test and emailed information about doing the test online and ways to sign up for seminars online as well. Then I score the test when they come in for the closed-book test and basically answer all the questions that pertain to the ice hockey refs. I manage approximately 24,000 registrations when from August 1 through March. Once the registration period is over, we start getting ready for next year.
USA Hockey: How has the registration process changed in your 21-year tenure?
Helen Fenlon: When we first started, we used to mail them out the application, have them mail it back with a check and then we would process it. Once that was done, we would mail them a test and they would mail us back their answer sheet when they were done. It was all done by hand back then. Now, for registration, they just go online and pay with a credit card and the test is also done online. It’s much easier for everyone involved.
In the past, we also would just do an open-book test, but it’s evolved into different levels of doing an open-book and closed-book test, and some do a skating exam, too. Also going into place this year, everyone will do an online seminar.
USA Hockey: Officials must be happy to have the process accelerated thanks to online capabilities.
Helen Fenlon: It’s great for people to access the test faster and be able to turn materials around faster so they can start working. To some of these people, it’s a job. Others do it because they want to help kids. People do it for all kinds of different reasons. For me, it’s impressive to see people who stick with (officiating) for so long.
USA Hockey: How have the resources available to officials changed through the years?
Helen Fenlon: Right now, with the new rules and programs in place, the amount of resources available for officials education is improving, but we’re always looking for more ways to help our officials be successful.
USA Hockey: What’s one thing you want to remind everyone about?
Helen Fenlon: It’s always been my goal for everybody across the country, whether you’re in Colorado Springs, New York, California or anywhere in between, to follow the same rules as far as being able to become an official and complete the registration. That’s the fair way, and it’s the best way to ensure the best quality of officiating throughout the country.