Life in the United States Hockey League involves much more than just the 62 regular-season games each team will play in a season that began Thursday in Pittsburgh with the USHL Fall Classic.
In addition to the on-ice competition, there is the business side of running the league smoothly. And, as Tom Garrity enters his second full season as president and commissioner, the USHL is working with USA Hockey and the National Hockey League on various initiatives meant to improve the offerings available to the league’s players.
“I learned a lot,” Garrity said of the 2018-19 season. “When I got the job, I definitely came from a perspective of business, having run multiple teams and having had ownership in multiple teams. I really focused the majority of my time and energy on the business side.
“I think over the last year, I’ve gotten a good background related to the hockey side of it, talking to the GMs and coaches. I’ve always had a ton of respect for them, but actually that respect got larger in talking to them about some of the challenges they have related to taking care of our players and making sure that our league is moving onward and upward.”
The league is attempting to have the player’s perspective in mind with programs it has added since the end of last season.
The USHL has hired Dr. Michael Czarnota as its consulting neuropsychologist and Dennis LaRue as its director of player safety along with announcing it is adding a tutoring program and mental wellness resources.
Czarnota will oversee the USHL Concussion Management Program and consult with each team’s athletic trainer and medical stuff about concussion protocol. He is a founding member and the current chair of the Education Committee of the Sports Neuropsychology Society.
LaRue, a former NHL official, will handle new officials’ initiatives, serve as the chairman of the Player Safety Committee and administer supplemental discipline. He will help grow the talent pool of officials for the USHL and beyond.
“Nothing is more important in our league than our players,” Garrity said. “I think when you’re talking to a GM, coach, owner, no matter if it’s Sioux Falls or Youngstown, they all agree that we’re a league with young players coming in who are being developed into potential future NHL all-stars and are going to Division I colleges as a first step.
“We’ve really made a concentrated effort with the NHL and USA Hockey to make sure the players have every resource available to do that, whether it’s from education — helping them get prepared to be in college — to their safety with mental health initiatives and concussions initiatives. It’s not always just about things on the ice.”
The league features 16 teams split into Eastern and Western Conferences.
The Sioux Falls Stampede is the defending Clark Cup champion after working through last season’s 12-team playoffs. The Tri-City Storm won the Anderson Cup as overall regular-season champion and the Muskegon Lumberjacks won the Eastern Conference.
Those three defending champions are in action with the rest of the league for four days in Pittsburgh to kick off the regular-season schedule.
The USHL has benefitted from switching the Fall Classic, formerly a preseason event, to a regular-season opener that draws more than 300 scouts.
The scout response has improved since the games became regular-season contests, assuring teams would have their best players in action in games that mattered for the standings, rather than testing and resting various players in the preseason.
Garrity said there have been other benefits.
“I’ve heard from a lot of GMs and coaches that it’s a really good bonding experience for these teams,” Garrity said. “A lot of them have long bus rides, which we appreciate them doing, but it’s kind of a bonding/early-season unity thing.”
There are many players for those scouts to see in the only Tier I league in the USA Hockey umbrella.
The USHL reached a new level with 52 active players selected in the 2019 NHL Draft.
“The first step coming into our league is go to play college hockey,” Garrity said. “We’re really proud of the fact that 95 percent of our kids commit to D-I schools. Then, ultimately in the draft in Vancouver, we saw a jump in the number of players drafted into the National Hockey League.
“It’s a good affirmation of what we’re doing. It’s exciting.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.
Photo courtesy of Hickling Images.