USCHO.com national columnist Dave Starman was a member of the coaching staff with the New York Apple Core Junior Program. He is now working with players on college placement, teaching kids the process of becoming student-athletes at the NCAA level.
Late in the second period of a tie game, I looked down the bench at the array of talented options available.
Running the defense, I decided to use the pairing of BU’s Kevin Schaeffer and Northeastern’s Scott Birnstill. I could have opted for former Clarkson standout Ken Scuderi and current Providence backliner Dinos Stimoulis. Pittsburgh Penguin Rob Scuderi couldn’t make it, but former Bowling Green defenseman Chris Pedota was ready for that shift, as was his college defense partner Brian Escobdeo.
Up front, my counterpart Henry Lazar looked over his lines. Options included a pair of current AHL stars in Ryan Vesce (Cornell) and Eric Nystrom (Michigan), trio’ed up with Richie Hansen (Mercyhurst), now with the Amarillo Gorillas of the Central Hockey League? Or does he roll out Harvard star Jon Pelle, a former Ivy League Player of the Year, along with former Yale standout and current minor leaguer Vin Hellemeyer and current Robert Morris forward Ryan Caruthers?
Looking at the current team that will compete for the Eastern Junior Hockey League Title this season (won by the New Hampshire Monarchs last season), I wonder how many of these kids will experience a moment hearing their name called on draft day. With the new emphasis on speed, skill, and puck skills, coupled with the inability to clutch and grab, many kids will get longer looks from college and NHL teams this season.
This plethora of talent — which only represented some of the “old guard” of the organization’s vast array of former players — comprised the Alumni team of the New York Apple Core college developmental team. The junior team, then coached by Lazar and now guided by Shawn Ray, has been turning out successful Division I players and current NHLers for the better part of 12 years (www.applecorejunior.com).
“It is a credit to the alumni guys that there are so many of them still playing at competitive levels, and that they wanted to come back and be a part of this,” said Lazar. “They came back to see old teammates, to help the current team, and raise money for the ‘Teammates Helping Teammates’ program.”
“It was great seeing all the guys back here, and to see the former guys and their families getting back together. Those kids and their families spent a lot of winters traveling together, and winning a lot of hockey games.”
Lazar saw the future of junior hockey on Long Island, and fought to get the ‘Core out of the Metropolitan Junior Hockey League and into the more talented and competitive Eastern Junior Hockey League. That happened in 1997.
Those early teams, which started with the league’s entry in 1993-94, featured the first class of NCAA players like Quinnipiac’s Chris Ceralla (still the school’s all-time leading scorer), Keith Fitzpatrick (Yale), Marty Hughes (Boston College), Mike Filardo (New Hampshire) and Andrew Tortorella (Nebraska-Omaha). Also among the early players was a young man from Delaware named Mark Eaton, now with the Nashville Predators.
“Eaton used to practice with his high school team and then drive up for the weekends to play games with us,” said Lazar of Eaton’s dedication. “He was pretty driven to make that kind of commitment, but he knew that playing here would open up the doors of the hockey world to him.”
The move to the EJHL opened up a new avenue for kids based on Long Island to play high-level junior hockey and compete in a New England-based league with the opportunity to earn Division I scholarships, all without having to leave home. The same could be said for the Junior B team — under the guidance of another alumnus, Chris Cosentino — which competes in the highly-regarded Empire Junior Hockey League.
“Kids from this region always had to leave home at an early age to get any respect in hockey, because even as recent as 12 years ago people didn’t take players in this area seriously as hockey players,” said Lazar. “We changed that, and are still changing that. Just look at the players that we have moved on.”
What the Apple Core can say that no other program in the region can boast is the exposure afforded to its players. Because of the league it plays in and the schedule it maintains, players are constantly in the college and professional scouting loop. With the concept that reputation precedes you, D-I coaches will call the ‘Core and other EJ teams to start compiling their pre-scout lists for the upcoming season.
That alone is what separates the EJ from other Northeastern junior leagues.
“Boston University came up to me after the EJ All-Star game during the ’02-’03 season and showed a lot of interest,” said Schaeffer, a draft choice of the Nashville Predators. “They kept tabs on me, and then Coach [Jack] Parker came to see me play a few games in the league when we were in Boston.”
What became a beacon of light for Long Island kids has also attracted players from outside the Island. Players from New England, upstate New York, New Jersey, the Mid-Atlantic, and even Eastern Europe (Boston University’s Jekabs Redlihs, for example) have worn the red, white, and green of the Apple Core.
Sunday marked the first annual Alumni game, as players who provided the foundation of the program took on the current EJHL team. The game launched the “Teammates Helping Teammates” program, in which proceeds from the game, as well as the auction of NHL, NCAA, and other hockey memorabilia will go to help current Apple Core Junior players go to college.
In this region, it is yet another first on the ever-growing junior landscape.
“This is an idea that we hope other programs will emulate. Some might be doing it already,” said Lazar. “It is intended to help current college students who were Apple Core Junior players get through college financially.”
The Apple Core established criteria for the potential recipients of the money raised. The student must have good grades, have been an Apple Core player for two years, be enrolled as a full-time student, have no academic or athletic scholarship, and “display character, sportsmanship, hard work, and the qualities that exemplify a good teammate.”
Perhaps the highest-profile player in the game was Nystrom. A first-round draft choice of the Calgary Flames, he just completed his rookie season in pro hockey with Omaha of the AHL. The son of former Islanders’ legend Bob Nystrom, Eric grew up on Long Island and benefited from the early coaching of former Islanders who stayed in the region after their days in the dynasty ended.
Nystrom played one season in the Apple Core program before claiming a late spot in the USA Hockey National Team Development Program (NTDP). He went on from there to earn a scholarship at the University of Michigan, playing for Red Berenson. Vesce, who spent three seasons in the program and has a younger brother, Billy, there now, went straight from the ‘Core to Cornell after being recruited by many schools from the East Coast to East Lansing.
“You think about the teams we have had here, and the talent we have had here, and it is really amazing,” said Lazar. “The players deserve a lot of credit because we were the southernmost team and traveled a lot, but they knew they had a golden opportunity to play in New England in front of the top Division I programs in the East every weekend.”
That is borne out by recent Beanpot tournaments. Jon Pelle of Harvard, Mike Brennan of Boston College, Kevin Schaeffer of Boston University and Steve Birnstill of Northeastern are all alumni, and all have played in the past two Beanpots after playing together with the Apple Core. The ‘Core was the only junior team in the country to have a representative on all four teams.
“It was the logical choice to play for the Apple Core because of the players in the league, and the amount of games you play in front of Division I coaches,” said Schaeffer. “Also, playing in a program that always has so many Division I players in it, you improve by playing against them in practice every day. Same with the league; you get better competing against these kids because they are tops in the region.”
Future alumni teams will feature current players like Rensselaer goalie Mathias Lange, Yale forward and Ivy League Rookie of the Year Mike Karwoski, Brennan, Eric Bergdoerfer (RPI), Matt Connors (Cornell), and Billy Keenan (Harvard).
“We’ll continue to be the program that we have always been because of what we do for these kids,” said Lazar. “We make them better players, better teammates, better people, and we get them into college.
“So does the league. It is the best junior league in the Northeast and it’s proven [that] every year by the number of kids that play college hockey, especially the amount of D-I scholarship players that come from the league.”