Share this article

print logo


Matt English could cry poor and bemoan the inequities, but what would be gained if nobody listened? Anyway, it really doesn't matter. The Buffalo Lightning coach isn't concerned with winning the Ontario Provincial Junior A hockey league this season because he's reaching for greater goals.

Victories? Give them to someone who really cares.

The Lightning is 7-19-0 this season , but its victory total means nothing when stacked against the magic number from last year: nine. That's how many players left for the college ranks this season. Three -- Niagara University forward Mike Maier, University of Vermont forward Matt Syroczynski and Dartmouth goalie Mike Devine -- are playing Division I hockey.

"We're in this to get kids into college," English said. "We want every player to get a chance to play college hockey."

Buffalo, which plays out of the West Seneca Recreation Center, has some 60 games this season against some of the best 16- to 20-year-olds in North America. The Lightning lacks the financial support of many teams in its league, a fact that's reflected in its poor record. Still, it's a breeding ground for future college players.

Defenseman Shane Sims, a 16-year-old who is considered the jewel of the program, will play somewhere. The Williamsville North junior played midget hockey for the Depew Saints last season and is a Division I prospect. He's already drawn interest from Harvard, Boston College, Michigan and Clarkson, among others.

Sims is a primary example of what the Lightning wants. He's too skilled for the Western New York Varsity Hockey Federation and needs quality ice time against better competition. The Saints are respected nationally, but he needed to play against older, better players to get ready for college.

"I felt this was the best place for me this year, that I'd get the most ice time playing for the Lightning," said Sims, who is 6-foot-1, 180 pounds. "There's a lot (of competition) playing against the older kids. They're a lot stronger and faster."

Forwards Chris Moran, Dan Baco and Kyle Rogers have potential to play Division I. Moran and Baco are high school juniors. Rogers, 19, drives from Erie, Pa., three times a week for practice. He has enough size (6-foot-3, 210 pounds) to play anywhere, but he needed more experience. Niagara and Mercyhurst are among the suitors.

"He surpassed the skill level here," said his father, Greg. "He wants to play in college, so we knew we had to get him to another place. You play as good as the people around you. The Ontario Provincial hockey league is one of the premier leagues around."

At a minimum, the Lightning is an option for players who have outgrown their youth leagues, want to stay home or aren't good enough for the elite United States Hockey League. Often, it's a combination of the three. The Provincial league fills a widening gap between high school and college. And using hockey for college is the whole idea.

Lightning players must submit academic transcripts before making the team. Anybody not attending high school or college must have a job. Anybody caught drinking or using illegal drugs is dismissed. English insists on running a clean program because it means maintaining a strong relationship with college coaches and scouts.

"We're not going to take kids that we can't promote to the next level," English said. "We've had some good hockey players try out here. There are kids who probably could have played here, but they had a 700 SAT. What am I going to do for a 20-year-old with a 700 SAT?"

Consider defenseman Andy Brolsma, a 19-year-old defenseman from Rochester. He's a good student and solid player but was teetering just under Geneseo State College's academic admissions minimum of 1,300 on the SAT. His playing ability will likely make up the difference. On the other side, Eric Simmons has Ivy League smarts but lacks Ivy League skill. He's could wind up at Hamilton College or Williams College.

"Finding the right place and the right fit," English said. "That's our job."

Talented high school seniors are no longer good enough for Division I programs unless they are established, top-notch players. Chris Mueller, who jumped from Nichols School and the Saints to Michigan State, is a rarity. Colleges programs want their players bigger, stronger and more developed than ever.

Many have stacked their rosters with 19- and 20-year-old freshmen who played in lower junior leagues. Division III programs have expanded recruiting efforts throughout Canada. Buffalo helps fill the gap because, unlike players in the Ontario Hockey League, Provincial leaguers keep their college eligibility.

"The college coaches don't want true freshmen," English said. "You only go as a true freshman if you're a national product. . . . Division I is the ultimate goal, but there's nothing wrong with playing Division III hockey. It's getting harder and harder to play college hockey anywhere."

The Lightning is the same organization that was founded in 1975 as the Buffalo Junior Sabres and later became the Niagara Scenics. Some 300 former players advanced to college hockey. Some 60 have received partial or full scholarships to Division I schools. Others have played in the Ivy League.

The list of alumni is distinguished in local circles. Los Angeles Kings and 2002 U.S. Olympic defenseman Aaron Miller, Columbus Blue Jackets center Todd Marchant, Carolina Hurricanes center Kevyn Adams and New Jersey Devils winger Brian Gionta all came through the system before playing at the college level.

"Every game they play in the Provincial league, there's college coaches there," Niagara coach Dave Burkholder said. "It doesn't matter where you are, in Buffalo on a Monday night or Burlington (Ont.) on a Friday, we're there."

Former Lightning standout Lee Stempniak, a senior at Dartmouth, is among the nation's top college players. His brother, Jay, is on the current roster along with Chris Kaleta, the brother of Sabres sixth-round pick Patrick Kaleta. Burkholder's son, Dave, is playing his second season. Goalie Ross Janecyk moved here from Michigan because he needed to develop. His father, Bob, is a top scout for the Ottawa Senators.

"As a parent, it was the only choice," Burkholder said. "I thought it was important that he stayed under our parental supervision and at his high school. And he's playing in one of the best leagues in North America. They're under the radar (locally), but they're putting players in Division programs every year."

The Lightning's biggest problem isn't winning but funding. Most teams have sponsors covering costs for equipment, insurance, travel and ice time. Buffalo owner Chuck Giambra covers some costs, but players still wind up paying about $2,500 annually.

English is a volunteer who breaks away from his job with the West Seneca Highway Department to help keep the team functioning from his tiny office. He does laundry, serves as trainer, takes on the role of assistant manager, guidance counselor and parent. Every now and again, he finds time to coach.

"Nobody makes any money," he said. "You're paying, that's true, but your kid is playing a ton of hockey in a good league. It's an investment. It's the steppingstone between high school and college that kids have to have. After Niagara and Canisius, this is the best hockey around."


There are no comments - be the first to comment