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Regals prove to be a stepping stone for area players

The Buffalo Regals lost another defenseman.

Relax, it's not because of a disastrous season-ending injury.

It's because the 18-and-under team is living up to its mission statement, which inadvertently has cut into the Regals' depth but amazingly hasn't affected the team's win-loss record, in its second season in the Tier I Elite League.

The whole reason the Regals, who have 14 Buffalo-area players on the 19-man roster, joined the league that includes national powers Compuware, Belle Tire and Little Caesars of Detroit and the Chicago Mission -- all teams the Regals have beaten this year -- was to give Western New York talents more exposure to junior, college and pro scouts so that they too can find out just how far their hockey skills can take them.

The bold move to a league that is heavily recruited by the top junior hockey circuits in the United States, Division I colleges and followed by NHL scouts, has paid dividends.

The Regals two weeks ago sent defenseman Hayden Fitzpatrick packing to the NAHL team in Corpus Christi, Texas. He is the third defenseman the Regals expected to have in their quest to win a national title who won't finish the season with them.

But at least he started the season with them. The other two who were slated to be with them last spring earned playing opportunities in better leagues. Six-foot-4 Dylan Blujus, who made scouts drool during Tier I Elite League Showcase Tournaments last year, plays for Brampton of the Ontario Hockey League, while 6-3 Chris Bradley is with Youngstown in the USHL. Bradley is draft eligible this June and is expected to attend Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Blujus will be draft eligible in 2012.

That's huge for an organization whose distinguished alumni list includes Tim Kennedy, Mike Ratchuk and Chris Mueller -- players who have either seen time in the AHL or NHL after helping Michigan State win the 2007 NCAA title.

The only downer for the Regals is that they're prohibited from replenishing their roster during the season if they lose a player to a junior team. That means if the injury bug strikes the back end, the Regals' defense corp of five could be extremely thin.

Still ...

"That's the whole point of the program," coach Mike Mondoux said. "I think this league has given them the opportunity to move on."

That has made the Regals the in-team in Western New York.

A team that has only four returnees from last year's outfit, which won 10 league games, skates into this weekend's two-game showdown with Pittsburgh with a 15-6-7 mark in the league, 28-9-9 overall. The league and overall win totals are both better than last year's.

The Regals share the division lead with Pittsburgh, which is in town for a 6:30 game tonight at Holiday Twin Rinks. The teams also meet at 11 a.m. Sunday at Holiday.

More impressive than that is the fact the Regals are 8-1-2 against the premiere teams in the league. Last year's team only won twice against the circuit's cream of the crop.

One of the reasons for the success is Adrean Copeland, an 18-year-old who attends Orchard Park, who opted to play for the Regals after spending last year with the Buffalo Junior Sabres. Moving from a team that plays in a league mostly with 18- to 20-year-olds seems curious, but Copeland had one very good reason for switching.

"Every single showcase, scouts are there [watching you]," said Copeland, who ranks second in goals (17), assists (17) and points (34) on the Regals and has five offers from NAHL teams for next season. "In the Ontario Provincial, there aren't many scouts [because] most of the kids [in the league] got cut from OHL teams. [The scouts] don't go all the way into Canada to see one person play [in the OPHL]."

First-year Regal Alex Iaffalo, a 17-year-old from Eden, is the team's leader in goals (18), assists (27) and points (45). Jake Moore has a 2.25 goals-against average and .920 save percentage in 24 games. Mike Rotolo has a 1.50 GAA and .940 save percentage in 15 games but won't be eligible to play for the Regals again until the state tournament in March after briefly leaving for an opportunity in the USHL (he didn't play a game; he still is eligible to play for the Regals in the state and national tournaments).

"Our goal when we joined the Tier I Elite League two years ago was to take a program that has always had success developing players onto a national stage and get the kids more exposure," said team General Manager Anthony Tomasula.

They're doing it well.

***

Around the boards

Girls hockey update: The Buffalo Bisons have two teams ranked in the top three nationally. According to myhockeyrankings.com, the 14-and-under Bisons are No. 1 with a 35-7-4 record. The Bisons' 12-and-under team moved up from No. 4 to No. 3 in this week's rankings with a 30-11-4 mark. The team has roughly 15 games left on the schedule to try to match last year's 34-win campaign. Both teams feature a good number of returnees from last year's squads that both reached the quarterfinals of the USA Hockey Championships. Meanwhile, the Hamburg Hawks' 12-and-under Tier II team is ranked third in the country.

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e-mail: mrodriguez@buffnews.com

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