WHEATFIELD -- With all the success the Wheatfield Blades Junior B hockey program has had since winning a national championship in 1991, it's easy to conclude that the goal each season is to contend for another title.
But being a national contender has always been the end result of Wheatfield's primary objective: player development. The Blades are all about giving talented youths an avenue with which to showcase their skills so they earn opportunities to play the sport they love at a higher level, whether it's Junior A or college.
That's why the Wheatfield Blades Association has been motivated to spend the last five years applying for membership into the Ontario Hockey Association's Golden Horseshoe League. The long process ended last spring, with Wheatfield gaining admittance as the Junior B circuit's eighth team. The Blades now hope that it doesn't take nearly as long to field a contender in the league whose level of play is comparable to Junior A-level hockey in Canada and is just a notch below Junior A hockey in the United States.
"We didn't come in here thinking we were going to win the league or finish in the middle of the pack," General Manager Greg DeSantis said after the Blades' 9-1 season-opening loss to Welland, Ont., Tuesday in the Buffalo State Sports Arena. "We'd like to be in the middle of the pack, and I think we've got the talent to be there, but it's going to take some time to develop.
"What we're lacking right now is we're not building on each shift. We're not building from period to period. We're just kind of staying flat. We haven't figured out how to get into second or third gear yet. A lot of young guys who have never played juniors before don't recognize what it really takes physically and emotionally to play three 20-minute periods, especially against the level of competition that [the team is facing]."
Besides the GHL, there are two other Junior B leagues -- West and Midwest -- in Ontario that are scouted on a regular basis by Junior A and Division I college coaches.
From 1995 to 1997, the Blades played an interlocking schedule with the Golden Horseshoe League as a member of the International Elite Hockey League. The Blades helped form the Empire West Junior B League in 1998, winning the circuit's title in all but two seasons since its inception.
Since forming the junior program in 1987, the Blades have been a presence nationally. Besides winning a championship, they have been national runner-up once and have been a semifinalist three times. They've failed to qualify for nationals just twice since their championship triumph and have qualified for the tournament in five out of the last six seasons.
While the resume is impressive, it doesn't mean anything this season, especially since there are only four holdovers from last year's national qualifier squad.
"It's a dramatic step up in competition going from the Empire League to the Golden Horseshoe [League]," said longtime Niagara University hockey coach Dave Burkholder, who scouts the GHL on a regular basis. "That league, it's in our back yard. We've done very well in the Golden Horseshoe League. The Empire League was never on our recruiting calendar."
While Niagara may not get the blue-chip prospects from the United States Hockey League, the talent it has found in the GHL has helped the program not only make a name for itself in its nine seasons, but also reach the NCAA Tournament twice.
The Purple Eagles' all-time goals and points leader, Barret Ehgoetz, is an alumnus of the GHL. Golden Horseshoe League graduates Peter DeSantis of Niagara Falls and Mike Isherwood of Niagara Falls, Ont., were the program's all-time goals and points leaders until the diminutive Ehgoetz rewrote the record books during his four seasons at Niagara. Starting goalie Jeff Van Nynatten, defenseman Andrew Lackner and speedy forward Sean Bentivoglio are current Purple Eagles with GHL ties who helped the program earn a bid to the 2004 NCAA Tournament.
Division III and club-level collegiate coaches typically scout the Empire League for talent. Although those programs do not offer athletic scholarships, the league gives players with a passion for the game the chance to continue their athletic careers while receiving a quality education in the process. Needy recruits also are eligible for financial aid at those schools.
Yet that isn't the reason the Blades still are fielding an Empire West League team. Wheatfield is doing that because that will serve as the developmental squad for the one in the GHL. The Blades have an opportunity to do this because Canadian hockey officials recently passed a bylaw banning 15-year-olds from junior competition and limiting the number of 16-year-olds a team can dress for a game to two. In the United States, talented players ages 15 to 20 are eligible for junior competition.
"It's going to be good for us because we're going to have 16-year-olds used to playing a 50-game schedule," DeSantis said. "They'll be used to the work ethic required to be a junior-level player. We expect them to be able to step in next year and form a solid nucleus with any returning veterans.
"Our goal has always been to develop players for college, and that's still the case."
The cost for the GHL Blades is about $1,500 cheaper than the Empire West version because of reduced travel expenses. The longest road trip, not including the wait at the border, is about 45 minutes. The 16-team Empire League has eight teams in New York, as well as teams in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and New Hampshire. Wheatfield's Empire West League foes include Syracuse, Rochester, Binghamton, Elmira, Pittsburgh, Tri-Cities (Philadelphia area) and Hershey.
The GHL Blades, who were in action Saturday night at Stoney Creek, have 47 games left. They will play all of their home games on Tuesday nights either at Buffalo State, the Hockey Outlet in Wheatfield or the Amherst Pepsi Center. Starting times are between 7 and 8:30. For schedule information, visit the Web site www.wheatfieldbladesjrb.com or call DeSantis at 871-8953.
Blades with Niagara County ties include 17-year-old forward Dan Fitzpatrick of Niagara Falls, 16-year-olds Scott Retzlaff of Sanborn and Ian Braun of North Tonawanda and 18-year-olds Kyle Granville of Lockport and Jeff Broeker of North Tonawanda.
Fitzpatrick, one of many first-time Junior B players with the program, scored 15 goals and finished with 27 points in helping the Buffalo Stars reach the national Junior C Tournament last season. He earned an assist on Jon Meyer's goal last Tuesday.
As part of their initiation into the GHL, the Blades are forced to play 28 of their 49 regular season games on the road.
At least they'll get the chance to play before loads of scouts.
"We realize we're going to take our lumps here and there," said first-year coach Marc Farrell. "But in the long run, we'll be a much stronger program.
"The good news/bad news is we don't have a lot of returning players. They won't be thinking about the national championship from last year. Some of our younger kids weren't here. They're not expecting what the kids from the last couple years were familiar with and used to. They're looking at it more from a developmental opportunity."
Which is the reason the Blades formed in the first place.