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Second Junior A hockey team lands in Lockport

LOCKPORT – Lockport will have two Junior A hockey teams next season, as the Niagara Red Cats will join the Lockport Express in sharing the main rink at Cornerstone Arena.

The teams will be in different leagues and will have different rules under which they can recruit 16- to 20-year-old players. And there is the distinct possibility that the new team will have more of a European flavor.

The Express, which hired Brian Becker as its new head coach last month, will continue in the North American 3 Junior Hockey League, which is sanctioned by USA Hockey. They are limited to two imported players.

“We’re the biggest Tier 3 league in the States,” said Express owner Steve Bueme of Orchard Park, whose team is entering its third season.

The Red Cats, members of the new National College Prospects Hockey League, also say they are in Tier 3, but they are not part of USA Hockey and will be allowed to recruit as many as half a dozen players from outside North America.

“The NCPHL is a world league,” coach and general manager Steve Thomson said. “We’ll have a great local core of players. We have Canadian players and we’ll have European players as well. We are actively recruiting worldwide. We’ve been in Europe this past month. Our roster is going to read more like an NHL roster, and our fans will totally appreciate that. The entertainment value and the quality is going to be top-notch.”

Neither team’s roster will be firm until training camp in September, although the Red Cats are holding open tryouts every Thursday night this month at Cornerstone.

Bueme said he’s not concerned about the competition for the fans’ dollars. The Express has done well at the gate, usually filling the 450 seats at Cornerstone.

“We’re not worried about it one bit,” Bueme said. “We’re Lockport’s team, and anybody else who wants to come around and try something, God bless ’em. I don’t wish bad things to anybody in business. I learned that a long time ago.”

“We have a full-time junior hockey operation. The players will be in on a daily basis,” Thomson said.

The Red Cats are a farm team for another organization. Although Thomson will be able to recruit players for his Lockport team, the players first will head to the West Coast to try out for the Southern Oregon Spartans of the Western States Hockey League, a Tier 2 Junior A circuit. Those who make it, even if Thomson signed them for Lockport, will stay in Oregon.

Players could be shifted between Oregon and Lockport during the season, although Thomson vowed, “You’re not going to see players go up and down like a yo-yo.”

The Express have an affiliation agreement with the Odessa (Tex.) Jackalopes of the North American Hockey League.

As for scheduling, Jim Cain, president of Firland Management, which operates Cornerstone Arena, said both teams have lease agreements, but the Express has first claim on dates. It has typically played home games on Friday and Saturday nights.

“The dates are dictated by the schedule of all the teams together. That usually comes out sometime in June,” Cain said. “I know there’s not going to be an issue with regard to conflicts of dates.”

The National College Prospects Hockey League will have eight teams, Thomson said, and travel won’t be too daunting. There are three teams in Pennsylvania and one in Lewiston, Maine, but others are in Rochester and Burlington, Ont., along with a Buffalo Hornets team at Holiday Twin Rinks in Cheektowaga.

A 42-game regular season schedule, Thomson said, will “develop players without killing them so there’s nothing left in the tank.” The Express schedule was 44 games last season.

Thomson is owner of High Performance Hockey Development at Holiday Twin Rinks and has 25 years of hockey experience.