When right winger Charlie Coyle finishes his season with the South Shore Kings, a potential roster spot with defending national champion Boston University will be waiting for him.
But the process of honing his schoolboy skills for hockey against men began in earnest when the Weymouth, Mass., native left nearby Thayer Academy to complete high school in his hometown and play the 2009-10 season in the Eastern Junior Hockey League.
“It’s a lot faster,” said Coyle, who was rated as an “A” player on Central Scouting’s 2009 Fall watch list, a mark that places him among the elite prospects for the upcoming NHL Entry Draft. “Kids are bigger, stronger and faster, so it’s good to adapt to that. It’ll help me get to the next level. I like it so far.”
Scott Harlow and a handful of similarly experienced coaches have helped raise the profile of the “EJ,” a Tier III (tuition-based) Junior A program that charter member Sean Tremblay said achieved traction in its fifth year in 1998 when the late Gary Dineen fielded a Springfield team featuring 10 future Div. I players.
“They were a loaded, frightening team,” said Tremblay, general manager and coach of the New Hampshire Monarchs. “I think that helped spur a lot of kids into our league. Kids who were on the fence ... I think it took getting those players into our league to turn the corner.”
The EJHL is now a 14-team league spread throughout New England and stretching as far west as Syracuse, N.Y., and as far south as
Washington, D.C. Because the Northeast is overrun with NHL, AHL, college, prep and community alternatives, the only people attending Junior hockey games are players’ friends and relatives. Most importantly, the stands generally include a handful of college coaches from some of New England’s most prestigious schools.
“The kids that are moving on from these various Junior leagues are putting in a monumental amount of effort. The commitment is a lot of work, and it’s not for everybody,” said former NHLer Bob Corkum, who regularly scouts EJHL games as an assistant coach for the University of Maine.
“A lot of young players think they want it, and then they find out what it’s all about. The Junior level has a way of sorting all that out.”
It’s a lot of hockey and a lot of hard work off the ice for players like Coyle, whose studies are crammed into shrunken days partly eaten away by travel time.
“It’s tough for him because he’s going to high school full time. He’s up at 6 every morning and doesn’t get home ’til 7 p.m.,” said Chuck Coyle, Charlie’s father.
Chuck Coyle played some Junior hockey in Canada, so the Junior model didn’t scare him off. Plus, he played teenage hockey with Harlow.
“[Charlie] was always good. In the back of my mind, it hopefully would come to this, but I’m lucky he’s as good as he is. I played at a fairly high level, but he’s already passed me,” said Chuck Coyle, a cousin of former NHLer Tony Amonte and second cousin to former NHLer Bobby Sheehan.
Selling the parents without that kind of experience in Junior hockey is challenging. Coaches can tell them that the Montreal Canadiens drafted EJHL alumnus Mike Komisarek seventh overall, and that the Monarchs have had seven NHL drafts picks in the past seven years.
But their job is also to evaluate and help find EJ players the proper college fit.
“We’re dream breakers,” said Bridgewater Bandits coach Mike Doneghey. “We’re the ones who finally have to tell them, ‘You’re a Div. III player and not a Div. I player.’ ”
Many hockey parents, according to Doneghey, perceive the Junior model as hockey first and hockey only, but in 2008 alone the EJ placed 93 players on college teams.
“Three of our guys are into prep school hockey for over $100,000 and still have to play Junior hockey,” he said.
Doneghey graduated in 1989 from Catholic Memorial, the Boston-area school that went dynastic from the time he arrived until a few winters ago. His CM class sent five players straight into Hockey East. That was an early stage in the migration of talent from public schools to parochials to preps. Now it’s taken another turn, and even Div. III college rosters reflect the advent of the EJHL.
“In my experiences, most players who aren’t Div. I caliber realize it before the parent, interestingly enough,” said UMass Dartmouth coach John Rolli, who estimates he makes five phone calls per week with EJ coaches. “I think, for us, recruiting kids out of that league it’s persistence, persistence, persistence. It might take more than one year before an EJ kid comes to UMass Dartmouth to play. Time is on our side, and it’s on theirs, too.”
When the current school year started, four of Rolli’s eight freshmen were already 20 years old, and the other four were 21.
“That’s where the landscape is now,” he said.
The days of a Shawn McEachern jumping from Matignon Catholic straight to BU, the U.S. Olympic Team and the Pittsburgh Penguins are over. Now an assistant coach at UMass Lowell, McEachern said more has changed for young hockey players besides the hockey.
“It’s different now because kids are skating year round,” he said. “I played baseball, soccer. I skied, too, when I was a kid.”
Skaters typically spend many off-ice hours in weight training, and one of the selling points for the Coyle family was the off-ice commitment the Kings were willing to make.
“[Harlow] and Brian McDonough, the trainers, they’re going to help me a lot,” said Charlie Coyle. “They obviously know what it takes to get you to the next level.”
Kevin Burns Photography, New Hampshire Monarchs