Boston University and Northeastern University will take center stage on Monday night in the Beanpot final at TD Garden, and amidst the increasing animosity between these nearby rivals, there is a commonality that 36 of the teams’ 52 players share: playing in the United States Hockey League.
The USHL is the only tier-one junior hockey league in the country. Young prospects from around North America and the world descend to the American Midwest to play in the USHL in their late teens to early twenties. USHL Commissioner Tom Garrity is proud of what his league has become.
“We’re at the top of the pyramid of junior hockey in the United States, and some would argue we’re right up there with the rest of the leagues around the world,” Garrity said. “If you add up the last four or five years, we’re at the top of the heap as far as draft picks.”
According to the USHL, 55 players from their league were drafted in last June’s NHL Draft, marking a league record. Before the players advance to the pros, though, Garrity says that between 96 and 98 percent of his league’s players progress from the USHL to division one college hockey.
“The USHL is committed to developing players that have chosen the path of playing college hockey prior to playing professional,” Garrity said. “That’s really our purpose.”
One doesn’t have to look far to see the USHL’s impact in college hockey, especially in relation to the Beanpot. USHL alum and BU freshman forward Robert Mastrosimone’s late goal helped BU reach the Beanpot final. He said playing in the league sets up perfectly for moving on to the NCAA.
“I think last year the USHL was a really good league, it was pretty similar to college hockey,” the freshman forward said. “It was really fast-paced, really hard-hitting.”
BU freshman forward Sam Stevens won the USHL’s Clark Cup with the Sioux Falls Stampede last season. He said playing for a junior hockey championship prepared him for tournament competition as a college player.
“Winning a championship and playing on a big stage [in the USHL] helps with big moments, like the Beanpot and other tournaments,” Stevens said.
Stevens is one of four current Terriers to come from the USHL’s Sioux Falls Stampede, along with junior defenseman Kasper Kotkansalo, sophomore forward Matthew Quercia and freshman forward Ethan Phillips, who won Team West MVP at the 2019 USHL/NHL Top Prospects Game.
Stevens said that pre-existing bonds pay dividends at BU.
“When you get here, it makes it a little easier because you know a couple guys,” Stevens said. “Matthew Quercia last year came down to Sioux Falls during our playoff run, which was just awesome to see.”
While Garrity loves seeing former USHL players succeeding at the next level, he said that the nature of the league as a feeder system to the NCAA makes for a unique challenge for front office personnel across the league.
“It’s a really tough position to be a GM or coach in our league, because they’re constantly having to look at moving pieces,” Garrity said. “[Sioux Falls] won the whole thing, and I think they had three returning players [this season].”
At the end of the day, Garrity says his team leaders understand and embraces their role in these young players’ hockey careers.
“[Our coaches and general managers are] well aware of the process, and they understand that we’re part of the journey and … ultimately they’re developing these players to be ready for their next step which is college hockey,” he said.
Regardless of how much time players spend in the USHL, Garrity says that the connections that these young men make with their teams and the host families they live with last a lifetime.
“All these players that end up leaving and going to play college hockey and then going to play pro, they still are connected to those families,” Garrity said.
Eyes around the USHL will be watching when the puck drops for the Beanpot final on Monday, and USHL alumni hoisting the trophy at the end of the night will bring pride and joy to the USHL’s teams, players, staff and families alike.