The Pueblo Bulls and Northern Colorado Eagles joined the USPHL prior to the start of the 2020-21 season. The organizations previously competed in the Western States Hockey League. Photo courtesy of the Pueblo Bulls
A pair of Colorado Junior A hockey teams are on the move. The Pueblo Bulls and the Northern Colorado Eagles have transitioned from playing in the Western States Hockey League (WSHL) to the United States Premier Hockey League (USPHL) beginning with the 2020-2021 season.
The move allows the squads to continue playing, given the WSHL has gone dormant this season, and the teams can now take part in a coast-to-coast league which they hope will increase their chances of producing players who will advance their careers to the next level.
“We were really excited when they recruited us to the division,” said Steve Haddon, head coach and general manager of Northern Colorado. “There are a lot of good teams out west. I think they’re trying to brand east to west, and be one of the powerhouses developing players to the next level. It was really exciting and we didn’t really think twice about it. It was a no-brainer for us.”
The Eagles, formerly known as the Colorado Junior Eagles, are the junior affiliate of the Loveland-based Colorado Eagles, the American Hockey League (AHL) team that's aligned with the Colorado Avalanche.
Northern Colorado boasts 80 players who have advanced to play collegiate hockey, or beyond, in eight seasons as an organization. The club’s all-time record entering the season was 239-83-21 and Northern Colorado is coming off a second-place finish in the Midwest Division of the WSHL. The Eagles have twice been division champions and finalists for the Thorne Cup, which is awarded to the league champion.
Pueblo is beginning just its second season as an organization.
Both Northern Colorado, which is based in Greeley, and Pueblo are in the USPHL’s five-team Mountain Division, along with the Ogden Mustangs, Provo Riverblades and Utah Outliers.
David Nelson, general manager of the Bulls, spoke to how the USPHL markets itself and how joining the league is good for Pueblo and its players.
“This year, we get the opportunity to attend two showcases, versus one in the Western States last year,” Nelson said. “The two showcases we get to go to this year are in Boston and Chicago. You get to go to two markets and touch on the hotbed of where guys in the USPHL go as far as [NCAA Division III] hockey.”
Northern Colorado and Pueblo are among an exodus of teams moving from the WSHL to the USPHL’s Premier level this year. Teams outside the Centennial State that made the move are the Anaheim Avalanche, Fresno Monsters, Las Vegas Thunderbirds, Ogden Mustangs, San Diego Sabers, Southern Oregon Spartans and Utah Outliers. The Elmira Jr. Enforcers, Provo Riverblades and Wooster Oilers also joined the USPHL.
Playing in the Mountain Division allowa Northern Colorado and Pueblo the opportunity to maintain regional rivalries established in the WSHL.
“We’re probably more recognized now that we’re under the umbrella of the USPHL. I’ve had schools already come down to watch our practices. I used to do a lot of sending tape myself and reaching out with my connections,” Haddon said.
The puck could not have dropped soon enough when the season opened in late September, as far as the Eagles and Bulls were concerned.
“When COVID hit, we were just about to start our playoffs and everyone got shot down,” said Haddon, who played 10 seasons with the Colorado Eagles. “All the junior leagues in hockey and everywhere. It was super strange and kind of an empty feeling. We were hosting in our league the national championship. We had never done that here. We had a lot of work and blood, sweat and tears for the last 13 months before, so it was really a tough one to swallow.”
USPHL teams are attempting to create as much of a bubble environment as possible for players and team personnel to accommodate for precautions and regulations stemming from the pandemic.
Nelson said the opening weeks went smoothly.
“Every day, try to have the mindset that something’s going to get thrown at us. But how are you going to adapt, whether it’s on the ice or off the ice?” Nelson said. “A lot of credit to everybody around us, not only within our organization, but we’ve gotten great support from our season ticket holders, sponsors, local officials, state officials.”
Northern Colorado is not permitting fans at its new 1,600-seat Greeley Ice Haus. Pueblo, meanwhile, is allowing 100 fans per game, pooling from season ticket holders and sponsors.
USPHL games are streamed at HockeyTV.com with the purchase of a subscription. Both teams are eager to build upon their fanbases, even if new connections can’t yet be developed up close and personal.
“We’re playing without fans but we’re playing hockey. We’re helping kids pursue their dreams for next year,” Haddon said. “That was the biggest thing is that from our ownership, our division, and the USPHL commissioner, we want to have hockey — fans or no fans. We felt like that was important. We don’t want to see any 20-year-olds not have a year of hockey to try to get recruited.”
The USPHL, the nation's largest amateur hockey league, was founded in 2012. It has about 550 teams from 100 organizations in 24 states across eight levels from ages 6-21: National Collegiate Development Conference, Premier, Elite, EHF, 18U, 16U, 15U and High Performance. More than 2,500 USPHL alumni have gone on to play collegiately, according to the league website. About 11,000 players participate across the different divisions and age groups.
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