Hockey’s roots in the Hampton Roads region go back only to 1971, when the Detroit Red Wings placed their American Hockey League team here.
Patrick Cavanagh, a New York native, has been the driving force behind the junior program, whose home is the 90,000-square-foot facility with (2) NHL Sized skating rinks in Hampton Roads that the entrepreneur named the Chilled Ponds Ice Sports Complex.
Cavanagh is no hockey novice. He skated for eight seasons with the Hampton Roads entry in the ECHL after playing junior hockey with a Hamilton, Ont., club in 1989-90. He also logged shifts in the IHL with farm teams of the New York Rangers, St. Louis Blues and Tampa Bay Lightning.
He launched junior hockey in his adopted home town in 2006. “I decided that while our youth travel program was doing well, we didn’t offer a top end of the pyramid for our kids to aspire to,” says Cavanagh. “Plus, we wanted to provide the kids with the kind of training and opportunity we believed they deserved, and run it like a pro franchise.” Cavanagh and others in Hampton Road sought to build a highway to Junior A, NCCA Division III and the American Collegiate Hockey Association for those skaters with the determination, talent and potential to play at a higher level.
Like other hockey visionaries in the South, Cavanagh faced opposition when he tried to gain entry for a junior squad in the Continental Hockey Association, a league of East Coast teams that stretches from New Hampshire to Florida. “I told the [CHA] executive committee what our plans were, that we were going to have a paid coach and run our program year-round. They took a vote, and I expected they would say yes to us,” recalls Cavanagh. “But the tide turned and people started saying you’re not from a traditional hockey area.
One of the first things Cavanagh did was hire a coach who would double as the general manager of the Whaler Nation. That was Brent Agrusa, who coached the Whalers’ Junior B team to an undefeated season and their first CHA championship in 2006-07. In 07-08 Agrusa turned over the reins of the Junior B squad to Tom Winkler and coached the Whalers Independant team to a record of 49-19-4 playing a rigorous independent schedule.
Agrusa has since moved up to the Chicago Hitmen of the North American Hockey League, a Tier 2 Junior A circuit. Winkler led the Whalers in the successful defense of their CHA crown and served as GM of the Whaler Nation, as well, he has now moved onto the Gillette Wild of the AWHL. The Whalers then turned to California native Andy Newton to lead the EJHL South squad, and Michigan native Brad Jones to lead the Empire team.
“What’s really amazing is everything that’s happened in a short period of time,” says Winkler of the Junior B team’s success on the ice. “Plus, we had three players go to NCAA Division III schools after that first season and we grew to three teams – Junior A independent, Junior B and Junior C – last season.” To date, about 45 young men have advanced from the Junior Whalers to a higher level of competition.
After his Junior B team went 29-2-3 in the regular season, earned the CHA title and reached USA Hockey’s Tier 3 Junior B nationals last spring, where it went winless but was competitive in two of its three games and gained a lot of experience, Winkler saw more of his players advance to NCCA Division III and Tier 3 Junior A hockey.
“Nobody expected the success that we had,” says Winkler. “It was really kind of unprecedented what the organization has done the last two years.”
Cavanagh, Jones, Crew, & Vaillancourt have been unwavering in their commitment to developing a first-class junior program capable of preparing and opening doors for youngsters for many years to come.
Their program already is the envy of others in the South. They offer prospective players first-class coaching, facilities and competition. Prior to joining the Whaler Nation, Winkler spent five years as an assistant coach with the Bozeman (Montana) IceDogs of the NAHL and two years with the Hockey Academy of St. Louis, in the city where he was born and raised. The academy, owned by members of the St. Louis Blues organization, has been attended by National Hockey League, AHL and other professional players. While at the academy, Winkler also was an assistant coach with the St. Louis Jr. Blues, who won the 2006 USA Hockey Junior B national tournament.
The facilities that the Whalers can offer to a recruit are outstanding by anyone’s measure. Since the rink, which has seating for 2,400 spectators, are owned by Cavanagh, Whaler Nation has all the ice time it needs.
Despite its moderate-weather locale, hockey in Hampton Roads can truly be a year-round experience. The Junior Whalers practice four days a week at Chilled Ponds and play games on the weekends during the season. Summers, they skate Monday through Friday. “We provide the biggest factor in player development, and that’s ice time,” Winkler points out proudly. The complex also contains a 6,000-square-foot fitness facility.
On the ice, Jones, Crew and Vaillancourt are all about developing the player’s basic skill set and teamwork. Off it, he expects his players to excel at school as well as on the ice. After all, he says, the goal of Junior Whaler hockey is to give kids a chance to go on to college.
This fall the Whalers will again have their sights on advancing the careers of their players and melding them into units that can win a league championship and compete on the national stage.
Says Jones, “For every kid that moves on to Junior A or NCAA Division III, that’s a feather in our cap. You’ve done your job and given a kid an opportunity to play at a higher level.”
The move from the EJHL South to the USPHL Elite and USPHL Empire Hockey League as part of a new landscape change within the old EJHL to provide more exposure to college recruiters for not just Junior Whalers but kids from all over the east coast. The other members of the USPHL Elite and Empire Southern Conference include the Atlanta Knights, Palm Beach Hawks, East Coast Eagles, Florida Eels, Florida Jr. Blades, Potomac Patriots, Spacecoast Hurricanes, and Tampa Bay Juniors.
Says Jones, “My main goal with that group will be the same as always: Be competitive and produce kids that have opportunities to move up. If you stick to that philosophy, your kids are going to develop and come around.”