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Changing the Junior Hockey Landscape the 87 Way

By Steffan Waters -, 07/10/19, 9:00AM EDT


MIDDLETOWN, NJ -- The New Jersey 87s just completed their inaugural season in the Eastern Hockey League (EHL) and the early returns are in – the “87 Way” is going to be the foundation of a championship team sooner, rather than later.

Those championship aspirations could come as early as this year after the 87s fell short of the Frozen Finals in year one, following-up on a season that was nonetheless a resounding success. The 87s won the division, had eight Division III commitments by season-end, and six NAHL call-ups throughout the year, all of which showed “87 Way” is the foundation of a program that is built to last.

So what is “87 Way” and why has it had such an impact on a first-year program?

There’s a simple answer and a more complex one to that question.

The simple answer is it is the way the 87s do business, the foundation of their club.

The complex answer gets into the why. It’s true the “87 Way” is the foundation of everything the 87s do as a team. The philosophy was created by owners Adam Houli and Matthew Kiernan when they decided to enter the junior hockey landscape.

“The 87 Way started as soon as our program was founded. It wasn’t called that at first, but when Matt and I decided that we wanted to get into the junior game, we knew there was a real chance of development and success due to that development,” said GM and Head Coach Adam Houli. “When we finally put together a plan on how to successfully run a junior program in today’s model, we found that it needed to be modernized and it needed to be different then all others. We decided that no matter what, we would talk different, look different, and act different from everyone else.”

The foundation was laid early in the team-forming process for the 87s. The moniker had yet to exist, but the philosophy was present in every decision Houli and Kiernan made as the team began to come together.

“This became a focal point for a lot of what we did. From our systems, to our team travel, we prided ourselves on those three principles and during our training camp we coined the phrase ‘87 Way’,” said Houli. “From that point, ‘87 Way’ grew even larger. We demanded a level of excellence, a level of focus, and a level of perseverance in any situation. As the months went by, ‘87 Way’ kept growing stronger as did our team and program. Today, it marks everything we do and how we do it.”

The “87 Way” moniker became a way of life for the 87s as they embarked on their first EHL season together. The philosophy was instilled in the team from day one of camp and became the basis for everything they did on and off the ice.

For an expansion team in their first EHL season, the 87 Way also became a rallying point. It was something the players could get behind as they, a team without any junior hockey experience, pursued a championship. It wouldn’t have been unprecedented for an expansion team to win a title in their first year, with the New Hampshire Avalanche doing it the year before. To get there though, they were going to do it the 87 Way. The team quickly embraced the philosophy and cultivated what it meant to them in team development as the season progressed.

“The buy-in was very quick. It certainly helped that we were an expansion team so from the beginning, the players knew that they had a chance to shape our future,” said Houli. “They knew they were going to be the first ones that set the groundwork for future 87s and they wanted to hit the ground running. Our training camp was difficult, we had no junior experience at any level, but it did not stop what we tried to do and what we were able to accomplish. We studied the game in every aspect and applied those systems to our play. We never made excuses, we just kept building the blocks to get better each and every day. As our record grew better and better, the buy-in became contagious.”

The record did get better and better as the season progressed.

The 87s lost their first game to Connecticut RoughRiders and their early record was 2-2 after a 4-3 loss to the Boston Jr. Rangers. But from there, the 87s took off. They went on an 18-1 run, which featured win streaks of 10 and 8. The confidence of the players just continued to grow. Their improvement on the ice was evident and players were getting noticed by coaches at higher levels. Those aging-out began receiving calls and offers from college coaches. Other players were called up for short stints with NAHL teams.

The level of interest in the players not only speaks volumes to the system that Houli and Kiernan have developed in such a short time, but the hard work that the players put in to make their time with the 87s successful. Houli and Kiernan have certainly mad their mark on junior hockey and it isn’t naive to think that they’ll only go up from here.

“We had 8 Division III commitments and 7 players called into the NAHL. I think that momentum allows us to continue to build in the right way” said Houli. “Our players know and believe that our main goal is to help them reach their goals, whether that is NCAA Hockey or Tier 1 or Tier 2 hockey. Now that we have a year under our belts in this development model, we can use that as a measuring stick. We expect and demand that each year we build off that number.”

To grow that number of promotions and college commitments, Houli will rely on the “87 Way”. It’s the greatest tool he and Kiernan have at their disposal when selling their team to recruits and as news of their success in using this “87 Way” system, the numbers should continue to grow.

“The greatest tool for us is that our players live the 87 Way and it becomes contagious when speaking about it and expecting those results”, said Houli. “Our goal is to continue to build upon this foundation but also continue to improve what we do. There are ways to get better each and every day and we hold our staff and our players to find those ways and make them come to fruition.”

The 87s have a development program that is truly player-centric. It’s a driving factor behind their year-one success on the ice and in commitments, especially from a team full of players with no junior hockey experience before this year. Houli and Kiernan know that there are ways to improve their system, and will look to make those improvements by integrating new practices or innovative technologies that benefit the players. But for now, they’ll continue to do what they’re doing because as long as the player comes first, the 87s will continue to attract players to their program who are looking to make the jump to the next level, whichever avenue that is.

“Our program is geared toward the player in every capacity. We present ourselves as knowing the right or correct path for each player, we know each path is different and the goals of each player are different, but we understand how to help them accomplish what they want to accomplish”, said Houli. “We listen to what they want out of their experience and make sure that we develop them with those goals in mind. We don’t restrict the type of player we recruit, we try to find a different style at each position so that the focus becomes unique for each player. Whether we have a power forward or more skilled smaller player, we make sure that they are given every tool to be successful.”

The 87s, as mentioned previously, are always looking to add to their development offerings, especially through adapting new technologies, but they’re already one of the more advanced clubs when it comes to utilizing technology as outlined by Houli, as he continued talking about the development program.

“Our development program incorporates a powerful and useful video analysis program that not only gives our players the ability to watch the entire game but also watch every individual shift they may have. The program then provides us the details that don’t often show up on the score sheet such as exit and entry percentage, expected goal ratio, and projected passes to goals ratio. When we combine our approach as a team and with all the resources we have available we find that we separate ourselves from others.”

Tim DeBord was one of six 87 players called up to the NAHL last season. DeBord played five games with the New Jersey Titans, then came back to have a 38-point season as a first-year junior hockey player (birth-year 2000). Photo Credit -- Edward Jacobs

Ryan Gilroy is one of eight NJ 87s headed off to play college hockey next season. Gilroy and Kyle DePalma are both going to Albertus Magnus College this fall. Photo Credit -- Richard O’Donnell

Jack McDonough brought veteran leadership to a team that was devoid of it in their inau- gural season. McDonough had 34 points and parlayed his play into a commitment with DIII Manhattanville. Photo Credit -- Richard O’Donnell

Dalton Jerzak was the 8th and final NCAA Commitment of the season for the 87s. In the program’s first year in the EHL, the 2000-born netminder served as the anchor, and was a candidate for the Goalie of the Year award. Photo Credit -- Edward Jacobs

The data collected through their video analysis system also helps the coaches educate the players during their on-ice and off-ice sessions. It helps the players see where they can improve and it was credited with helping the team grow and improve quickly from training camp to their early season run. By identifying things that don’t show up in the scoresheet, the system helps the coaches identify things that players are doing well and seek opportunities that will further team and player development.

The findings are utilized in drills and practice throughout each week in the season. Each week is geared towards individual and team improvement. Players spend minimally five hours a day at the rink, which is broken up between an hour and 15 minute practice, either an individual or team workout in the gym, and film study sessions. The 87s operate two junior teams so players are welcome to skate in both practices, which many players do, leading to nearly 3 hours of ice-time per day for those players.

The development of the individual players helped gather many sets of eyes on 87s looking to take their game to the next level. Calls from college coaches began coming in and soon, the recruiting pitches for aging-out players were common. On top of that, some 87s were garnering interest from NAHL teams for mid-season call-ups. Fortunate to have the NAHL’s New Jersey Titans a short drive away, the team formed a call-up pipeline with the Titans.

Throughout the season, six players were called-up to NAHL teams, with all but one making that move with the New Jersey Titans. The other NAHL team to call up an 87 player was the Jamestown Rebels, located in Jamestown, NY. Jack Lane had two stints with the Titans and he was followed by Joe Collins, Tim DeBord, Zach Egber, and Dalton Jerzak. Jack Kerlyuk was the 87 player who played for the Rebels. While they were temporary assignments with those teams, the lessons learned by each player and the confidence gained and brought back to the club helped with each player’s rest-of-season performance.

Lane was second on the team in scoring with 53 points while playing in 43 games. DeBord chipped-in 38 points and ranked second on the team with 21 goals. Zach Egber played 32 games for the 87s and nearly averaged a point per game, with 30 on 14 goals and 16 assists. Joe Collins, while not a prolific point producer, had previous NAHL experience and provided a big-bodied forward during his call-up and steadying force for the 87s upon returning. Kerlyuk was New Jersey’s top defenseman a season ago, scoring 10 goals and producing 27 points in 42 games played around his NAHL call-up. And lastly, goaltender Dalton Jerzak used what became his final junior season to not only play in his first NAHL game, but also post one of the best seasons in the EHL and earn an offer to Division III SUNY Fredonia of the SUNYAC. Jerzak is just one of eight players to earn a Division III commitment. He is going a year early, but Houli has all the confidence that his young goaltender has learned enough in his one year with the 87s to make that jump successfully.

The other seven players headed to the Division III level next season are Kyle DePalma, Trent Shanley, Alex Borowiec, Geoff LaMorre, Ryan Gilroy, Jack McDonough, and Jake Ondrejko.

DePalma and Gilroy are joining Albertus Magnus, currently a DIII Independent. In both DePalma and Gilroy, the Falcons are getting gritty, do-it-all forwards. While their contributions won’t always show up in the box score, their work rate will always be present.

Shanley and LaMorre will also be teammates next year as the duo is heading to Fitchburg State of the MASCAC. Shanley and LaMorre were both 20-point scorers with a combined 28 goals and 23 assists between the duo.

Borowiec and McDonough are heading to UCHC schools in Lebanon Valley College and Manhattanville College, respectively. And the final college commit is Jake Ondrejko, who is headed to Western New England College.

The news is out on the 87s and “87 Way” as well. The eight-person class is an impressive showing for the first year of the 87s and the knowledge of their development system is becoming known in youth and junior hockey circles. It’s been a big boom in recruiting which is leading to extreme excitement from Houli moving forward.

“Our success using the ’87 Way’ is one of the first things we mentioned to our recruits. We tell them from the start that the 87 Way is how we separate ourselves from other programs and why they should feel excited and anxious in joining us”, said Houli. “When we talk in detail about the average day or the experience to be expected, we have seen our recruits get very excited. That feedback lets us know that we’re doing right by our players and it’s helping get the right kid here to continue our mission using the ’87 Way’.”

Houli hit the recruiting trail hard after the 87s lost in the divisional playoffs. He received commitments from all eligible returning players and then started traveling to see players at various tournaments and showcases from around the country. Some of the returning 87s do have Tier II opportunities in front of them and if they make those Tier II teams, they will not return to the 87s, but every returning player wants to minimally be back with the 87s. In addition to the returners, Houli secured commitments from a number of places. Now, it’s just time for the season to start.

“We finished up our recruiting efforts in early June and now are looking forward to the start of the season,” said Houli. “We have players from Prep School, Tier 1 Elite League, and the North American Prospects League that will be joining us, in addition to a few players who wanted to join us from other EHL teams. We are very excited about the group that we have and can’t wait to get started.”

Houli will have to wait a couple months for the season to truly get going, but from now until then, he will continue to fine tune the “87 Way” to have it ready to go for the players come August. He’ll look for ways to improve their systems, add to their development offerings, and tweak strategy to make the team and the players better in year two than they were in year one.

No matter what changes occur, the mission and goals will not be altered said Houli.

“We’re always going to be in the business of developing hockey players for the next level,” said Houli. “Our goal for this year will be to continue on our development path to place more players in Tier I and Tier II teams and make sure they’re gathering as many NCAA offers as possible.”

And about that bitter defeat in the divisional playoffs?

“Oh and make no mistake about it, we’re going to do everything we can from the moment training camp starts to be in Providence this year”, said Houli. "We want to be in Providence hoisting the championship trophy and becoming the team to beat in the EHL moving forward.”