Islanders Hockey Club goalie Nevin Tardif, right, makes a nifty save on a point-blank shot by Twin City Thunder’s Matt Hanlon, center, who was being defended by Michael Bermingham, left. (Sun Journal file photo)

The Twin City Thunder are moving up a level.

In the midst of their first season in the United States Premier Hockey League’s top Tier III junior hockey league, the Premier League, the Thunder will next year have a franchise the USPHL’s Tier II junior league, the National Collegiate Development Conference, for the 2019-20 season.

The NCDC is the top league under the USPHL’s umbrella.

When Thunder owners Dan Hodge and Ben Gray announced they were putting a team in the Norway Savings Bank Arena last winter, having a Tier II team was their ultimate goal.

“When Ben and I started this, we looked at all Tier II options,” Hodge said. “This was a good option for us and we wanted to pursue it. We sat down with them last year and we made it known to them we wanted a NCDC team. Obviously, they’ve seen enough from our organization to know that we have a solid fan base, solid team.”

Current Thunder head coach Doug Friedman will also be the head coach of the NCDC team.

“Ben and Dan have had a plan since day one,” Friedman said. “That was certainly part of the plan (coaching at the NCDC level), and that was enticing to me to come on board as part of the reason. But at the end of the day for me, I love coaching, I love being around the kids. I am really having a fun time this year with the guys that we have.”

The Tier III Premier League team that’s currently playing will still exist next season and still play at Norway Savings Bank Arena. Both teams will be called the Thunder and have the same jersey colors.

Since Friedman is moving up to the NCDC team, Hodge said he hopes to select a new head coach for the Premier team by Christmas.

For now, the rest of the year is a tryout for the current roster as 17 players are eligible to play junior hockey next season.

“The guys have had an idea this was maybe coming, and our message to our current players is you are in a good spot we get to see you on the regular basis to evaluate you,” Friedman said. “In essence, it’s a year-long tryout to see who may be a good fit for next season.”

The NCDC is in its second year of operation. It currently has 12 teams — with the Thunder’s addition it will be 13 — from New Hampshire, down to New Jersey and all the way out to Western New York.

“We are excited to welcome the Twin City Thunder hockey organization to the NCDC,” Dave Peters, NCDC deputy commissioner said in a statement sent to the Sun Journal. “The leadership of owners Dan Hodge and Ben Gray along with head coach Doug Friedman will be a tremendous addition to our league. We look forward to adding another outstanding hockey community where players can develop and have a great junior hockey experience.”

NCDC is a recruiting ground for both NCAA Division I and III schools. The league boasts 23 future Division I players currently playing in the league, according to college teams.

Future University of Maine player Jack Moran currently plays for the NCDC’s Islanders Hockey Club. The Black Bears currently have six USPHL Premier alums on the current roster, from when the Premier League was the USPHL’s top junior league.

Friedman, who coached the Portland Junior Pirates Premier league team in 2013-14, saw the top talent first hand.

“I can tell you this, it’s very competitive hockey, like the Premier,” Friedman said. “You’ve seen our conference now, any team can beat any team. The NCDC level is similar in that regard. From a player’s standpoint, our hope is to have a lot of Division I and III players that will be there. Players that have committed (to schools) already or players that will commit while playing for the Thunder.”

Hodge said between Gray, Friedman and he have scouted 20 NCDC games already, whether in person or on video.

Other Tier II leagues in the country are the North American Hockey League (NAHL), the parent league of the North American 3 Hockey League in which the L/A Nordiques play, and the Western States Hockey League (WSHL).

The NAHL is the lone Tier II league in the country to be sanctioned by USA Hockey, the governing body of the sport in the United States. The USPHL applied for the NCDC for USA Hockey Tier II status, but was denied for the 2017-18 season and instead considers itself independent from a governing body. USPHL’s Tier III leagues, Premier and Elite, were also pulled out of USA Hockey, but its midget leagues are still sanctioned.

The WSHL is sanctioned by the American Athletic Union.

The NCDC is a tuition-free league, so players don’t have to pay to play in the league. Tier III leagues, such as the USPHL’s Premier and Elite and the NA3HL, are pay-to-play, meaning the teams charge players tuition. There have been reports that the reason why the NCDC didn’t get USA Hockey Tier II junior status is because organizations were going up the tuition of their youth and midget teams to offset the costs of the NCDC team, because many teams don’t draw fans beyond family, friends and scouts.

Hodge said those reports are false.

“Obviously, Ben has the (Maine) Moose (youth) program and that’s part of our USPHL family and Thunder family,” Hodge added. “He’s not planning upping their cost for their tuition. Last year when we were in the scheduling meeting with Richard Gallant (USPHL commissioner), he stood up and said, ‘The NCDC is a standalone league and we need to treat it like that. It won’t run on the backs of the youth hockey programs.’ Ours does not, and I don’t know anybody that does.”

The Thunder will run the NCDC team like minor league sports team, and will continue to build fan support, increase ticket sales and sponsorships, and put players in the community. Having fan support will help with recruiting.

“Besides the (New Hampshire Junior) Monarchs, I don’t know how many teams you go to that their home building has 300, 400, 500 fans in it,” Hodge said. “The experience of coming and playing in front of a large crowd is exciting for the visiting teams, and it’s exciting for our players because they love playing at home. Around the league we have gotten a positive reaction and we look forward to be good partners to help grow the league in the future.”


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