Junior hockey is known to provide an opportunity for players to branch out from their hometown and explore new places throughout the season. For the New Jersey 87's, that includes several players moving up to 3,000 miles from home to play hockey in the Garden State.
This season the New Jersey 87's have six players whose hometowns are west of the Mississippi River, including three California natives (Justin Vickers, Dante Terramani and Dylan Gutierrez), Nevada native Jackson Oleson, Colorado native Tim DeBord and Illinois native Andrew Maynard.
What exactly made the 87's a hot spot for players on the West Coast? 87's head coach Adam Houli said it's no different than reaching out to players anywhere else in the country. The players he recruited just so happened to adapt to the 87's system while finding both individual and team-wide success. There is, however, an additional challenge to overcome especially as a franchise in its third year of operation.
"I think the kids from the West sometimes overlook the EHL, and it’s our job as coaches to expose them to our league and what we do so well," Houli said. "We have worked hard in identifying these players and thus have done well in the west market. We continue to believe they are a great market and look forward to establishing a consistent pipeline for players to play at the highest level."
Justin Vickers is in his second year with the 87's as a 21-year-old defenseman. Prior to that, the Murrieta, CA native played two seasons with the Colorado Springs Tigers in the North American Prospects Hockey League. He recalled Houli reaching out to him and inviting him to main camp in the summer of 2018, and spoke about his first impressions of playing in the Garden State.
“Right away just the team and atmosphere was a lot different than the teams I’ve been on previously. Very welcoming, inviting and being in the building, coming into camp with the NAHL team as well as the 87’s Premier team, they all carried themselves highly and performed well," Vickers said.
Tim DeBord played for the Colorado Thunderbirds of the Tier 1 Elite Hockey League and for Valor Christian High before joining the 87's alongside Vickers. The Parker, CO native also brought up the recruiting process and the lure of joining a team with a Tier II affiliate in the New Jersey Titans.
“One of my friends’ dad was watching me play out in Colorado for high school. He told Matty (Kiernan) to watch one of my games, and Matt called me after that to come to the main camp here. I ended up on the team after that.” DeBord said. “It was a very new horizon for me, talking to NAHL teams, as playing in the NAHL is my hopes and dreams. After I realized the 87’s could help me get there, I felt that I had to stay there.”
The benefits extend off the ice as well. Maynard is from Naperville, IL, a suburb outside of Chicago. The second-year forward and leading scorer of the 87's compares Middletown's proximity with New York City to Naperville and Chicago. “It’s not too different, I could go to Chicago whenever I want back in Naperville. I can go to New York City whenever I want, if I wanted to head to the city and do some cool things there," Maynard said.
Vickers, DeBord and Maynard all played big roles in the 87's inaugural season in the Eastern Hockey League, as the team finished with a record of 33-11-1. Their success became known throughout the hockey community, and led to an additional trio of West Coast natives joining the team.
Two of those players include defenseman Dylan Gutierrez and forward Dante Terramani. Gutierrez, a native of Santa Ana, read a feature about the 87's in California Rubber Magazine and looked into it from there.
“At first I thought I was going to see myself playing somewhere else, not going to the East Coast. Then I contacted (Adam) Houli, came out here and I ended up loving it, so it worked out perfectly," Gutierrez said. “I looked into them and I wanted to come skate, then after I skated at the end of the year I was talking to Dante and I just told him all about it. He ended up liking it a lot, so that’s how we both came out here.”
Terramani added that he and Gutierrez have played hockey together in Bantam, and their companionship has made their rookie season with the 87's a seamless transition. “Ever since training camp we’ve been together. We’re roommates, we travel everywhere together, car pool and also room together so it’s really great," Terramani said. "It's always great making connections with other players in California, knowing other teams back in the West Coast, also knowing each other and building our relationships.”
Jackson Oleson, meanwhile, saw the 87’s success first-hand. The Stateline, NV native spent the 2018-19 season with the New Jersey Titans’ 18U team. This year he played short stints in the North American Hockey League and the Manitoba Junior Hockey League before coming back to New Jersey to play for the 87’s.
“I had many conversations with Houli over the course of last summer and this season to recruit me and play for them,” Oleson said. “I have really enjoyed my first two months here, I have really gotten to know the boys well and think we all have good team chemistry on and off the ice.”
Moving thousands of miles away from home is never an easy task, and the 87's transplants were no exception. Vickers, Gutierrez and Terramani all agreed that the frigid climate in New Jersey was a dramatic change from the toasty winters in California.
“Lots of layers. A lot of layers and definitely not shorts and sandals," Gutierrez said when asked about winter in New Jersey. "My parents send me a ton of coats, but they don’t work because they’re too thin.”
Maynard is no stranger to the cold weather, but the culinary aspect of New Jersey proved to be a challenge for the current Tufts commit. "Deep dish pizza is far superior than the cardboard out here in the East Coast," he said.
Meanwhile DeBord holds that Colorado is the nicer state, but admits the shores in New Jersey is a plus. "The beach is amazing especially in the early months of the season," he said.
Despite the differences, all of the players agreed that moving to New Jersey and playing with the 87's have provided great benefits both on and off the ice. Terramani spoke about the difference in style of play and how the 87's organization gave him the resources to improve his game.
"It’s a different pace of hockey, a lot more exposure out here, the lifestyle is definitely different, and it’s just a great atmosphere here," he said. "It’s just more hockey focused, hockey driven, school’s not in the picture right now so everything is focused on hockey, bettering the team and bettering your play on the ice.”
For Maynard, the adjustment period took longer than the other players, but his feelings toward the Garden State took a turn for the better by his second season with the 87's.
“It’s really been a life-changing experience. I initially got out here on the East Coast, I hated it. I hated the East Coast, I thought the people weren’t nice, I thought everything was bad, but after these two years I’m contemplating spending my life out here. I love all the stuff that’s going on and all of the cities and the exposure," Maynard said. “The turning point was arriving back for my second season here. I knew a lot of people and I loved all the friends I made, the coaching staff out here, everyone’s actually pretty cool when you get to know them.”
When asked to provide advice for players thinking about moving east to play for a team like the 87's, DeBord spoke about the team's ability to provide upward mobility for the players.
“I’d say do it, there aren’t a lot of better places to go to, because you have a NAHL team in the building, the travel isn’t bad and it’s much better if you’re playing Tier III just to go to a place where you’ll know that you will succeed," he said.
Vickers, who worked his way up the depth chart on defense over the last two seasons that culminated in a commitment to Stevenson University, said the experience alone is worth it.
“Get out, talk to people and go visit places because you never know what’s out there," he said.
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