USHL opens 25th season tonight

Eighteen of the 25 players on the 2003-2004 Gophers men's hockey roster have roots planted firmly in the United States Hockey League. The top junior hockey league in the United States begins its 25th season tonight. Four future Gophers will play another year in the league before joining the U in 2004-2005. Find out what some of these players have to say about their experiences in the USHL, and how it has prepared them for college hockey.

A future Gophers hockey star is being groomed, starting tonight.

The United States Hockey League's 25th Anniversary season opens tonight in Danville, St. Louis, Sioux Falls and Tri City. Eight of America's 12 Tier I teams will be in action as the Wings host defending Anderson and Clark Cup champion Lincoln, the Heartland Eagles host Cedar Rapids, the Stampede welcomes Chicago and the Storm takes on Sioux City.

The USHL is the top junior hockey league in the United States – 18 of the 25 Gophers on the current roster played in the league before coming to the Gophers, including Kellen Briggs, Justin Johnson, Jake Fleming, Brett MacKinnon, Thomas Vanek, Matt Koalska, Troy Riddle, Joey Martin, Grant Potulny, Ryan Potulny, Danny Irmen, Mike Vannelli, Jake Taylor, Keith Ballard, Judd Stevens, PJ Atherton, and Chris Harrington.

The USHL is known for developing some of the top players in Division I college hockey. Those who have played know the benefits the league has to offer.

"The chance to play so many games, to get used to the travel and grow as a person is a once-in-a-lifetime experience," said freshman Mike Vannelli. "It was one of the best experiences of my life."

There are also numerous future Gophers playing in the USHL this season. Derek Peltier of Cedar Rapids, Ben Gordon and Brent Borgen of Lincoln, and Mike Howe of River City have all committed to play for the Gophers starting with the 2004-2005 season. Mike Taylor, a senior at the Academy of Holy Angels n Richfield, Minn., and a player the Gophers have shown interest in, will play with the Green Bay Gamblers before and after the Minnesota high school season.

Another year of seasoning is just what many players are looking for.

"I know I still have some maturing to do physically," said the 5-11, 165-pound Gordon. "Another year will allow me to get stronger, faster and put on some weight. It is a developmental league, and I think it is something any kid who has the chance to do should take advantage of."

Borgen agreed.

"It will just prepare me for college hockey all that much more," said Borgen, who played for Mahtomedi (Minn.) High School last season. "And you can't beat playing all those games, traveling with the guys, it's going to be a lot of fun."

All three agreed that playing in the USHL gave them or will give them an opportunity to really showcase their talents – which is sometimes tough to do in a 25-game high school season. In the USHL, kids have a chance to play over 60 games.

"It can get tough when you get towards the end of the season when you've never played that many games before," said Vannelli. "But the more you experience before you get to college the easier you can adjust to college."

Gordon said one of the best things about the USHL is playing against elite players.

"When you get here all the guys were the best or one of the best players on their high school team," he said. "You don't have guys on second or third lines that aren't going to challenge you or make you better like you do in high school. Everyone at one point was probably the star."

Here is a look at what's on tap for the weekend as the USHL begins its 25th season:

LINCOLN vs. DANVILLE - 7:05 p.m.: The Wings and Stars met on Saturday at the Cedar Rapids Preseason Tournament. Lincoln erased a 2-1 deficit with three third-period goals from Tyler Magura, Mick Berge and Aaron McCloy to claim the tournament championship. Berge tied Danville's Nino Musitelli and Derek Patrosso for the tournament high in points with three in two games.

CEDAR RAPIDS vs. ST. LOUIS - 7:05 p.m.: The RoughRiders claimed a split and second place at their recent preseason tournament with a win over Chicago and a loss against Danville. New York native James Brannigan continued to play well, scoring goals in both games. Brannigan also notched two points in two games at the Buc Bowl.

The Heartland Eagles were led at Buc Bowl by Corey Elkins who assisted on three goals in three games. Wade Harstad notched a pair of goals during the event. The game will mark the USHL regular season coaching debut for former NHL standout Rick Zombo who, in 1981, became the first ever USHL player to be drafted by an NHL team (Detroit).

CHICAGO vs. SIOUX FALLS - 7:05 p.m.: Steel captain Topher Scott has continued to play well, notching two more goals at the Cedar Rapids Preseason Tournament after scoring twice at Buc Bowl. Keep an eye on physical Chicago forward Matt Clackson who scored one of the Steel's two goals in a 3-2 shootout defeat on Saturday. The Pennsylvania native has been a physical force throughout the preseason.

The Stampede features the one-two punch of stalwart forwards Jim McKenzie (6-2, 205) and Jordan Fox (6-1, 201). The duo combined for eight points at Buc Bowl.

SIOUX CITY vs. TRI-CITY - 7:05 p.m.: The Musketeers got three points each from Troy Brummett and Mike Curry at Buc Bowl in addition to a strong goaltending performance from veteran netminder Jimmy Spratt (48 saves on 50 shots). Tri-City features a potentially dominant defensive corps in addition to Bill Thomas, who notched a hat trick that led the Storm to the Buc Bowl title earlier this month.

Saturday's games: On Saturday, the rest of America's Tier I League will open play as Cedar Rapids hosts defending East Division champion Waterloo, River City travels to Des Moines, Lincoln visits Green Bay, Sioux City hosts Chicago, Danville travels to St. Louis and Sioux Falls takes on Tri-City.

Matt Krumrie covers Gophers hockey for GoldenSports.Net. He can be reached at Gopherhockeyinsider@yahoo.com.

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