MIDDLETOWN — Just a few short years ago no major junior hockey option existed at the Jersey Shore.
In 2017, the North American Hockey League’s (NAHL) eastward expansion made a home for the third straight year at Middletown Ice World with the New Jersey Titans, where second-year head coach Craig Doremus has crafted a roster of burgeoning NCAA-caliber talent from around the country, and mixed in some notable local flavor.
Providing top tier talent in the Atlantic District — especially those skaters with ties to the Garden State — a local option to advance up the developmental ladder has been a pillar of this organization since its inception in 2015, when local hockey fixture — and founder of the New Jersey Jr. Titans youth program — George Haviland helped broker the deal to bring an NAHL franchise to the Shore.
However, according to Doremus, his process of scouting homegrown competitors is designed to be rigorous, so as to acquire the right crop of skaters.
“A big part of the process of building our team and this roster; it wasn’t just about identifying players from the area, recruiting them, drafting them and getting them here. We wanted to make sure we were identifying the right guys. We didn’t want to bring guys in who weren’t ready to play, compete and contribute at this level,” Doremus said.
“To bring in a guy who isn’t ready, it’s a waste of their time and bad player development. The guys who are here right now we feel are competing for a large role. You have to be smart in the way you build a roster at this level. It’s not just about wins and losses. It’s also about player development. That’s what Junior Hockey is about. But if you’re developing the right mix of guys, the winning will come.”
LOCAL FLAVOR: During their first two years of action the Titans — under Doremus and the organization’s first coach Rich McKenna — identified seven Garden State players of that specific ilk, tapping former team captain Anthony Cusanelli (Holmdel, NJ – CBA), former assistant captain Greg Malafronte (Holmdel, NJ – CBA), current Chicago Steel skater Todd Goehring (Wayside, NJ – Red Bank Catholic), Goehring’s future Sacred Heart University teammate Jordan Kaplan (Bridgewater, NJ – Lawrenceville HS/Salisbury School), Mike Gelatt (Middletown, NJ – St. John Vianney), who is an NAHL Eastern Division rival with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Knights, and Brad Becker (Howell, NJ – Howell HS), who after appearing with the NAHL’s Shreveport Mudbugs a season ago is now the leading scorer for Binghampton Jr. Senators of the NA3HL.
Also on the list of home grown talent to lace up for the Titans is Tyler Antonucci (Saddle Brook, NJ – Bergen Catholic) – a second-year skater for New Jersey who will captain the club in 2017-18 – a fellow North Jersey Avalanche product in Eric Manoukian (Manalapan, NJ), a 1999-born forward in Kyle Jeffers (Old Bridge, NJ) – who scored 123 points (65g, 58a) at St. Joseph’s – Metuchen and had two points in two games for the Titans in 2015-16 – Wade Novak (Oak Ridge, NJ) – another North Jersey Avalanche alum who notched 97 points (68 g, 29a) in three varsity seasons at Jefferson High School – Jimmy Dowd Jr. (Point Pleasant Beach, NJ) and Gavin Gulash (Middletown, NJ).
WHERE THEY STAND: The Titans currently sit in fourth place in the Eastern Division at a record of 4-3-1 through the club’s first eight outings. However, the team has at least two games in hand on each of their divisional rivals, including seven games on the division leading Northeast Generals.
TEAM LEADERS: The Titans are led in scoring by Hunter Alden (9) and Tate Singleton (8), while three skaters have at least five points, including Ryan Wheeler (6), Ryan Naumovski (5) and Antonucci (5).
Alden is the leader in goal scoring with four, and is followed up by Naumovski and Antonucci, who have two apiece.
Singelton and Wheeler have been the best facilitators of offense with six assists each.
UP NEXT: The Titans will welcome a pair of Eastern Division rivals to Middletown Ice World from Oct. 20-22, as the Northeast Generals come to town for a pair ahead of a one-off on Sunday with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Knights.
The weekend will act a homecoming for a handful of Shore hockey stars, as the Generals feature a pair of local defensemen in Ryan Bogan Jr. (Brick, NJ – CBA) and Ryan Rowland (Manahawkin, NJ – Southern Regional), while the Knights will feature a couple of Middletown natives up front in forwards Matt Kidney (St. John Vianney) and Mike Gelatt (St. John Vianney).
Tickets for the events are available on game day at the Middletown Ice World box office.