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On Hockey

Junior Bruins helping launch new league

Weston 19-year-old Kyle Nickerson carries the puck during a recent Junior Bruins practice in Marlborough.

Jon Mahoney for The Boston Globe

Weston 19-year-old Kyle Nickerson carries the puck during a recent Junior Bruins practice in Marlborough.

MARLBOROUGH — The goals were all pretty. The last one, a snipe from the near faceoff circle that found the far corner of the net with five seconds left, deserved dinner and a movie.

During a scrimmage Wednesday between two Junior Bruins squads, one from the Eastern Junior Hockey League and the other in the Empire Junior Hockey League, there was more than enough good hockey to go around, with five players already committed to Division 1 college programs.

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But aside from a young girl watching from the upstairs glassed-in area while simultaneously brushing her doll’s hair, there were no eyes peering on Rink 1 at the New England Sports Center. No college coaches on this day. Even ­Peter Masters , the Eastern team’s general manager and head coach, was hard at work in his back-corner office.

There is more coming, though.

With coaches always looking for an extra edge in the age-old recruiting battle between junior hockey programs and the region’s preparatory and Catholic high schools, Masters thinks he finally found it.

“We’re going to try to offer a better level of junior hockey in New England,” Masters said. “Once the elite player makes the decision to go prep school or juniors, let’s call the process 50/50. Prep schools get half of the elite players and we get half of them.

“We’re trying to get something that this half will say, ‘OK, I was leaning this way, but you’re offering something different. So maybe now I’ll lean the other way.’ ”

‘Right now we’re a 14-team league, so we’re going to contract down to an 8-team league . . . We’re trying to offer a better product ’

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Masters is talking about the creation of the US Premier Hockey League, which he hopes will be a level above the EJHL and likely just below — but still competitive with — the US Hockey League, which is seen as attracting the top young amateur players in the country.

The new league is set to begin next fall with four founding organizations — the Junior Bruins, South Shore Kings, Jersey Hitmen, and Islander Hockey Club — that will create new teams, separate from their respective EJHL squads.

Four to six additional teams are expected to be added before September, with some from new ownership groups.

With the Junior Bruins sitting at 15-5 and first place in the EJHL’s Northern Division through Friday, and the Jersey Hitmen at 16-5 and atop the Southern Division — familiar spots for two of the most successful programs in the circuit — parity among the league’s teams is becoming harder to maintain.

By involving the best programs, the new league should become much more competitive, adding value to every game and enticing the next NHL prospect in the market to to boost his development.

“Right now we’re a 14-team league, so we’re going to contract down to an 8-team league,” said Masters, who has been with the Junior Bruins for 15 years after four-year career at Boston College.

“That’s six teams, times 20 players — that’s 120 players less, at the bottom end, that will be participating at our top level. We’re trying to offer a better product where they stay at home.

“The kid says, ‘I’m going to Waterloo or Omaha,’ ” two of the US Hockey League organizations in the Midwest, Masters said, “and they’re close. But now they see we went from 14 to 8 teams. These are better games. This is more than what you offered before.”

The new league is expected to have the same cost — somewhere near $9,000 — and provide the same ice time — 70 games and 100 practices — for its players as the EJHL.

But St. Mark’s School coach Scott Young , a two-time Stanley Cup champion (Penguins, 1991; Avalanche, 1996) who has been honing his recruiting skills since taking over at his alma mater in Southborough two years ago, sticks by his long-standing motto: If you’re good enough, they’ll find you.

“Honestly it didn’t concern me any more than I already am,” Young said of the US Premier Hockey League. “There are selling points on both sides. Our main point, which I think it kind of makes sense to everyone, is one thing any hockey player that knows anything about hockey will say: If you’re good enough, you’ll make it whatever route you take.

“That’s the one thing that’s overlooked by a lot of parents. They think there’s a faster route. If the kid is good enough, he’s good enough.”

One of the longstanding pulls for junior hockey is cost, which is about $30,000 cheaper than many prep schools. St. Mark’s day tuition is $39,225 for the current school year, and $49,130 for boarding students.

Kyle Nickerson played at Weston High as a ninth- and 10th-grader before skating for the Boston Advantage midget team, and eventually found his way to the Junior Bruins after high school. He works twice a week mixing concrete and doing heavy lifting with his dad, Larry , at M.F. Construction to help his parents with his junior hockey price tag.

“My parents didn’t have the money to ship me off to prep school,” said Nickerson, a small but slippery 5-foot-9, 162-pound center who has committed to Dartmouth College.

“It’s a different route and it works for different people.

“I look at it like I have to spend two years less in the real world. I wasn’t ready to go to college right after high school. It was nice having a year off. It lets you mature a little bit. I’m ready to go now.”

But the big piece of the junior hockey explosion that will give prep and Catholic school coaches headaches is the recruitment of players at a younger age.

“I think that raised my eyebrow a little bit more,” Young said. “They’re getting the kids in the pipeline a little bit younger. They’re doing the U-16 teams and adding the younger programs.

“I think that’s an effort to get them into the junior pipeline and hopefully they’ll stay there, which isn’t going to happen with every kid. Kids will want to do that and still go to prep school. It all depends on the kid.”

Full slate on Sunday

The fifth annual Garrett Reagan Hockey Summit is taking take place Sunday at the New England Sports Center, with 60 boys’ and girls’ high school teams playing a round of exhibition games.

“It’s always a really good event,” said the Marlborough facility’s general manager, Wes Tuttle . “The place is always packed.”

The games start at 11 a.m. Among local teams, Waltham plays Newton North at 11:10 and Framingham takes on Xaverian at 11:30. A full schedule is posted under “Other events” at www.nes.com.

Jason Mastrodonato can be reached at jasonmastrodonato@yahoo.com.
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