Southern New Hampshire: Hotbed of College Advancement
Updated: Dec 10, 2019
Southern New Hampshire is known for its winding roads and idyllic rural landscape. In the fall, people flock to this area to soak in the colorful show of autumn leaves, in addition to the peaceful landscape.
Over the past 15 years, autumn has also become a time when college-bound hockey players flock to this area in anticipation of working toward a league title and an opportunity to play NCAA varsity ice hockey as clustered tightly together are three of the nation’s top programs for NCAA Division II/III advancement.
Within a stone’s throw of a 25-mile stretch of Interstate 93, just north of the Boston beltway, sits Cyclones Arena, home of the Northern Cyclones, Tri-Town Arena, home of the New Hampshire Junior Monarchs, and the Ice Den, home of the New Hampshire Avalanche. The Monarchs and Avalanche are actually fewer than three miles apart.
While it would make for a great story to say that the recipe for success is in the water in the nearby Merrimack River, the truth lies more in a less dramatic combination of experience, hard work, and skill.
This past year the three organizations led the country in terms of advancement to NCAA Division II and III schools. The Avalanche, guided by Chris Cerrella, was the top-producing team with 13 advancements. The Monarchs, led by Ryan Frew, and the Cyclones, led by Bill Flanagan, were the top programs with 17 total advancements among their college-bound teams.
Over the past five years, Cerrella-guided teams lead the nation with 71 total advancements while the Cyclones and Monarchs are Nos. 5-6 with 59 and 57, respectively. Last year was not a flash in the pan, rather the epitome of what has become business as usual for this part of the country.
Brothers Bill and Joe Flanagan were toiling in the family insurance industry around the turn of the century when they caved to the hockey development desire that always ate at them. Bill graduated from RPI in 1990 after steady a four-year career on the ice while Joe was a high-scoring player at New Hampshire before becoming a two-time all-star in the then-East Coast Hockey League from 1992-94.
The game was in their blood. They were coaching at their alma mater, Austin Preparatory School (Mass.) when the Northern Cyclones (originally the Northern Mass Cyclones) were born in 2002.
“I think Joe and I had a desire just to be in the game,” said Bill Flanagan. “Both of us had chances to coach in college but we decided to make an investment in this program. We wanted to do it our way and teach and develop players our way.”
The Cyclones skated out of the Ice Hut in Dracut, Mass., from 2002-06, which may have been the coldest ice arena on planet Earth back then, starting with a split-season midget team, a full-season bantam team and a mite team on which Bill’s oldest daughter, Kali, played. Kali has become the Cyclone's most famous alumni having captured the Olympic Gold Medal with Team USA at the 2018 games in South Korea. She sandwiched her Gold Medal season between a four-year career at Boston College.
The Cyclones Junior program started in 2003-04 as a provisional member of the Atlantic Junior Hockey League and quickly established itself as a top program both in wins and advancing players to higher levels of play.
The University of Maine helped fuel the Flanagans’ confidence that they were on the right path. “In 2005 Maine recruited Brett Carriere directly from our program when we were still playing in the Ice Hut,” said Flanagan. “(Then Maine assistant coach) Grant Standbrook sat down with us and talked about college players and what they expect. Joe and I both had experience playing at that level and we knew what kind of player we wanted to develop. That was really the start of our model.”
Flanagan gives more credence to the overall development aspect of his program than he does his networking ability. “We have a consistent approach to this. We have players who come here as unknowns and leave here as college hockey players,” said Flanagan. “I’m not going to promote a player unless I firmly believe he has the character and skill set to compete at that level.”
“That’s what the (NCAA coaches) appreciate the most from us. We’re consistent with trying to make our players better. They want to recruit our players because they are ready to play when they leave. They are challenged and pushed and ready to step in and make an impact on a college team. We have gained that reputation, which helps, but that’s the result of doing things right over a lot of years.”
In 2006 the Flanagans took on an investment partner and built Cyclones Arena in Hudson, N.H., and the program took off. The Cyclones captured AJHL titles in 2007-08 and 2008-09 while becoming one of the top-producing programs in terms of college advancement.
In 2013 the Junior world got turned upside down on the East Coast when the Eastern Junior Hockey League disappeared overnight and the Eastern Hockey League was born as a combination of former AJHL and EJHL teams. Two more league titles followed for the Cyclones (2013-14 and 2014-15) while Flanagan ascended to the position of Chairman of the Board of Directors for the EHL.
About that time both Flanagans had daughters playing at the National Sports Academy in Lake Placid and it solidified the vision for the Cyclones. “Seeing the NSA program and knowing we could create a program with some of that structure was the cementing piece of where I wanted to go with our program, said Flanagan. “By moving toward an academy program, where our players do online schooling, we have more of an influence on them than just practice each day. We can do so much more with them at our facility because we have them all day long between hockey and school.”
In 2016 the Junior world on the East Coast got slightly overturned again when Flanagan’s Cyclones, the New Hampshire Junior Monarchs, and four other teams left the EHL and joined the USPHL. As part of that process both the Cyclones and Monarchs eventually ended up with tuition-free National Collegiate Development Conference (NCDC) squads.
Thought it all the plan and execution haven’t changed for the Cyclones. Despite being just down the road from their top competition Flanagan sticks to his guns. “I’ve maintained through all the years it’s more about who you are and what you do. It’s not relevant what other programs are doing if we worry about our own program and consistently work at it.”
Ryan Frew is in his 16th season with the New Hampshire Junior Monarchs, where he has been the head coach and general manager of the Junior program since 2012.
Frew inherited the status of the top dog when longtime Monarchs leader Sean Tremblay left for the Islanders Hockey Club, which incidentally is just down the road from the Cyclones program. The Monarchs have been skating out of Tri-Town Arena in Hooksett, N.H. since 2001 and the franchise was a charter member of the EJHL.
Over the years the Monarchs developed a championship-caliber program with an impressive list of alumni and the franchise didn’t miss a beat when Frew took over the reins. As the head coach of the former Empire Junior Hockey League team, Frew captured one of the four Monarch USA Hockey national championships in 2012 before moving up to the top spot.
Frew guided the EJHL team for one season before that league exploded and he made a smooth transition to the EHL where he led the Monarchs to the 2016 league championship. In 2016 the Monarchs made the jump to the USPHL and through all the league turmoil Frew never missed a beat with college advancements or the caliber of a player wearing the purple and gold sweaters.
The Monarchs secret is not such a secret – recruit players who are willing to put in the effort. But to go along with that Frew is a master at utilizing all every tool at his fingertips whether it’s inside Tri-Town Arena or the people in the Hooksett area. Even as far as leaning on his dad, Jerry, who is a high school administrator, as the Monarchs’ academic advisor.
“It’s kind of the intangibles that make us successful,” said Frew. “I think we’ve followed a blueprint that focuses as much on the off-the-ice product as the on-ice. It goes beyond finding the players.”
“We are one of the only organizations in the league that has a fan base, and many of those people are our billet families. It would be hard to do what we do without those families. I think we have the best off-ice program around with the gym right in our facility. We offer academic aid (tutoring) and a good academic program. We don’t just ask, ‘Are you a good hockey player?’ but ‘Are you a good hockey player and have the ability to be a well-rounded student-athlete with academics and commitment to off-ice?’”
In 2018 the Monarchs began to play in the NCDC which meant a new business and operational model after 16 years of doing only pay-to-play hockey. In true Frew fashion, the Monarchs didn’t miss a beat as 17 players advanced directly to NCAA roster spots – 11 from the NCDC team, five from the Premier Junior team and one from the 18U AAA team.
“Our U16, U18, and Premier players have had the opportunity to play or practice with NCDC team in some capacity,” said Frew. “That’s a really important part of our make-up. The players, and more so the parents, see that as a great opportunity. We’re actually really happy with the retention of the players who fall just short of making the NCDC team. We market it as you’re playing for the organization and there is an opportunity to move up and down but we also walk the walk when it comes to that process.”
Frew has also capitalized on the USPHL affiliate structure, which assigns a handful of Premier teams to each NCDC team. “This year we’re affiliated with Columbus and the Minnesota Blue Ox,” said Frew. “We’ve tendered players and they come out and skate with us during the season. We utilize those relationships more so than the NA (North American Hockey League) and NA3HL. Those are guys who are going to come in and be involved in the system and be productive when they play. They are not just propaganda numbers. If you have a good relationship with an affiliate it benefits both teams.”
Regardless of what changes are made to the league or overall Junior structure in the future, there is no doubt the Frew-led Monarchs will not only adapt but use any changes to their advantage.
Chris Cerrella has a bit more of a blue-collar edge to his personality and his approach to the game of college advancements, which has served him well over the past 14 years.
A native of Long Island, N.Y., Cerrella grew up in a tight-knit Italian family playing for some of the storied New York Applecore teams of the early 1990s. His on-ice abilities made him a two-time 20-goal scorer in the United States Hockey League for the Waterloo Black Hawks (1995-97) before heading to Quinnipiac University where he burst onto the scene by scoring a school-record 32 goals as a freshman in 1997-98.
His Quinnipiac time was during that school’s transition to NCAA Division I and his four-year career resulted in an induction to the school’s Hall of Fame in 2010. After school, he played professionally for three seasons in the United Hockey League and the pre-cursor to what is now the Southern Professional Hockey League.
Along the way, Cerrella had a son and realized it was time to hang up the skates and settle down, which for him meant coaching. He ended up as the assistant at Wentworth in 2004-05 where he leveraged that experience probably more than any other Junior coach on the planet.
“I think the Wentworth experience was huge because I spent that year recruiting players for the Division III level,” said Cerrella. “I was in the same place as the college coaches I communicate with today to send them players. I know what they’re looking for.”
The blue-collar work ethic was vital in the beginning and it reinforced Cerrella’s commitment to that approach. “Players always seem to chase a label so every kid who plays Junior or prep all want to play Division I hockey, said Cerrella. “So when you’re a Division III recruiter you get way more ‘no’ than ‘yes’ answers. I was battle-tested at the Division III level. The majority of that job was recruiting. I learned there how hard recruiting actually was.”
In 2005 Walpole Express owner Rob Barletta was looking for a new head coach for his Atlantic Junior Hockey League expansion franchise. He found a good fit in Cerrella. “Right away our team wasn’t very good. I think we were a couple of wins above last place and still managed six or seven college commitments.”
After three years in Walpole Cerrella headed to Cromwell, Conn., where he served as head coach and general manager of the Hartford Jr. Wolfpack from 2011-17 and where he solidified his pipeline from Juniors to NCAA Division II and III with a simple and repeatable recipe.
“First we want inspired student-athletes,” said Cerrella. “Over the years we’ve had a lot of kids who had poor grades and we’ve gotten them into college and they graduated by working on their game and their grades while in Junior. Good grades help but I’m really looking for that player who is inspired to get better on and off the ice and be a student-athlete.”
“Second I spend a lot of time talking to college coaches,” Cerrella continued. “If you ask anyone at the Division II and III levels, I am constantly talking to them. Either as friends or college coach-to-junior coach. You have to constantly stay in contact with them. If you don’t you’ll fall out of touch. Just like in Junior recruiting where I’m constantly in touch with prospective players, if you’re not out in front of these coaches constantly it will affect your ability to place players.”
In 2017 Cerrella took a chance with former Boston Junior Ranger head coach Mario Martiniello, who had just purchased the Ice Den in Hooksett, and for the second time became the head coach and general manager of an expansion Junior franchise. Except for this time he had 12 years of experience and success to lean on, in addition to a competitive owner – and fellow fiery Italian – who was more than committed to providing a top-notch environment.
The success was immediate and almost stunning in the pay-to-play world. Not only did the Avalanche capture the EHL playoff crown in its first two years but sent 18 and 13 players directly to NCAA Division II and III teams, respectively.
Much like Frew and Flanagan, Cerrella doesn’t pay a lot of attention to what other teams are doing around the Avalanche. There is enough to worry about with one organization, billeted players, travel, home life, etc.
“I respect both those organizations and Billy and Ryan,” said Cerrella. “But I had no reservations in coming up here to run a program no matter who was already up here. You can’t worry about that. You worry about what you do. I have enough confidence in my own skills and Mario as an owner. He gave us all the amenities and resources that are needed to be successful.”
Despite what these three operators say, the competition among organizations and leagues always results in a positive for the players. The harder each organization works to provide a player environment and to advance players to college, the better it is for prospects.
Jeff Nygaard is the editor of The Junior Hockey Podcast. He covers Junior and college-bound hockey as a traditional “beat,” in addition to breaking news stories during the course of the year
He has a vast amount of experience on the business and organizational side of the sport as a former owner-operator of two Junior organizations and two youth clubs and has served as executive director or commissioner of the Eastern Hockey League and the United States Premier Hockey League.
A Fergus Falls, Minn., native, Nygaard grew up playing for the Fergus Falls Youth Hockey Association, Fergus Falls High School, Fergus Falls Community College and North Dakota State University programs. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org for questions, story ideas, and anonymous tips.