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UNITED STATES PREMIER HOCKEY LEAGUE

Mesa’s Bjella winning big with USPHL Premier’s Whalers By Joshua Boyd/USPHL.com

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here are a lot of benefits to being in Arizona around the holidays, and Mesa native Blake Bjella takes advantage of all of them. “It’s not snowy, not white, but I’ve gotten used to it not being so cold,” Bjella said. “It’s nice to have Christmas dinner outside and enjoy it with the family.” He also got in some rounds of golf during the holiday break, with Las Sendas Golf Club being a hometown favorite. The rest and recreation were well-deserved, because prior to the Dec. 17 start of the two-week break, Bjella was a workhorse in goal for the Hampton Roads (Va.) Whalers, a top team in the Tier III junior USPHL Premier Division. In the 2018 portion of the season, the 1998-born Bjella went 13-0 for the Whalers. He had three shutouts during that time, and then added one more when he returned to action in the Boston area for the USPHL Winter Showcase. The Whalers had a start that few in the 51-team Florida-to-Minnesota USPHL Premier Division enjoyed, as they stand at 30-2-1-0. The defending Premier champion Whalers went undefeated between last Feb. 17 through last year’s playoffs and into Nov. 4 of this year. “I knew Hampton Roads had a good winning tradition, and it’s obviously fun to win,” said Bjella. “I have a lot of good things to say about playing for Hampton Roads, especially their will to make you better. They

He had played goal a little bit before that season want to make you a better player and a better person.” In terms of making Bjella a better goaltender, but became serious about it in Arizona. he feels like he has an edge on other goalies in the “Even after I started playing goal, I still switched off league because of the offensive talent on his team. He and skated out sometimes,” said Bjella. He joined the Phoenix Firebirds youth program is facing hard shots every day from players such as the league’s leading scorer and Utica College commit and remained there until he turned 17. From there, he played two 18U seasons with Brandon Osmundson, who had the Arizona Bobcats organiza27 goals and 74 points in 37 tion, which gave the world Ausgames this season. ton Matthews. “We have such a talented “I grew up in the house team and we push each other,” league and worked my way up Bjella said. “They don’t take any breaks on me at all, which makes to AAA,” said Bjella. “With the our games easier, for sure.” Firebirds, it was good for me as a goalie because I saw a ton of USPHL Premier playoffs will shots. The Bobcats run a great begin for most divisions in Janorganization. It’s just run the uary, and the Whalers hope to right way, and everyone wants pull off the repeat championship to play.” and make it their third title in four After his 19-year-old year years. playing in a different Tier III juBjella first started playing nior league, Bjella found a home goal when he was 13 years old, back with the Williston (N.D.) Mesa native Blake Bjella has seen his game go to in Hampton Roads this season. Coyotes in the state of his birth. a new level this season with the USPHL’s Hampton He saw some of the teams he It was shortly after that 13-year- Roads Whalers. Photo/Stephen Spencer/Action Photography hadn’t seen before at the USold year that the Bjella family relocated to Arizona. PHL Winter Showcase and took his first loss there. “It was just a change for the family,” Bjella said. That was a preview of what the USPHL Premier Na“You obviously can’t beat the weather, and there are a tionals back in Massachusetts March 8-10 might be lot of things to do. I love being outside, and you can’t like, but the Whalers must keep winning like they have beat that.” this season to get there.

USPHL.com

Bobcats’ new Tier II teams finding immediate success Their biggest success so far has been bringing home a championship banner from the Pittsburgh Winter Classic tournament in early December. In four games, 10 of the team’s 15 skaters scored goals, with 12 players recording points. Gloyd and Carter Newlin each totaled three goals in the tournament, while Ihling and Steinman each tallied two

playdowns in February and March. That’s the top of the hill that we’re trying to reach.” he Arizona Bobcats have been a program under The 14U Tier II team is coached by Dillon Shafconstruction this season, but it’s not only their fer, Jeff Alexander and Cameron Corley. Its roster new home at Ice Den Chandler that has changed. includes Erich Florence, Hudson Wernle, BrenThe Bobcats have also added Tier II teams at the don Wingler, Marcello Lane, Kelly Carroll, Isaac 16U and 14U levels, and they’re off to a strong start Yurkanin, Micahlind Pelletier, Hayden Stott, representing the program at the Tier II level. Ethan Jim, Preston Farr, Logan Tinney, Tim Newlin, the head coach of the BobConnor Perdue, Jackson Dow, Ajay Schilcats’ new 16U Tier II team, said the program ler, Jackson Binazeski, Matthew Duffy, was able to add teams at that level this seaRyan Jim and Ryan Caputo. The squad was son for the first time because interest has injust 2-8 as the calendar flipped to 2019 but creased and there were finally enough players was seeing some marked improvement. to field full squads. While the 14U team didn’t get off to as “Both teams are a work in progress, and strong a start as the program’s older Tier II with the Bobcats the focus has always been squad, it has made the types of strides in playon development first, but it has been nice to er development that portend positive things to see them be successful to start the season,” come. Newlin said. “If the development is coming, “That’s what it’s all about – developing then success in the form of winning games these kids’ skills at this age,” Shaffer said. “It’s usually follows.” all about building that foundation to build on. The Bobcats’ 16U team entered January That’s where we have placed our emphasis. It’s with a 15-7-2 record with an 8-2-1 mark and more of a long-term mindset – the focus is on a third-place standing in the Arizona Amateur The Arizona Bobcats’ 16U AA team celebrates its division championship at the preparing them for playing 16U hockey. We try recent Pittsburgh Winter Classic. Hockey Association. Coached by Newlin and to stay away from the cliché ‘peak by Saturday’ assistant Brett Manning, the squad includes for- lamp-lighters. approach that puts so much importance on winning wards Quentin Kennicker, Austin Gloyd, Kellen “A lot of these kids on the two teams knew each games. Nickel, Nicolas DelliBovi, Christopher Vo, Jon- other, but had never really played together before,” “Each drill we do in practice is selected based athan Gualtiere, NJ Warshaw, Noah Steinman, Newlin said. “So it took us some time as coaches to on the skills we want these kids to be learning, and Chase Keating, Carter Newlin and Tyler Ihling; evaluate strengths and weakness and for the kids to we’re always looking 2-3 years down the road. Bedefensemen Spencer Craig, Samuel Stipe, Ben learn about each other and slowly become a team. cause of that, the ultimate gauge of success is not Warshaw, Dylan DeLisle, Jonathan Ellwanger, “Winning the tournament in Pittsburgh has defi- necessarily wins and losses. It can seem a little Brad Hughes and Connor Manning; and goalies nitely been a highlight of our season so far, but our thankless at times because you really don’t see the Hayden Manning and Tristan Konieczny. main goal is to really be playing at our best for the fruits of your labor until years down the road.” By Greg Ball

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