It’s been five years since Zane Kalemba and Kevin Crane pulled on orange and black jerseys for Princeton hockey. But the pair, along with former Division I players Chris Atkinson, Mike Atkinson, Anthony Yelovich and Luke Popko, still gather every summer to play hockey for the Rockets.
They also play with John Dinorcia, Jim Elia and Tom Wisloff, youth hockey coaches who instructed some of the former Division I players.
“Given the caliber of coaches and all the experiences, we thought that this one summer league team really has a plethora of experience and it comes from all different backgrounds,” Crane said.
In 2014, the group reminisced about growing and playing hockey in New Jersey. With their professional careers over or close to ending, the group wanted to give back to the sport that was so influential in their lives.
“Kevin Crane and I kind of were talking about it for a couple years like we should start something around,” Kalemba said. “There’s so many hockey teams springing up now in the New Jersey area like teams that weren’t here when I was playing youth hockey.”
After discussing the prospect, the group came together to form the D1 Development Group.
“Now that we’re kind of moving on, it’s just kind of a nice way to be able to keep with the game and give back all the things that I was given through it,” Popko said.
Once the idea was formed, Crane took lead on the project. The group filed for an LLC, set up the website and tracked down ice time at the Richard J. Codey Arena in West Orange, N.J.
Along with the on-ice aspect of skill development, the group aims to bring off-the-ice guidance to the organization, which debuts with the Summer Skills Camp. The camp will take place July 13-17, and currently, some staff members also offer private lessons.
For the camp, Option A, which features 10 hours of on-ice instruction at $350, is sold out. Option B, which features 15 hours of on for $500, still has slots available.
The summer camp, meant to be a blend of individual and small group training, features drills to improve stick handling, shooting, skating and more. Each day also features 45 minutes of off-ice instruction for informational sessions on nutritional guidance, junior hockey opportunities and more.
“We’re going to have a lot of off ice agility drills, strength and training, [focus on] that mental part and hopefully bring in a sports physiologist or do things like yoga that I did in junior. … It’s actually a really healthy thing to do off the ice for maintenance for your body just to stay healthy,” Kalemba said.
New Jersey Youth Hockey
The former Division I players have now returned to New Jersey, the home of all the coaches except for Crane. Many of them grew up playing for the New Jersey Devils Youth Hockey Club, the New Jersey Rockets and the New Jersey Avalanche.
“It was I guess a lot smaller, wasn’t nearly as popular [back then],” former Terrier Luke Popko said.
“The quality of hockey I can say has gone up since when we were around here playing youth hockey.”
As youth hockey players, the coaches at D1 Development Group played games and practiced twice a week, but rarely had the extensive training available now.
“We never really had the private instruction, like the 1-on-1 instruction just wasn’t available yet, nobody had really started that until a couple years ago you started seeing it more and more,” Kalemba said.
Still, the players took their youth hockey experience and translated it to junior, Division I and some level of professional hockey.
“We know where all these kids are coming from because we all came form the same spot,” Popko.
“The biggest thing we can offer is our advice different ways they can get to where they want from being just not on the ice just different routes to go about it to their final goal.”
Popko and Chris Atkinson both played for the U.S. National Team Development Program, winning a U-18 tournament. Popko went to Boston University, where he won several trophies – including a National Championship in 2009. Atkinson played at Vermont, and his older brother Mike played at Quinnipiac. Anthony Yelovich, New Jersey’s leading scorer in 2006, played at Sacred Heart.
Crane, who was born in California, moved to the East Coast to play hockey at prep school. He attended Princeton, where he played with Kalemba on the teams that earned an NCAA tournament bid in 2008 and 2009. Kalemba, who holds Princeton’s record for best save percentage in a season, earned the ECAC MVP in 2009.
“We kind of had to figure it out on our own,” Crane said. “Our coaches were there for the hockey portion, but everything outside of that, which places to go, who to talk to, [it] was kind of figure it out as we go. We all thought that if we had someone to help us out with that portion as well as the on ice version, [it] would’ve been tremendously helpful.”
While guidance off the ice was slim, some New Jersey youth players benefitted from having instructors like John Dinorcia, who’s now the coaching and programming director of the New Jersey Devils Youth Hockey Club.
“Guys like John Dinorcia are few and far between, and the two Atkinson brothers who have also played for John, they want to have model themselves after him as a coach and as a mentor,” Kalemba said.
The Atkinson brothers and Yulevich coach for New Jersey Devils Youth Hockey. Crane also coaches, and Popko coached last year. Mike Atkinson is the skills coordinator and lead on-ice instructor for the youth hockey club.
“He’s taken on a really big role with the New Jersey Devils youth hockey and he’s been helping out a lot with the little kids, he’s coaching several different teams and he’s had a lot of responsibility with that,” Crane said. “I think his brother Chris, he’s taking on more responsibility now as well, so he’s had a really good person from our generation to look up to as leading the way for our age group and getting back involved in youth hockey.”
The Next Step
After forming the group, the founders reached out to contacts, turned to Facebook and hung up flyers in local rinks to market the group and summer camp.
Previous coaching experience gives the D1 Development Group a foundation, and the venture has already received positive feedback.
“I think a lot of parents who are new to youth hockey don’t really understand how the system goes, which league do I join, which team do I join, what should I be looking for to get my kids to the next level,” Crane said. “What better resource than first-hand account from kids who’ve done it, who’ve been through the whole thing. They’re pretty happy with the caliber or staff we have on hand so I think generally speaking it’s pretty positive but it’s still very early.”
For now, the founders are focused on the upcoming skills camp.
“Hopefully people will recognize that and they’ll recommend us to friends or family that say hey like this is actually a quality camp,” Kalemba said.
But Crane hopes to turn the D1 Development Group into a big network off the ice. He would like to integrate an after school tutoring program to transition players from school to camp. Crane also hopes to create an internship network for the older participants of the camp.
“I want to differentiate ourselves by the things w do off the ice and I want it to be a really good information resource for kids,” Crane said. “It was difficult for us to know what we should do, what the possibilities were for youth hockey and how far it could take us.
“I want us to have kids understand that hockey, not just specifically hockey but youth sports can be a platform that can really launch you into a great career.”