Brent Brekke stood in the far corner of Skate Frederick’s front rink during Saturday evening’s Frederick Freeze Empire Junior Hockey League game as far away from the fans as he could get, scribbling notes on his game-day program throughout the contest.
Brekke, the associate head coach and co-recruiting coordinator for the third-ranked Miami (Ohio) Red Hawks, traveled more than five hours Saturday morning from Ohio, to watch one of the Freeze’s players. After the two-and-a-half hour game, he turned his car around and made the trip back.
If it was any other area team playing there that night, would Brekke have been in the building?
“Not a chance,” Freeze Empire coach Derek Comeau said.
After subpar performances the past two seasons and standards for the program dropping well below where the program desired, the Freeze have made a resurgence this season. Through 34 games, the Freeze are tied for second place in the Empire Junior Hockey League (EJHL) and are arguably the top junior program in the state.
The Freeze is a nonprofit organization which was started in 2007 by Comeau and Bob and Mary Russell in an effort to provide high-level hockey without having to travel far. Comeau had the on-ice knowledge, having played and coached in Canada for several years, and the Russells learned how to run the business aspect of the team.
After early success with the program, including a trip to the U.S. National Juniors tournament in March of 2010, Comeau left the program and things started to crumble. In the team’s first season in the Empire Junior Hockey League for the 2010-11 season, Frederick finished in second-to-last place in the 10-team Western Conference with 22 points. Players started considering other options such as the Potomac Patriots Junior Hockey Club and the Washington Junior Nationals.
After that season, Comeau returned and started rebuilding.
Last year, Comeau’s first season back, the Freeze Empire won just six games. But he was able to get some of the better local talent to join the team this season and the Freeze has had an immediate resurgence. The Freeze now field two teams — the EJHL team, a league which had the fourth-most Division 1 signees in 2011, and an Eastern States Hockey League team, which is the Freeze’s developmental team.
“This year, I believe we are the best junior team in the D.C. area,” Comeau said. “And I think we have the best young talent in the area.”
Freeze Empire players don’t just come from Frederick County. One of its top players, Reid Bibb, goes to Gaithersburg High School and plays for the Damascus co-op team. Players also come from Northern Virginia and Pennsylvania. Two of its players — Richard Novodomec and Michal Marcinek — are from Slovakia and live with Marcinek’s aunt in Columbia.
But the core of the team is made up of players from Frederick-area high schools.
Logan Coomes, Ryley Harper, Zach Pard and Ian Soifer play for Oakdale. Nathan Miller and Zach McElroy play for Walkersville. Michael Shearer plays for Urbana and Florian Cotera plays for Middletown.
Of those players, only Miller, Pard and Shearer are seniors in high school. Most of the teams they play are comprised of 19-year-old boys.
Compared to the high school game, there is a definite difference in speed and physicality. The games are also longer — 20-minute periods as compared to 15-minutes — and the ice is cleaned in between periods. In high school play, the ice isn’t cleaned during the game.
Academics still come first. If players don’t maintain a 2.5 grade point average, they can’t play.
“The difference is we come out here and we know we’re going to be playing some of the best kids in the nation so we know we have to step it up,” Pard said. “In high school, you’re going to be playing some good kids, but mostly we’re playing each other so it’s less intense. We don’t want to hurt each other. Out here, it’s a whole different level. You want to go out there and you want to bury the other team.”
Five Freeze Empire players rank in the Top 20 in scoring in the Empire Junior Hockey League.
Coomes, who Miami’s Brekke was focusing on, ranks third in the league with 22 goals and 56 points. He is being looked at by about a dozen schools, Comeau said. Bibb is fourth with 24 goals and 52 points. Cotera is tied for seventh with 18 goals and 48 points. Novodomec is 13th (19, 46). Pard is tied for 20th (25, 40). Bibb is being looked at by Penn State. Cotera is also receiving interest from colleges.
“I get to play with older players and that helps me upgrade my speed and stuff like that,” said Bibb, who plays forward for the Freeze, but defense for Damascus. “I’m moving faster and you have to think faster.”
The Freeze Empire team plays a 40-game regular season, are in the hunt for a playoff spot and also participate in showcases throughout the season. They practice three days a week, learning a system used by several National Hockey League teams. Weekends are often consumed by trips to the Northeastern part of the country to play games.
With so much time and money devoted to the high-level hockey — the fee to play this season was $6,900 and covered all expenses associated with the team — and the rarity of high-school age players receiving offers from Division 1 programs — only one freshman on Miami’s roster is 18, most are 20 and the oldest freshman is 21 — there are those that think playing high school hockey in this area can hurt a player’s chances of acquiring a scholarship because of the risk of injury and the extreme difference in style of play can create bad habits.
“I think high school hockey in this area, the schools don’t recognize it as a high school sport. And this organization, we spend over $200,000 a year to run this organization, so it’s a big deal for us to be successful,” Comeau said. “When you have a player like Logan Coomes and he has scouts here [and] coaches from Division 1 schools watching him, for him to play high school hockey and get into a bunch of bad habits is not good. And not only that, but if he went as hard as he does here in high school hockey, he would hurt kids. ... The pace, you can’t even describe how much faster it is.
“So A, he can get hurt. And B, the pace is so slow it’s hard to get back to this pace. And I don’t care how good of a hockey player you are, it takes some adjustment.”
After a recent Freeze game against the New York Apple Core, a physical 7-1 victory where fights nearly broke out every period, the players left wearing shirts and ties, just how they arrived at Skate Frederick.
It was nearing 11 p.m. and the players would have to be back in the morning to play Apple Core again at 11:20.
Despite the busy schedule, the sacrifices and the physical pain, no player wanted it any different.
“It’s just made me so much better and quicker,” Pard said. “Just my thought process when I get the puck and everything. It’s a great process and I love it. It’s all worth it.”