FORT WAYNE – Its 3 oclock on an afternoon as gray as naval turrets, and the boys are starting to drift in again. Their neckties are cinched tight, more or less. Their gear is piled by the door. Their ride, a gray van, sits outside, back doors thrown open.
Time to go to work. More or less.
On this night its a road trip to Flint for the Fort Wayne Federals, the citys first-year junior hockey team, and its the last road trip of the year. After this the season is done; the Federals finished 13-30 in the Great Lakes Junior Hockey League – a junior B league for 16- to 20-year olds, one rung below the top level for juniors – and wound up fifth in the GLJHL West, one spot out of the playoffs.
Not bad for an expansion franchise that landed here because coach Kevin Shupenia, a juniors veteran who coached the Chicago team in the GLJHL to a national title a couple years back, wanted to launch a new franchise and saw one site that jumped out at him.
I looked at Madison (Wis.) and Indianapolis and then I looked at Fort Wayne, and hands down chose Fort Wayne, just because of the level of interest in hockey here, Shupenia says.
Shupenia is an Edmonton, Alberta, native who moved to Chicago when he was 20 to play junior hockey and drifted into coaching – first youth hockey, then juniors – from there.
It baffles me that there hasnt been a junior team here, Shupenia goes on. So this was a chance to basically come to an underserved area and give kids an opportunity at a higher level, so they dont have to move somewhere to do that.
In keeping with that, nine players on Shupenias roster are from Fort Wayne, including leading scorer Kyle Howell, a 5-foot-10, 165-pound forward who just turned 18 on Feb. 15. He was tied for 19th in the league in scoring going into the Flint trip with 23 goals and 47 points.
The only other Federal in the top 25 in the league in scoring is 6-4, 175-pound defenseman Patrick Byskiniewicz from Chicago, with 18 goals and 44 points.
Like all the Federals, they get their first taste of hockey-as-a-business at this level, minus the paycheck. They sign contracts with their teams. They, yes, wear neckties on the road.
Its the same rules as the pros, says Byskiniewicz, whos 20. Id say after high school and travel hockey, its the level right before college. Its faster, theres a lot of big guys, a lot of hitting. Were allowed to fight and stuff, so its basically playing professionally.
Like nearly all the Federals, Byskiniewiczs hockey trajectory is pretty standard. He started playing when he was 4, played on his first team at 7, moved on to travel hockey and double-A hockey and started playing juniors right out of high school.
This is my third year of juniors, he says. So I kind of know the ropes now.
Its a little different for Howell, who also moved up the usual ladder – house league to double-A and so on – and then got his shot at juniors when Shupenia sent him an e-mail asking him to play for the Federals.
It just kind of fell in my lap, he says. But Ive loved every minute of it. My goal is to use this year as a learning experience for next year and make a junior A team.
Playing in the GLJHL might give him a leg up on that, Shupenia says. Junior hockey is divided into three tiers; the USHL is a Tier I league, the North American league is Tier II and then there are a number of Tier III leagues.
Thats where the GLJHL is situated.
Were probably as good as some of the A leagues out West, but not as good as others, Shupenia says. Its a very competitive league, though. Theres some teams in our league that would probably be very competitive at the next level up. In my opinion, they started really as a developmental junior hockey league and really thats what its been with the younger guys exposing them to junior hockey and helping them move up the ladder.
As for Shupenia, he likes the rung hes on right here.
I love it, he says. Theyre 16- to 20-year-olds, so I get to be 16 to 20 every September to March. I absolutely love it. Im blessed to be able to do this, really.