Burrillville, RI – If there is one thing that has become a universal truth about hockey: it’s the fact that there is no offseason. Regular season play for high schoolers, juniors and even the pros are supplemented with skill camps, tournaments, evaluation camps, and of course, split season hockey. The split season model has grown significantly in the New England region which is where many players in Prep school hockey spend the weeks leading up to their seasons instead of at their respective schools, but there is now an alternative that launched last season for local players and parents.
Peak Performance Prep (PPP) is a radical departure from the existing split season model that was founded by longtime Owners of the RI Hitmen and now Broncos Hockey Club: Chris Jones and Steve Kauffman. Last year the two launched PPP with an On-Campus Series that ran throughout the fall and featured the participation of four Prep schools: Pomfret, Portsmouth Abbey, Williston-Northampton and Winchendon. We covered this event last year on the first weekend in October for the launch of the Campus Series at Winchendon and were impressed with what we saw. The games were competitive and the event was very well organized. We will be back again this year to see more teams this fall playing at more venues. But before the Labor Day Weekend kickoff of their schedule, we thought it would be a good time to catch up with Chris for an in-depth look at the league, why it was formed and what is on the horizon for PPP.
Neutral Zone: Let’s start off with an easy question – what is PPP?
Chris Jones: I think the easiest way I can describe it is what we wrote for the About section of our new TV station, WSBN:
Peak Performance Prep (PPP) is a new and exciting Fall Prep League. It is dedicated to providing Prep players and families with an experience that allows players to enjoy the Prep School life while playing competitive hockey with their school teammates. PPP emphasizes promoting their players on a platform that will give them an opportunity to continue to pursue hockey beyond Prep School at the Junior and College levels. Our commitment is and always will be putting our players’ needs first and our approach will always utilize a players first mentality. PPP also works closely with Prep Schools and Coaches to ensure that their teams and players are prepared for the Winter season. PPP is Fall Hockey “The Prep Way!”
NZ: With that in mind, what were your goals in starting PPP?
CJ: That’s a simple answer: I wanted it to be a better experience for the players and families. That means from a scheduling standpoint, the competition, travel etc. Split season had presented some consistent challenges over the years and it really wore on us as it was hard to be who we wanted to be when things were not in our control. We were looking to create something that would allow families to plan for the entire fall before the season even began. That was the beginning of us deciding to go in a different direction.
For the initial 4 coaches, it all lined up. We wanted the kids to be together with less travel and be on campus more: we fulfilled that and will continue to. This year, each team will play 17 games, aside from some unique circumstances with some schools. We knew that we were going to have to be flexible as each school has their own set of circumstances and rules. Following our Labor Day kickoff, each team will have one weekend off and then will play every weekend the rest of the Fall. The players will have more time to enjoy prep life, go to dances or go out with the boys to build that chemistry. I’m not worried about the hockey itself, there are very good players on these rosters. We’re just going to focus on the experience: we put the players first. We operate with more freedom and enjoyment, we are in control of the successes and failures. We didn’t know how to go from point A to point B when we started, but now we do. The one constant is we were always pushing for whatever the next step would be. We are not accepting where we are at and we never will; always forward.
NZ: You mentioned having more teams this year, who will be participating in PPP?
CJ: After an incredible inaugural season with our 4 founding members, we shifted to expansion. A month later we were on a Zoom call with a dozen Prep coaches. We presented fact sheets and itineraries that spelled out “Here’s why we’re doing this”, and “Here’s what it can do” – any feedback was appreciated. Schools that weren’t interested still gave us feedback and pinpointed things to think about. Some of the coaches were onboard from the moment we hung up the phone, that’s what we were focusing on to get started in Year 1. We started with four schools to prove the model to the other coaches (Pomfret, Portsmouth Abbey, Williston and Winchendon). We had worked with all four programs when building our RI Hitmen split season teams starting in 2015-16 and we told ourselves “Well, we can do that” i.e. creating our own league. We helped get a number of players to those schools and now we can help the schools out in return. Those are strong relationships and that core helped build this into what it is now.
This year we started with the Founders League teams. From Hotchkiss, Coach Mike Doyle was one of our first phone calls, he liked the way we handled the players in Year 1. Taft jumped in as well, there was nothing but positive conversations and support there – they jumped in early. For Choate, Coach Jesse Minneman was in a unique situation; this was an opportunity to create his own culture at a prestigious prep school. We are thrilled to have those big adds this year. We are looking forward to getting to know the coaches even better too. Former Head Coach Billy Rivellini, prior to leaving Brewster, reached out to us after our initial Zoom call, he set us up to bring the team onboard and current Coach, Connor Bates, has given us nothing but his full support. He recognized this was a good opportunity to play against bigger schools to see what they could do. From Hoosac, Zach Cappelli coached there at age 24 and he was recently hired as the new Coach at Portsmouth Abbey. Zach has been a tremendous help with putting everything together for year 2. Hoosac was always on our radar and the conversations with Coach Brett Welsh were positive as well. This is a good opportunity for them to play with the big boys and show how competitive they are.
This is our first year playing with affiliates and going from 10 teams to 12 gave us more schedule flexibility. I’ve been friends with ROCO Hockey Director Matt Garver for a long time, he approached me and said “I like the affiliate idea, let’s make this happen.” They are a big name to add to PPP and it will benefit both the program and the kids. I was later introduced to George Haviland with the NJ Titans and had good conversations with him. His team will be mostly players from Lawrenceville coming to play in PPP. This is an opportunity to play new and different prep schools for those players, it’s something they haven’t experienced. We also set things up geographically so they play most games in the West region to cut down on travel.
We also have added a Broncos Hockey Club team: it’s a team made up of kids who wanted to play, but their schools weren’t onboard. They reached out and asked to be a part of this. We didn’t anticipate it, but it was cool that it happened. That extra piece really speaks to our core values and we anticipate a tremendous amount of interest in this team for years to come.
NZ: What do you expect to be the differences between last year and this year for you?
CJ: Most definitely the broadcasting element with WSBN, who has created our own TV station which will broadcast the games and do it in a way that has never been done. In the games I am looking forward to seeing more school pride which is super cool. That’s the part that keeps this away from being a typical split season game; this is your school, your brothers, your teammates – it matters. It will build over time and there will be a change in thought process, especially with the coaches we have, which include assistants from 9 colleges (Amherst, Bowdoin, Colby, Curry, Tufts, Trinity, Johnson and Wales, Worcester State and Albertus Magnus). We have always emphasized coaching and are excited to see what this staff can do to help the players chase their dreams and come together as a group. The level of competition and school pride will prosper. Remember when we talked last year and you told me: “This looks like a February game” – that’s what we are shooting for.
We want to get away from all the horrific habits that players develop during split season. When I was running those split season teams I would ask players: “Guys, are you going to show up 15 minutes before a game in the winter? OK, then why do it now?” Isn’t the fall’s primary purpose to prepare you for your own season? That’s what we have lost sight of in our opinion. Our feelings are that in the next few years, the PPP teams will have an edge provided by being together for the entire fall. Once we start to see improved success from the PPP teams in the winter, that’s when we will feel like we’ve accomplished something positive.
NZ: What does this opportunity mean for the schools, players and families participating?
CJ: It puts players in the best position to be successful. We seek to cement trust in the families taking on a new venture, so they don’t have to wonder how it’s going to work. They can see all of it, we are being transparent. I wrote a thank you to all of these families last year, they were all spectacular. They knew this was new, they were communicative. I’ve been coaching split season hockey for 15 years: yet, I’ve never received more texts, calls and voicemails than this past year. Check out the testimonials on our website:
“I am so grateful for all that you have done with Fall hockey this year. It is revolutionary!” -Cheryl
“Please add my husband & I to the list of parents that thought your Peak Performance Prep fall season was fabulous. Thank you for all of your attention to even the smallest details! Wishing you continued success with it.” -Cathy
Others told me separately – “I wish I had something like this when I was in school” and “You’re changing the prep world”. The parents didn’t have to do that. Most parents don’t like split season, it’s not convenient for them at all. This is a different approach and we are going to keep refining it based on the feedback we are hearing. We want to hear that we made a difference in these players, parents and families’ lives.
NZ: So, what’s next for PPP?
CJ: Really, I’m so focused on this year and making sure the next 3 months go the way they should go, that I’m not looking too far ahead. Now is important, if this goes the way we want it to go, that’s where we will see success. Fortunately, the new Prep coaches spoke with the founding member coaches to get their feedback. They bought in because of the success we had last year. I’m not interested in making this thing as big as it can possibly be. We want to make this as good as it can be now and then see where it takes us.
Our thanks to Chris Jones for making himself available to fill us in on PPP! If you want to catch the action, tune in via WSBN on their website OR you can watch the opening Labor Day Weekend games in person beginning on Friday, September 1 at Levy Rink in Burrillville, RI and RI Sports Center in North Smithfield, RI.