Formerly known as the Bloomington Thunder, the Central Illinois Flying Aces announced its new name on Aug. 24, 2017 before revealing its new logo, color scheme and jerseys at the Bloomington Labor Day Parade on Sept. 4.
Unlike the teams before it in Bloomington that competed in semi-professional leagues, the Flying Aces are a member of the only Tier 1 junior hockey league in the country, the United States Hockey League (USHL). Comprised of 17 teams divided into a nine-team Eastern Conference and an eight-team Western Conference, the USHL is a gateway to college hockey for a vast majority of the league’s players.
In addition to serving as one of the primary feeding systems for college hockey, the USHL also develops emerging NHL talent. Each June, there are between 30-40 current USHL players who are selected at the NHL Draft. Among those drafted in the 2017 NHL Draft were three players from the then-Thunder: Ben Mirageas, Nick Leivermann and Wyatt Kalynuk, all of whom played for the Thunder during the 2016-17 season. At the 2016 NHL Draft, Mitchell Mattson and Jeremy Davies were both selected, becoming the first two draft selections in team history. Both Mattson and Davies played for the Aces during the 2015-16 campaign. With notable league alumni such as Patrick Sharp, Johnny Gaudreau, and Auston Matthews, among others, the USHL puts its players on the fast track to immediate success at both the college and NHL levels.
WHAT IS JUNIOR HOCKEY?
There are three different tiers of junior hockey in the United States with Tier III being the lowest level of junior hockey and Tier I being the highest level. Tier III includes 10 different leagues, while Tier II is comprised by two leagues (North American Hockey League & NCDC). Tier I is the zenith of junior hockey and its only league is the USHL.
Contrary to many misconceptions, the level of play at the USHL level far exceeds the quality of play at the high school or youth hockey association levels, despite the fact that the teams in the USHL are composed of players of a similar age. Players in the USHL range in age from 16-20-years-old and use junior hockey as a transitionary period from high school or midget hockey to Division I college hockey or the NHL. On average, 95 percent of those who play in the USHL will go on to play college hockey, a vast majority of which make the jump to the Division I level within 1-2 seasons in the USHL.
Although there are a handful of players who verbally commit to college teams before starting in the USHL, many players use the league as a stepping stone to playing college hockey. The USHL provides a level of exposure for players that is unrivaled in the other two tiers of junior hockey. At any given USHL game, there could be multiple college coaches recruiting players in addition to a host of NHL scouts looking for the next potential first-round draft pick.
THE ACES’ IMMEDIATE SUCCESS
Through just three seasons as a member of the USHL, the Aces have already accomplished a host of achievements. The organization won its inaugural game back on Sept. 27, 2014, and the victories, both on and off the ice, have followed suit.
It took just two seasons for the first former Aces player to sign an NHL contract, one of the biggest splashes the team has made since its inception. Jalen Smereck, who played for the Aces during their inaugural season in 2014-15, inked an entry-level contract with the Arizona Coyotes on Oct. 7, 2016. Only a few months later, former Aces defenseman Vince Pedrie signed an NHL contract of his own, an entry-level deal with the New York Rangers following his sophomore season at Penn State University.
Outside of former players signing NHL contracts, the Aces have also had five current or former players get selected in the NHL Draft. At the 2017 NHL Draft, Ben Mirageas, Nick Leivermann and Wyatt Kalynuk were selected, marking the most selections for one NHL Draft in team history. All three were defensemen and played for Central Illinois during the 2016-17 campaign. The year prior, Mitchell Mattson became the first NHL Draft pick in team history, as he was selected by the Calgary Flames in the fifth round, 126th overall at the 2016 NHL Draft in Buffalo, New York. Defenseman Jeremy Davies was selected two rounds later by the New Jersey Devils with the 192nd overall pick.
The Aces have also put together strong results on the ice in the first three seasons, which included their first playoff appearance in just their second season in 2015-16. That year, Central Illinois finished with the fourth-highest point total in the USHL and went on to establish the team record for most wins and points in a season with 36 and 81, respectively. In the playoffs, Central Illinois, the No. 4 seed in the Eastern Conference, upended the top-seeded Cedar Rapids RoughRiders, which had won the Anderson Cup with the highest point total in the USHL during the regular season. The Aces fought back from 1-0 and 2-1 series deficits and then knocked off Cedar Rapids on the road in Game 5 to take the Eastern Conference Semifinals series. In the Eastern Conference Final against the Dubuque Fighting Saints, the Aces again came back from 1-0 and 2-1 series deficits and tied the series at 2-2 with a thrilling, 3-2 overtime victory in Game 4. Dubuque would go on to win Game 5 in Dubuque to take the series, but it didn’t diminish the Aces’ record season and improbable postseason run.
Through three seasons, the Aces have now posted an impressive 90-69-12-9 overall record. To put that into perspective, the Madison Capitols joined the USHL as an expansion team in the same season as Central Illinois and have yet to record a winning season, compiling just a .466 winning percentage in that same time frame. The Aces have finished in the top six of the nine-team Eastern Conference in each of their three seasons, something the Capitols have yet to achieve.
But junior hockey, especially at the USHL level, is about much more than just wins and losses. It’s also about developing the next wave of NCAA Division I and NHL stars. In three seasons, the Aces have aided 25 players in obtaining Division I scholarships. Those players came to Bloomington without a NCAA commitment, but through the immense amount of exposure and access to college programs that the Aces and USHL platforms provide, they were able to secure the opportunity to play for elite level college programs like Boston University, Michigan, North Dakota, Notre Dame, and Wisconsin, among others. At the conclusion of the 2016-17 college season, there were 26 former Aces players at the Division I level.
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