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Ben Robertson, a junior at Mount St. Charles, is one of the top defenseman on the U16 team, but he’s planning on returning to play on the U18 team and graduate.

WOONSOCKET — Mount St. Charles is already reaping the rewards of playing in the Prep Hockey Conference months before the puck drops for the inaugural game.

The league, which was announced on Twitter on March 15, is bringing together six of the best full-season education-based U18 teams in North America with the goal of helping some of the top midget players in the country earn a high-school diploma before going off to junior hockey.

U18 coach Matt Plante said Mount’s inclusion in the league was a big reason a couple of this season’s top forwards are choosing to come back to school for their senior year instead of finishing school next year while playing junior hockey. Forwards Zach Aben and Ryan O’Connell are both choosing to return for a second U18 season along with former La Salle standout Ethan Cordeiro and Will Lawrence.

“Joining this new prep hockey league is intriguing to these guys.” Plante said. “The reason we collectively came together to form this league is we all have the same vision in kids see value in staying at their respective schools and playing U18 and graduating. You’re not going to keep everyone, but this is an attractive opportunity. You’re going to get tons of exposure against the cream of the crop at this level.”

Aben is already drawing interest from a few Atlantic Hockey and ECAC schools and Plante believes the talented forward will intrigue even more schools when he plays a bigger role on next season’s team along side O’Connell on one of the top two lines.

“It’s too bad that the year has gone the way it has because I think he would have more momentum building toward schools if they had seen him regularly,” Plante said. “I’m not worried about him because I believe he will continue on this incline next year. A month ago he just said he wants to come back and graduate from Mount St. Charles. I think he’s had a good experience and a great year even though we’ve only played 23 games.”

The league features the No. 1 U18 team in the country again this season, Minnesota’s Shattuck St. Mary’s, along with the 2019-20 top U18 team in Canada, St. Andrew’s College, who the Saints defeated to win the 2020 True Prep Cup at Merrimack College. Connecticut’s South Kent Prep, Indiana’s Culvier Academies and New York’s Northwood School make up the rest of the league.

Plante’s squad is in the Eastern Division with South Kent and Northwood, while the other three teams will play in the Western Division. Adelard Arena will host a showcase from Nov. 20-22 where the eastern teams play against the western teams.

“If you want to be in a circle, this is the circle you want to be in at this level,” Plante said. “You’re playing the cream of the crop and it’s going to be a grind every single night.”

The U16 team is loaded with future Division I college players who could make the leap to the USHL next season, but Plante said, as of right now, the team’s elite players are planning on sticking around Woonsocket for another season. Defensemen Ben Robertson, a Cornell commit, and Seth Constance, a Tri-City Storm draft pick, are both planning on returning. Constance is only a sophomore.

Cam O’Neill, who leads the team with 30 points, Jason Stafanek, who has a team-high 18 assists, and Matt Lewis are also expected to be back. Talented goalie Pete Sterling, a Tri-City Storm pick, is also expected to return.

“This is big because if you’re a U16 wavering on whether to come back and play a year of U18 and then play in juniors or just make the jump, kids could decide to stay because the level of competition is high,” Plante said. “We want to have something like this to show those kids that they’re going to be challenged and they’re going to be prepared for when they take the next step.”

SCHEDULE TAKING SHAPE

Even though the new season doesn’t start for another five months, Plante said he only has a couple of weekends open in the 2020-21 schedule. As excited as he was for this season’s schedule – which was decimated by the pandemic – he’s even more excited for a schedule filled with contests against the best teams in the nation.

The U18 team is scheduled to play in the USHL Fall Classic in September before going into Beast Series play against the best split-season teams in the Northeast. The Prep Hockey Conference descends on Adelard for a three-day showcase in November and then the arena will be the venue for another big showcase from Dec. 10-12.

Mid-Am district champion Ohio Jr. Blue Jackets and the Windy City Storm are confirmed participants, while Detroit Little Ceasers, Nichols School, the Long Island Gulls and a team from Sweden are all interested in competing.

The True Prep Cup is the highlight in January. The event, which is moving to Salem, N.H. from Jan. 7-9, also features St. Andrew’s, Shattuck, Northwood, Kimball Union, Culver, Gunnery and Nichols. After that event Plante said the focus shifts to Northeast Pack play and a potential trip to Nationals.

“This schedule is better than last year’s and better than anything we ever had at South Kent,” Plante said. “Going back to the True Prep Cup is going to be great for us. With all of the events that we’re doing, plus the league stuff, it’s a great schedule.”

Follow Branden Mello on Twitter @Branden_Mello

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