Subscribe for 33¢ / day
Angry Birds

Illiana Blackbirds coach Dino Vulpitta, right, outlines a drill during a practice at Midwest Training and Ice Center.

ST. JOHN | "Kids are so moody these days," Dino Vulpitta observed after an Illiana Blackbirds prospect ignored post-practice pleasantries while walking away with a surly look on his face.

With temperatures again threatening to breach triple-digits that Saturday (June 30), you would think being inside the refrigerated confines of Midwest Training and Ice Center's rink would be an ideal sanctuary -- or at least an ideal Blackbirds sanctuary -- to lighten someone's disposition.

But Vulpitta had just driven the players hard for nearly 90 minutes before turning them on each other with physical five-on-five, four-on-four and three-on-three scrimmages.

"We've got a good core skating with us right now," Vulpitta said of the pool of 35 regional players who have been practicing with the team for a little more than three weeks.

"We'll probably keep about a third of them."

As for filling out the rest of the roster, that will partially come from the team's tryout camp July 12-15 at Midwest. The Junior A Tier III team is looking for elite players ages 15-20.

The Blackbirds will be part of the Great Lakes Division of the Minnesota Junior Hockey League. The team's home opener is Sept. 15 at Midwest, its home rink.

Co-coaches of the team are Vulpitta and former Chicago Blackhawks winger Reid Simpson, who is also the Blackbirds' general manager.

Last season, Vulpitta and Simpson coached and managed the Kalkaska (Mich.) Roughnecks, who were part of the Great Lakes Hockey League.

"But that league folded," Vulpitta said. "The (MJHL) took some of the teams, including us. We decided to move here and change our name"

The MJHL has two divisions: Minnesota and Great Lakes.

Vulpitta, a Chicago native, has known Simpson since their playing days before they joined forces last year with the Roughnecks. Both have had colorful careers.

Simpson played 301 games in the NHL, where he was regarded as an adept enforcer while accumulating 836 penalty minutes and footage for many YouTube hockey fight videos.

Vulpitta played in the minor and junior leagues, including a 10-game stint with the Plattsburgh (NY) Pioneers, a team that didn't win too many games during its lone campaign (1985-86) in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League -- in fact, the only point it earn all season was from an overtime loss. Nonetheless, the Pioneers became such stuff of legend for their on- and off-ice antics that the New England Hockey Journal did a feature story commemorating the team's 25th anniversary.

Vulpitta himself hasn't played professionally for 25 years. But he still skates and scrimmages with the team, as he did that Saturday.

"So far, I like what I see," Vulpitta said. "We can't keep all of them, of course, but maybe we can form a farm team with the ones we don't."

This fall/winter will be the first season Midwest has hosted a junior league team. It has been the home to several minor league teams.

"In the lower levels of the minor leagues, the players are at the end of the road ... meaning they don't have much of a chance at making the NHL," Midwest general manager Brent Giffin said. "But many of the top college players and those who do make it to the NHL come from junior hockey.

"College and pro scouts will likely attending most of the games. And I'm sure (Vulpitta and Simpson) will be trying to help their players move up to higher tiers. This is about developing players."