Hockey Hotbed

Smithtown-area people lead ’Cats

in scoring, goaltending & coaching

No NHL games to watch on TV? No problem.

The New York Junior Bobcats, an Atlantic Junior Hockey League team consisting of some of the top 15- to 19-year-old players from Long Island, are bringing plenty of excitement to The Rinx in Hauppauge. Coached by world-renowned instructor Aleksey Nikiforov, of Hauppauge, the Bobcats are an inexpensive alternative to watching high-level hockey.

Seven local players have seen extensive action for this year’s team, which is currently on a four-game winning streak after sweeping the New Jersey Rockets and Washington Nationals the past two weekends. They are: forwards James Marcou (Kings Park/Smithtown H.S.), Nick Grasso (Smithtown/Kings Park H.S.), Vladimir Nikiforov (Hauppauge/Hauppauge H.S.), Anthony Romano (Smithtown/St. Anthony’s H.S.) and Frank Rizzo (St. James/St. Anthony’s H.S.); defenseman Justin Porpora (Hauppauge/Smithtown H.S.); and, goaltender Chris Molinaro (Nesconset).

While the 19-year-old Molinaro has a 14-1 record and a sparkling 1.87 goals-against average, the 16-year-old Romano leads the team in goals (25), assists (29), points (54) and game-winning goals (4). But statistics don’t tell the full story about the Bobcats. Marcou, Nikiforov and Grasso, all high school juniors, have already made verbal commitments to play for Division I UMass-Amherst—a Hockey East powerhouse that has heavily recruited them.

According to Jim Marcou—whose son James, the top-ranked center in his age group for the United States Developmental Program, has been guaranteed a full scholarship to UMass—this is the earliest any Long Island hockey player has ever committed to a D-I school. And, according to coach Nikiforov, the Bobcats Organization has afforded many of its players an opportunity to continue their hockey careers in college and beyond.

“They have a chance [to play college hockey] by playing for this team,” said the 43-year-old coach, who played professional hockey for the Dynamo Riga (Latvia) and also coached in Russia and his native Lithuania for many years. “[Playing] Division I [college hockey] is hard for many of the guys, but [playing] Division III and [in] the United States Hockey League is very possible.”

And what if a Bobcat player isn’t ready for college hockey after graduating from high school? “Even if you don’t get an offer,” coach Nikiforov said, “you can still play another year [with the Bobcats].”

But perhaps the most important benefit for the top players in the Bobcats organization is it has allowed them to remain on Long Island during their high school careers. Earlier Nikiforov protégés like Mike Komisarek and Chris Higgins—the Montreal Canadiens’ first-round draft picks in 2001 and 2002—had to leave their respective hometowns of Islip Terrace and Smithtown in order to gain the attention of top college and pro scouts.

“It’s awesome that you don’t have to leave home to get looked at by colleges,” said 19-year-old defenseman and assistant captain Casey Hubbard (Ronkonkoma/Suffolk CC). “A few years ago, you had to go to New England. It’s great to stay home… and you get an awesome coach at the same time.”

While Hubbard, Porpora and Molinaro have anchored the Bobcats’ defense, Romano, Vladimir Nikiforov (15 goals, 27 assists in 20 games), Rizzo (15G, 22 A in 22 games), Grasso (9G, 22A in 20 games) and Marcou (6G, 12A in 10 games) have been virtually unstoppable this season. The Bobcats lead the AJHL by a wide margin with 107 goals—an average of almost seven per game. They outscored Washington on the road by a 14-2 count last weekend and improved to 13-3-0-1 (27 points), nine points ahead of the second-place Philadelphia Little Flyers (8-8-0-2) in the Southern Division.

“Really, the ones who establish that offensive power are the younger guys. It’s Vladimir (17 years old), it’s Marcou (16), it’s Grasso (16) and it’s Romano (16),” coach Nikiforov said. “They have a lot of heart, a lot of desire.”

Molinaro, in the meantime, was nearly untouchable against Washington. Only a garbage-time goal prevented him from registering his second shutout on the season this past Saturday, and a late second-period goal did the same on Sunday. But Molinaro did stop 62 of 64 shots on goal in the two wins, improving his save percentage to .910.

“You feel really safe when he’s in the net,” Hubbard said of Molinaro (14-1 season record). “He’s just amazing. There will be times when we think they’re going to score but he’s always there.”

Just like coach Nikiforov, a native of Vilnius, Lithuania who immigrated to the United States in 1991. Since then he has turned down offers to serve a practice coach for both the Islanders and Rangers, choosing instead to continue coaching his son Vladimir and dozens of other players, whom he also refers to as his “sons.”

“You always want to do well in your own father’s eyes,” said Higgins, “and he’s like a second father to me as far as being on the ice.”

“We’re like his second sons,” said Marcou, “so you don’t want to let him down. You want to go out there and just show him what he taught you, make him proud of you.”

In addition to turning out Komisarek (the 7th overall pick in 2001) and Higgins (14th, 2002), Nikiforov has worked extensively with players like Darius Kasparaitis, Alexei Yashin, Bryan McCabe, Danius Zubris and Vladimir Malakhov. A few of them—like McCabe, Yashin and Kasparaitis, whom Nikiforov has been training since he was an 8-year-old Lithuanian prodigy—can be seen working out at The Rinx during Bobcats practices. But coach Nikiforov says he will not leave his youngsters for greener pastures.

“It’s my opinion that if I go to the NHL, today you’re there and tomorrow they might kick you out,” said Nikiforov, citing the current lockout and how quickly NHL coaching staffs come and go. “I more enjoy working with the kids and making them better as a person.”

The New York Junior Bobcats will try to continue their winning streak this weekend against Portland (6-9-0-2), which is currently in third place in the Northern Division behind overall leader Boston (16-3) and Northern Massachusetts (8-11). The Bobcats host Portland at The Rinx on Saturday, November 20 at 8 p.m. and on Sunday, November 21 at 10 a.m. For directions to The Rinx, located at 660 Terry Road in Hauppauge, call (631) 232-3222. For more information on the New York Bobcats, go to