May 15, 2012

From NEHJ: Buried treasure

By Mike Zhe

It was December 2007 and Johnson & Wales coach Erik Noack, who needed bodies like a plant needs water, took a spur-of-the-moment recruiting trip to the Midwest. 

Jeremiah Ketts won the Joe Concannon Award as the best American-born Division 2 or 3 player in New England. (Photo by Tom Maguire)

“Randomly, there was one weekend where I had nothing to do,” he said. “I grabbed one of my assistants and said, ‘We’re going out to the Quad Cities and watch the Central States Hockey League.’”

That gave them their first look at a dynamic yet undersized forward named Jeremiah Ketts, a 20-year-old who was skating in a tournament for the Peoria Mustangs — and had no concrete future plans.

These days? The future is looking pretty bright for Ketts, who in March was named the 12th winner of the Joe Concannon Award, which is presented to the best American-born Division 2 or 3 player in New England.

Six days after his college career ended with a bitter, 2-1 overtime loss at Western New England in the first round of the ECAC Northeast tournament, Ketts was taking the ice in his first professional game, for the Reading Royals of the ECHL in front of nearly 4,000 fans in Elmira, N.Y.

“I was a little bit in awe; I’m not going to lie,” he said. “My stomach was churning. Getting to play in front of (four) thousand people who paid to see you play, after playing college hockey in front of a couple hundred … But I took it all in and it felt like it was somewhere I was supposed to be.”

It’s a nice contrast to 4½ years ago in the Quad Cities, where the 5-foot-7 Ketts wasn’t sure where he was supposed to be.

Ketts, a native of Foristell, Mo., led Div. 3 in points (53) and assists (33) for JWU this winter. He’ll leave the Providence, R.I., school with 165 points in 104 games, and a pair of ECAC Northeast Player of the Year honors.

“He always had the moves,” Noack said. “Our power play was, ‘Get Jeremiah the puck behind the net and he’ll beat five guys.’”

“When I first came, you could tell he had the skill right off the bat,” said junior Jason Pietrasiak (Shrewsbury, Mass.), his three-year linemate and close friend. “But he’s developed his game from there.”

The jump from Division 3 to the minor pros is a rare one but certainly not an unprecedented one. One only had to tune into the Bruins’ first-round playoff series and see Norwich alumnus Keith Aucoin (Chelmsford, Mass.) skating for the Washington Capitals.

And it’s rarely a straight jump. Often, the first step is the hardest one, especially for a player who believes he has Div. 1 ability but isn’t getting the opportunity. Noack ultimately persuaded Ketts to visit Johnson & Wales, where he already was convinced Ketts could become “the best player we’d ever had here.”

“It seems like decades ago,” Ketts said of that junior tournament in the Quad Cities. “I was still kind of unsure what my route was going to be. I wasn’t too focused on going to college hockey if it wasn’t Division 1. But after speaking with Coach Noack and my family, and making a couple visits, I knew that was the place.”

He made an immediate impact, putting up 26 points as a freshman and 36 as a sophomore as the Wildcats reached the conference championship, losing to Curry. But that also was the time that he began thinking there might be something else out there for him.

“I’d be lying if I said it didn’t (cross my mind),” he said. “I did put in for a release at some point. But that was nothing against the program or Coach Noack. … I just felt my talent might be able to shine a little more elsewhere. But after talking with family, weighing all the options, I just thought the best move would be to stay right here.”

The Wildcats have been conference contenders the past few years, but without the title to show for it. Behind players such as Ketts, Pietrasiak and junior Danny Kaufman — one of the most productive lines in Div. 3 — and standout defenseman Dom Recchia, they stood 13-7-2 after going to Springfield, Mass., and blasting Western New England, 10-3.

But their dismount was poor. They closed the regular season on an 0-2-1 stretch, then went back to WNEC for the playoffs and got stunned in overtime.

“Jeremiah and Dom afterward, they couldn’t get off the ice,” Ketts said. “Jeremiah wore his jersey home on the bus.”

“Oh, man, that was tough,” Ketts said. “Probably one of the toughest losses I’ve had in my life. Being a senior, you never think it’s going to end first-round. Our games this year against WNEC, I felt that we handled them pretty good. But you never know in hockey.”

Better news was right around the corner. Ketts, who is up to 5-foot-10, had been in contact with pro teams in the United States and Europe, including the ECHL’s Stockton Thunder, but it was the Royals who ultimately landed him.

“We lost on Saturday. On Sunday, I got the phone call from Reading,” he said. “They needed my services and it was kind of surreal. I was still licking my wounds.”

He wasn’t eligible for the Royals’ playoff roster but is looking to make an ECHL roster out of training camp in the fall. He’s in the process of choosing an adviser and finding the best possible situation to further his hockey career.

“To be a Division 3 player and have the chance to go right into the East Coast league was the opportunity of a lifetime,” he said. “I don’t want to give it up.”

This article originally appeared in the May 2012 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

Mike Zhe can be reached at mzhe@hockeyjournal.com