Juniors: Staying local can lead to Frozen achievements
By Bill Keefe
This year’s Frozen Four shows the impact junior hockey, and in particular the USHL, has in developing players. But the rosters of the Frozen Four teams also show it’s possible to stay local.
The rosters of Boston College, North Dakota, Minnesota and national champion Union totaled 104 players — 27 each on BC and Union and 25 each on North Dakota and Minnesota. Of those 104, the previous team listed for 89 of those players, or 86 percent, is a junior club.
Two players on North Dakota transferred from other colleges and their teams previous to the other colleges were junior clubs. With those players included, the total bumps up to 91 of 104 players and 88 percent.
Far and away the league that has produced the largest number of players is the United States Hockey League with 39 players, which is 38 percent of all players in the Frozen Four and 43 percent of players who played junior.
That count did not include players from the United States National Team Development Program, which is a unique two-year invitational program but does compete in the USHL, though not on a full-time basis. The NTDP produced 11 Frozen Four players, which would give the USHL 50 in total, which would mean 48 percent of all Frozen Four players played in the USHL and 55 percent of all Frozen Four players who played junior played in the USHL.
All 25 North Dakota players played junior hockey followed by Minnesota with 24, Union with 22 and BC with 20.
The USHL teams with the most players in the Frozen Four are Fargo and Waterloo with five players each followed by Dubuque and Omaha at four. Lincoln, Youngstown and Sioux Falls have three each.
The most notable of the lot is BC junior forward Johnny Gaudreau, who was the USHL rookie of the year for Dubuque in his one year in the league and led the NCAA in scoring this year with 77 points, 14 points ahead of the second leading scorer, his linemate Kevin Hayes (Dorchester, Mass.), entering the Frozen Four.
For Union, Mike Vecchione (Saugus, Mass.) had 31 points through 36 games as a freshman after playing two years for the Tri-City Storm following his standout career at Malden Catholic High School (see Vecchione feature, Page 24).
After the USHL and NTDP, the American development path with the next most players is the former Eastern Junior Hockey League with seven players. Predictably, that Northeast-based league sent its players to the Frozen Four teams in the region with four on BC and three on Union.
“To have kids from the area that move through and go there is quite an accomplishment,” said Valley Jr. Warriors coach Andy Heinze. “Young kids will drive to get to that level.
“(Junior) is not for everybody. It’s a great proving ground.’’
BC’s Ryan Fitzgerald (North Reading, Mass.) is a Jr. Warrior alum and was among the leading freshman scorers in the NCAA. Former South Shore King Chris Calnan (Norwell, Mass.) has been another dependable freshman for the Eagles, and goalies Brian Billett (Kennebunk, Maine) and Brad Barone (Medfield, Mass.) also are EJ products from the Junior Monarchs and Kings, respectively.
Meanwhile, Junior Bruins alum Colin Stevens of Niskayuna, N.Y., is Union’s starting goalie, with a sub-2.00 goals-against, and Jersey Hitmen product Max Novak of Oak Ridge, N.J., is among Union’s leading scorers with 29 points entering the Frozen Four.
Clearly, a number of players travel from home to join a team, but as seen here, a player can reach the pinnacle of college hockey while staying local. Beyond the Northeast-based junior teams sending players from the area to BC and Union, it can be seen at Minnesota, where 21 of the 25 Golden Gophers are from the state of Minnesota and 21 of them played in the region either in the USHL (16), the NTDP (3), a Midwestern NAHL team (1) or Minnesota high school (1).
After Minnesota, BC has the most players from the home state with nine from Massachusetts, while Union has four from New York and North Dakota has three in-state players.
Canadian junior hockey is a major source of Frozen Four players with 30. The British Columbia Hockey League is the clear leader with 17. But 23 of those players are Canadian, with most of them coming from the Junior A league in their home province, in effect staying local.
This article originally appeared in the April edition of the New England Hockey Journal. Click here to access the FREE digital edition.