July 13, 2012

How junior hockey prepares players for college and beyond

By Shawn Hutcheon

A quick show of hands, please. When you think of junior hockey, how many of you think of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, Ontario Hockey League and the Western Hockey League? Now, how many of you think of the United States Hockey League and the Eastern Junior Hockey League? 

Commissioner Joe Bertagna (center) poses with BC's Brian Boyle (left) and coach Jerry York after the 2007 Hockey East championship. (Getty Images)

Most hockey fans are familiar with the QMJHL, OHL and the WHL because those are the leagues where most of the stars in the National Hockey League have played and from where tomorrow’s stars are drafted. The main goal of those leagues is to develop players for the NHL.

Then you have the USHL and EJHL. Players are drafted from those leagues each year as well, but the goal of those circuits is to prepare players for college hockey and college life as well.

Eastern Junior Hockey League Director of Hockey Operations, Jack Sweeney, explained how the junior game resembles the college game.

“The junior game more closely models the training and preparation for college,” Sweeney said. “Colleges begin in September and go to early March just like our league. Why not start playing in that structure instead of beginning the season at Thanksgiving (like prep and high schools do)? Besides, it’s almost a rule for players to go from the preps to junior hockey.”

Hockey East Commissioner Joe Bertagna (Arlington, Mass.) spoke of how players leaving home to play in the USHL and playing in front of crowds that number in the thousands help a young man’s maturation process.

“Most of the players on our Hockey East rosters come directly from one junior league or another, with the United States Hockey League being a leading provider of U.S. Kids,” said Bertagna. “But here at home, the Eastern Junior League is working hard to be a key player as well. With the USHL, not only do players mature through the high level of competition, but they get a taste of playing before significant crowds and by being away from home. They mature as a person. I entered college in the fall of 1969 as a 17-year old. Today, the average age of our freshmen is 20, so the college coach expects a more mature person.”

Current University of Massachusetts Lowell star Joe Pendenza (Wilmington, Mass.) played two-plus seasons with the Boston Jr. Bruins of the Eastern Junior Hockey League before stepping on campus. He made the decision to play junior hockey as a 17-year-old. The River Hawk forward is very happy with his decision to have gone the junior route.

River Hawks forward Joe Pendenza celebrates a goal. (Photo: UMass-Lowell Athletics)

“Playing junior hockey helped every facet of my game,” Pendenza said. “The coaches with the Junior Bruins got me ready for what college games and practices would be like. They demand one hundred percent out of you just like the college coaches do. We (UMass Lowell) have guys who come from all over and they know what they have to do to help the team win thanks to playing for their junior teams.”

Most junior teams have off-ice education components to ensure the players will continue with their high school educations, while the older players will take college level courses as part of the preparation for the future.They also introduce the concept of consistent dry-land, physical training.

“I was able to take the college classes, so I was able to do school work and play full time hockey,” said Pendenza. “We also did dry-land workouts twice per week, which was new to me. I was used to just playing hockey when I was in high school. Working out is a huge part of college hockey because, come Christmas time, your body will just fall apart if you haven’t trained properly.”

Justin Mansfield (Arlington, Mass.), who was a freshman forward for the Merrimack College Warriors last season, spent the four previous seasons with the Junior Bruins. He was a teammate of Pendenza’s for three of those seasons and he agreed with Pendenza on how junior hockey prepared him for the rigors of Hockey East.

“It (juniors) definitely got me ready,” Mansfield said. “Playing 50-60 games (with the Junior Bruins) one season then playing in 30-40 the next in college was nothing. Junior is definitely a level up and more intense than high school hockey. It’s a great stepping stone to college hockey.”

For Jimmy Vesey, playing for the EJHL’s South Shore Kings after playing in the prep ranks at Belmont Hill School was a move he is very happy he made. Not only did spending the 2011-2012 season in junior get him ready for his pending freshman year at Harvard University, it was also the stepping stone that led to him being drafted in the third round (66th overall) in June’s National Hockey League Entry Draft by the Nashville Predators.

Justin Mansfield will begin his sophomore season with the Warriors this fall. (Photo: Merrimack College Athletics)

After recently attending Nashville’s Development Camp, Vesey expressed his satisfaction with the benefits of playing for South Shore.

“We played more games in the EJ than we did in prep school and I worked out with a strength coach, so the decision to play juniors was the right one for me,” Vesey said. “Playing more games and against older, bigger kids prepared me to be drafted and also for playing at Harvard this coming year.”

Vesey also commented on how the hours spent in the gym came in handy in the Music City.

“The off-ice work gave me a foundation, and then I went to Nashville and I really didn’t feel out of place in terms of their off-ice training or on the ice where the pace was pretty fast,” he said. “I was playing against guys who have played in the American Hockey League and it showed how hard I’m going to have to work to be a pro. I’m grateful to junior hockey.”

While Vesey will be entering Harvard in the fall, another player who’s finished with the college experience is former University of New Hampshire and All-Hockey East forward Steve Moses. Like Pendenza and Mansfield, the Leominster, Mass., native played in the Eastern Junior League with the Boston Junior Bruins. After graduating from UNH this past spring, the former Wildcat signed with the Connecticut Whale of the AHL, where he appeared in eight games. This fall, Moses will fly to Finland where he will play for Jokerit of the Sm-Liiga, the top professional league in that nation.

When asked about the contributions junior hockey afforded him, Moses echoed the sentiments of his hockey brethren.

“Playing junior was really the right thing for me,” Moses said. “I was a junior and senior in high school during my last two seasons with the Junior Bruins, playing against guys that were a little older, stronger and faster. When I entered UNH I felt pretty comfortable with the speed and everything else.”

Off the ice, Moses learned one very important component to being successful in all facets of life.

“I learned how to budget my time,” he said. “You do a lot of traveling which is something you do in college hockey too and you certainly need to learn how to allot time for your work and training as well.”

Junior hockey in the United States is thriving because it is a reliable route for a player aiming to achieve his dream of playing college hockey. And while he’s doing that, he is preparing for that day when he takes his degree and all the lessons he learned as a player and applies them to the real world. For that, to paraphrase Vesey, we can all be thankful for junior hockey.

Shawn Hutcheon can be reached at feedback@hockeyjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter at @ShawnHutcheon.