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Published May 04 2012

Junior hockey provides different paths to the college game

Fargo - The comment wasn’t meant as a slight, but more of a truth in numbers.

United States Hockey League spokesman Brian Werger pointed out there are 16 teams in his league, and there’s 59 Division I hockey programs.

His point was if a kid can make it into the USHL, playing in college is a strong possibility.

“A lot of coaches tell players, it is special to earn an opportunity in this league,” Werger said. “If you earn a spot in this league, it is there for the taking.”

For any young man wanting to play college hockey, playing juniors is the gateway. Leagues such as the USHL and the North American Hockey League are the main pipelines.

Two years ago, the USHL had 98 percent – or all but six of its 300 players – committed to a Division I program.

Nearly 66 percent of the NAHL’s players last season were committed to either a Division I or Division III college program, said league spokesman Alex Kyrias.

“I think it’s inevitable that kids in the league want an NCAA opportunity,” Kyrias said. “I think it’s important for the players to make the most of those opportunities.”

Acquiring those opportunities is where it gets tough.

Even if a player does get an opportunity, there is no guarantee of a college scholarship. It’s a risk hundreds across the United States, Canada and Europe are willing to take.

Breaking in

There’s no direct route into juniors. If a player is good enough, they can make the jump from high school.

But most players usually get into juniors by playing midgets. Midgets serves as an alternative to high school.

States such as Illinois and Michigan have high school teams, but its midget programs are seen as a stronger platform due to better competition.

It is also the path West Fargo’s Conor Jonasson decided to take.

Jonasson, 18, opted to forgo his senior year at West Fargo High School, playing midgets for Belle Tire, a program in suburban Detroit.

“I liked the Belle Tire coach and he made it very clear,” Jonasson said. “He told me if I came there and gave my all, they’d do the same for me by getting into the USHL.”

Programs such as Belle Tire are how teams like the Fargo Force build for the future.

The Force take players from high school, but they aggressively recruit players from the midget scene.

Jonasson said he got a chance to skate with the Force and would one day like to play for his hometown team.

“Every kid wants to play D-I hockey, and you just have to make those moves,” Jonasson said. “Going to Detroit was just a good idea for me. I’ve learned that a lot of kids know that’s what gets them to the next level.”

Being in the middle

Twice-a-day skates, extra workout sessions, you name it. Reed Peters has done these things and still only played 15 games in the USHL this season.

The Force goaltender has dreams of playing in college but was met with the reality of waiting his turn.

He sat the bench watching Zane Gothberg, a Boston Bruins draft pick, have the best individual season in Fargo’s franchise history.

“This year has been a struggle for me personally,” Peters said. “But it tests you mentally. Next year, I feel, is going to be fun.”

Peters’ hope is he can be the next Force star goaltender who goes on to a major college program and possibly beyond.

That would be the best-case scenario.

Worst-case scenario would be getting injured and never playing again. Or not getting a chance to play in college.

“It runs through your mind every once and again,” Peters said. “But you have to look forward.”

Junior leagues have age limits allowing a player as young as 15 but no older than 20, depending upon a player’s birth date.

Peters turned 20 in March and is eligible for next season, but realizes he’s up against the wall.

So is West Fargo’s Derek Sand, who plays with the Alexandria Blizzard in the NAHL.

Sand’s route to juniors has been a little less cluttered than Peters’.

Sand left West Fargo, played a season in the Manitoba Junior Hockey League and then came to the NAHL.

His hope is to earn a college scholarship next year as time is running out.

“That is the ultimate goal,” Sand said. “But if it doesn’t work out, there are other places to go and keep the dream alive.”

The reality of it all

Most, as Werger said, will get a chance to play at a Division I program. There are also 73 Division III programs.

But there is reality of going through the junior process and not getting a scholarship.

“It just didn’t work out,” said former Moorhead star Nick Deutz. “Part of it was not playing up to what I had done before.”

Deutz, 25, played in the USHL and the NAHL for two seasons.

He had interest from Air Force, Bemidji State, Bowling Green, Ferris State, Mercyhurst and Minnesota-Duluth.

Deutz, however, broke a bone in his hand in his second season. It sidelined him for 30 games. By the time he returned, most schools had already offered scholarships, and Deutz was looking for a place to play.

He wanted to play in the WCHA, and even with previous interest from Bemidji State and UMD, Deutz tried walking on at Minnesota State-Mankato.

“I chose to go there and it didn’t work out,” Deutz said. “Part of it may have been my fault, but I wanted to play in the WCHA.”

Deutz spent two years at Mankato before transferring to the University of North Dakota, where he was a regular student.

He got his degree in exercise science and biology and is currently a personal trainer in Lakeville, Minn.

His goal is to become a high school or junior coach and help young men avoid the decisions he made.

When asked if he regretted his junior hockey experience, Deutz said, “No.”

“I wouldn’t change a thing,” Deutz said. “I learned a lot as a hockey player and as a person.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Ryan S. Clark at (701) 241-5548.

Clark’s Force blog can be found at slightlychilled.areavoices.com