A cursory glance at any of the first-year hockey players reveals a physical and mental maturity that surpasses that of most other first-years — undoubtedly a benefit of their being one to three years older than their peers. This maturity is a plus when playing a competitive contact sport such as hockey. This trend of recruiting older players owes much to junior ice hockey, or “juniors” — an opportunity to play for either the Tier I United States Hockey League (USHL) or Tier II North American Hockey League (NAHL) before matriculating to college.
Rather than transition directly from high school to college, many players with aspirations to play college hockey spend a year or two on a junior team. Playing for a junior team has nearly become a prerequisite to college recruitment.
“Many players don’t get a lot of exposure in high school,” coach Patrick Norton said. “Junior programs do an excellent job by allowing the players to be seen by coaches and recruiters. This year, we have [first-years] coming from both juniors and prep schools.”
Many players hoping to join a Div. I team use the extra playing time during juniors to up their game and hone their skills.
“Colleges are looking for more experienced and developed players,” first-year defenseman Jefferson Martin said. Martin played for the Odessa Jackalopes in the NAHL and later the Sault Ste. Marie Michigan Soo Eagles in the Northern Ontario Junior Hockey League before coming to Tufts this fall.
According to Martin, playing junior hockey, much like the college experience, comes with many new freedoms.
“You’re away from home learning a lot on and off the ice,” he said. “I lived with two different host families [one in Odessa, Texas and the other in Michigan] and had to figure out how to be without my family while living with new people.”
First-year defenseman Nicholas Abbene also looks at his years in junior hockey as a growing experience.
“I learned how to live on my own, cook for myself, other small things,” he said. “I learned how to develop relationships with people and grew up in a way that I never could have just coming straight into college. Being on your own is such a different experience.”
To say playing for juniors is a “different experience” may even be an understatement; junior players essentially play hockey all day, every day. While being able to play around-the-clock hockey might seem like a dream for some young players, this description fails to mention one important aspect: schoolwork. After players are recruited to college, their biggest transitional challenge happens off the ice.
“You’re focusing just on your hockey with no other distractions,” Martin said.“It’s definitely been hard getting back into the rhythm [of school because] I didn’t do any real schoolwork for two years.”
Although the players assert that they received a different kind of education playing junior hockey — one of personal growth — they admit that the lack of schoolwork made it difficult to start classes at Tufts.
Still, Norton finds that the year or two playing juniors can also add to a player’s academic experience.
“Those extra years of maturity can really benefit a freshman on and off the ice,” he said. “They are usually a bit more focused and sure of what they want to do [academically].”
Some of the players, however, wish they had integrated learning into their time in the juniors to lessen the gravity of the adjustment to college academics.
“I [wish I] could go back and give myself advice,” Abbene said. “I realize now that I should have taken a few classes on the side on top of hockey. Coming to Tufts was definitely an adjustment. In hockey, you are just working a different part of your brain. It’s not like solving problems in school. [It’s] more about learning how to communicate with people.”
These communication skills learned during juniors will prove beneficial as the first-years begin working with the rest of the team. According to Norton, senior co-captains forward Stewart Bell and defensemen Brian Ouellette have worked with their new teammates to help them find their place on the team.
“They are doing a great job bringing the new players in and helping them adjust, whether the player came right from high school or spent time in the juniors,” Norton said. “This is a very strong [first-year] class, and since it is my first season too, I look forward to seeing them develop as players and contribute more to games as the season goes on.”
For many of the first-years, this could be the last stop of their athletic careers.
“The players are focused more on getting their degree and a good education now, rather than playing professional hockey,” Norton said. “They are getting ready to move into the professional job world in whichever field they choose after school. It’s just an added bonus that they get to play hockey during college. Playing at Tufts is definitely where they want to be.”
Tufts provides student athletes with the opportunity to combine competitive athletics with strong academics, and this, in many ways, feels like a more well-rounded experience for those who have spent time in the juniors.
“I felt kind of unproductive when I was playing in juniors,” Berger said. “Days were monotonous and school feels more productive.”
The players who spent time in juniors are ready to embark on this next, daunting chapter of college — practice, schoolwork and all.