They come to the United States Hockey League as wide-eyed teenagers, dreaming of college scholarships and careers in the NHL.
The grind of a 60-game regular season and as much as nine months away from home in the country’s only Tier I Junior league make them grown up in a hurry. And it creates an unbreakable bond with other players who parlayed stints in the USHL into opportunities at the next level.
“The thing that really sets the USHL apart from a lot of the other Junior leagues is the fact that every single organization is first class and they’re so professionally run,” said Mike Lee, a Roseau, Minn., native who spent a year in Fargo before moving on to St. Cloud State University. “They give you a very real taste of what it’s like to play at the professional level and how hard you have to work to reach that level.
“The USHL has some of the best players in the country, and every night is tough. So, if you see a guy who played in the USHL, you know what he’s been through and you appreciate him for it. It’s pretty cool to be able to keep up with guys you played with and against when you were in the USHL and see the success they’re having in college or the pros.”
After leading the Force to the USHL’s Clark Cup Finals in 2008-09, Lee won USA Hockey’s Goaltender of the Year award, and the Phoenix Coyotes selected him 91st overall in the NHL Entry Draft that summer. Last winter, he helped Team USA earn its first gold medal in the World Junior Championships since 2004 and led St. Cloud State to its first NCAA Tournament win.
Lee credits his year in the USHL for accelerating his learning curve. And he's not alone.
“The USHL comes at a crossroads for a lot of players,” USHL Commissioner Skip Prince said. “In a lot of cases, the step up from high school or Midgets to the USHL is a lot bigger than it is from the USHL to college or college to the pros. That’s why their USHL years are so important.
“So many people consider their college years as life-changing experiences, and they reflect on those experiences for years. I’ve always been amazed when I listen to USHL alums speak of their years in our league with the same kind of enthusiasm as others do about their college days.”
So, in college dressing rooms across the country, you’ll find scores of players who used to be rivals in the USHL joining forces in taking friendly jabs at players from other Junior leagues.
“I have two roommates who try to tell me the (British Columbia Hockey League) is better, but I’m not buying it,” said Craig Smith, who played three seasons for Waterloo of the USHL before moving on to his hometown University of Wisconsin. “We joke around about it all the time. I guess they have their arguments, but I’m sticking behind the USHL. My life did a complete 180 when I played for P.K. O’Handley in Waterloo, and I’m convinced those three years are the reason I’m playing at this level."
And it's not just on the ice where the growth takes place.
“I made some lifetime friends in the USHL. I had some of the best times in the locker room or on those long bus rides with those guys," Smith said. "I will never forget some of those bus rides.”
Throughout Colby Cohen’s career at Boston University, he was constantly reminded of his days in the USHL. Cohen spent the 2006-07 season with the Lincoln Stars and still considers that year the turning point in his career. The Villanova, Pa., native scored the game-winning goal in the 2009 NCAA championship game, and spent this fall in the Colorado Avalanche’s training camp.
“That's what was great,” Cohen said of constant reunions with former USHL rivals. “When we played Michigan, I'd see Chad Langlais (Lincoln). When we played Miami, I'd see Carter Camper (Lincoln) and Tommy Wingels (Cedar Rapids). I also keep in touch with Corey Tropp (Sioux Falls) and Matt DiGirolamo (Waterloo), who I actually trained with this summer. When you see the USHL guys, you catch up and have a quick word after the game or in the handshake line.”
The NCAA’s Frozen Four last spring presented 49 alumni with a unique reunion opportunity. Miami of Ohio’s roster included 17 former USHL players, while Wisconsin had 14, Boston College 10 and Rochester Institute of Technology eight.
“We were kind of a group, all on our own,” said Cameron Burt, one of four former Green Bay Gamblers on the R.I.T. roster for its inaugural trip to the Frozen Four. “And you're thinking you should probably be hanging out with your current teammates, but it's always good to go over stories . . . ‘Oh, remember what happened in that game?’ Those are great times, and even when you don't know these players that well, you are indirectly connected to them. It's fun to watch their careers and know that these are the kinds of connections that will be the key to your own success.”
After hearing story after story from USHL graduates now in the NCAA or professional ranks, Prince decided to develop a USHL Alumni Association. He hopes to have the organization finalized sometime this season and use it to grow his 16-team league.
“No one is a greater ambassador for this league and the American Development Model than our alumni,” Prince said. “They’re the ones who realize how fortunate they are to have had the opportunity to play in the USHL. As important as my message is, I’m sure a lot of young players look at me as some old guy. The message resonates so much more when it comes from someone closer to their age and who experienced the USHL.
“I’d love to organize alumni events. Everybody knows about the players who went on to play in the NHL. But just as important are the players who used the USHL as a steppingstone to college and then to a successful career outside of athletics.”