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Opportunities abound for Jr. Kings’ 18U AAA hopefuls

 

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What’s the rush?

With a seemingly endless number of developmental options facing young hockey players these days, those within the Los Angeles Jr. Kings organization are emphasizing to families across Southern California that perhaps the most sensible – specifically at the Midget 18U level – is right in their own backyard.

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“There’s a growing misperception that playing 18U is the end of the road for a youth career, and that can’t be further from the truth,” said Jr. Kings general manager of hockey operations Nick Vachon. “The reality is there’s so much opportunity to succeed at that level, and that’s what players and parents need to understand – except for a very special few, it’ll always be a marathon, not a sprint.”

And with tryouts fast approaching – the Jr. Kings will host their Tier I (AAA) auditions from May 11-13 at Toyota Sports Center in El Segundo – the club expects to attract a talented, hard-working group with that same philosophy in mind.

This coming year, the Jr. Kings’ Midget 18U AAA team will once again be led by head coach Barry Dreger, who guided his club to a California Amateur Hockey Association state championship this past season.

“For most kids, it’s a pivotal year or two that can open so many doors, and that point needs to be made loud and clear,” said Dreger. “Most players at this age are still just scratching the surface in terms of their potential, and they’re still so young when you step back and look at the big picture.”

A valued trump card the Jr. Kings hold is their participation in the Tier I Elite League, which over the years has produced countless NCAA Division I and professional players, including many toiling in the NHL today.

The highly-regarded circuit hosts a number of showcases across the country each season which regularly attract coaches and scouts from virtually every top-end junior and NCAA program, as well as the NHL.

“It’s hands-down one of – if not the – premier league for elite junior teams and colleges to discover, track and evaluate the best up-and-coming players from across the country,” said Dreger. “Not only are you competing against the best of the best in your age group, but whether your team is ranked No. 1 in the nation or 16th, scouts across North America know who you are.”

Plenty of local success stories have resonated throughout the Midget 18U AAA ranks in recent years, among them the journeys of forward Eetu Selanne (pictured) and defenseman Ryan Orgel.

Both former Jr. Kings, Selanne just wrapped up his freshman season playing NCAA Division I at Northeastern University, while Orgel completed his first year skating with the University of Denver.

Jr. Kings coach Jack Bowkus, who’s readied countless players for the high-level junior, collegiate and professional ranks over the years, mentored both during their 18U seasons.

“These guys are perfect examples of why 18U works,” said Bowkus. “Obviously, they put in the time, but what’s equally important is that they were realistic about their paths and showed patience; they knew if they wanted to get where they wanted to be – in this case, Division I college hockey – there were no shortcuts.”

Unnecessarily accelerating the developmental process, says Bowkus, who also coached former Jr. Kings Chad Ruhwedel, a defenseman for the Pittsburgh Penguins, and former first-round NHL draft pick Beau Bennett, a forward in the St. Louis Blues system, during their 18U AAA seasons, more often than not will doom a promising career.

“I’ve seen it too many times,” said the coach. “You have young kid – 15, 16, 17 years old – with plenty of upside and they think they need to rush into junior hockey as soon as they have the chance or, if they don’t make a junior team, quit.

“A lot of those kids who stop playing still have a lot of potential and, for those who jump to juniors, unless you’re one of those rare, special players, you’re not ready, and before you know it you’re thrown into an unfamiliar environment away from your friends and family, maybe not getting the playing time you expected, and your level of confidence takes a big hit.”

That, says Bowkus, is why Midget 18 at home presents the ideal springboard season for players to grow into leadership roles and become key contributors on their team, all the while being seen regularly by elite-level junior and college programs across North America.

“And they’re still only 18 (years old),” said Bowkus.

Photo/Northeastern University Athletics

— Brian McDonough

(April 27, 2018)