Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Muskegon 'the only place to play'

The Muskegon Lumberjacks’ distinct Michigan flavor has only become more pronounced following the team’s drafts this year.

The Jacks, whose final roster from the 2010-11 United States Hockey League season featured nine Michigan natives, selected seven more in-state players in last Monday’s USHL Entry Draft. Three of their six selections in the USHL Futures Draft in March also hail from Michigan, a bona fide hockey hotbed that was the leading producer of USHL talent in the 2009-10 season.

“We’re located in a state that’s a great producer of hockey players,” Lumberjacks head coach Kevin Patrick said. “When your backyard has those sorts of talented players, you need to make sure you build around that group of people. We love our location, and we are Michigan’s team.”

Lance Fredrickson, who grew up mere minutes from Muskegon in Spring Lake, logged 16 games for the Jacks this past season, bringing the total number of in-state players who made significant contributions for the team to 10. The Jacks in-state players mademassive contributions, amassing 175 points in 428 games. Muskegon had more in-state players than 13 other USHL teams combined.

The Jacks’ philosophy echoes that of the University of Wisconsin, where Patrick served as an assistant for five years, including in 2006 when the Badgers won the national championship.

“At Wisconsin, our 2006 team had 13 players from Wisconsin,” Patrick said. “Half the roster was from Wisconsin. If you have the chance to build the groundwork of a championship-caliber team and have an in-state flavor, that’s what you want to do. It’s a similar philosophy here as it was at Wisconsin.”

Making the Jacks’ Michigan flavor possible is the nonstop flow of talent out of programs near Detroit that play in the Tier 1 Elite League which, along with the USHL, announced last week that it will enter into a national agreement that will make the Tier 1 Elite League the official youth hockey affiliate of the USHL. A total of 56 players were selected from the league’s programs in the USHL Entry Draft, representing 26 percent of the 216 players drafted.

“The Tier 1 league, especially the Detroit area, is constantly producing talent,” Patrick said. “When you look at the draft results and look around the league, you see so many players who came up through those Detroit teams. It all begins with the figurehead who’s been part of Detroit hockey for so long in (Belle Tire Midget Major head coach) Chris Coury. He continues to produce players year after year. It’s great to know you can go across the state and that foundation is there.”

Omar Mullan, who the Jacks drafted in the Entry Draft, led Belle Tire in scoring last season with 54 points (20 goals and 34 assists) in 39 games and pays credit for his success to Coury.

“Coach Coury is a great coach and took me under his wing a year even before I could play majors,” Mullan said. “He pushed me to work as hard as possible on every shift and, because I did, I got rewarded.”

Two years ago, Mullan won a state title along with former Lumberjack Matt Berry and fellow Jacks draft pick Dakota Klecha.

The Jacks chose Klecha in the second round of the Entry Draft. The gritty forward was elated to know he was not only bound for the premier juniors league in the nation, but that he’d be playing just three hours from his home town of Taylor.

“Honestly, my heart jumped,” Klecha said. “I get to play just three hours away from home in the best league around. It’s just a dream come true. I’m very proud, and my dad plans to be at every home game.”

“Parents want to see their kids play,” Patrick said. “As you’re recruiting and offering opportunities, families will of course take that into consideration. Here in Muskegon, we offer everybody great opportunities with our facilities, our resources and our staff. Whether it’s a player from Michigan or Alaska, this is where players will want to play.”

The Jacks’ eighth-round pick, Jimmy Davis, is a native of the Grand Rapids suburb of Kentwood. He and his family were at a local restaurant and everyone erupted when the Jacks chose the blueliner with the 111th pick in the draft. One of his fans erupted a little more than the others.

“My mom started crying,” Davis said. “Everyone’s so excited to have me close to home. As for me, I just smiled. I couldn’t do anything else. I was so happy from head to toe.”

Honeybaked, one of the powerhouse Tier 1 teams near Detroit, produced the Jacks’ ninth-round pick, Brett D’Andrea. Like Davis, D’Andrea celebrated with family and friends after his selection.

“We were all wishing so hard that I could go to Muskegon,” D’Andrea said. “It’s a great program, and it’s very close to home.”

Honeybaked also produced the Jacks’ first two selections in the Futures Draft, Alex Smith and Alex Talcott. Smith is a brilliant two-way defenseman who Patrick believes could make the team in its upcoming camp. Talcott’s mother is a Muskegon native who had a hard time keeping her bearings when the team chose him with the 16th overall pick.

“My mom completely freaked out,” Talcott said. “This is where we wanted to go. Muskegon is the only place to play.”

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