Nebraska and Iowa are not places we normally think of as “hockey hotbeds.” Minnesota, Massachusetts and Michigan produce a large share of the American-born talent playing in the NCAA and the NHL. But small Midwestern cities like Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and Kearney, Neb., are also in the business of grooming future pond prospects. They are just two of a dozen cities with teams in the United States Hockey League (USHL), the premier junior league in the country and a major pipeline to the NCAA.
Unless you’re living in Minnesota, Massachusetts or another one of the few states where high school hockey reigns supreme, your best shot at skating to the next level is by packing up and leaving home for a new town—all in the name of the game.
If you’re serious about being recruited, you need to play at a high level of hockey, according to University of Michigan head coach Red Berenson. “Then, [players] need to be patient,” he says. “Usually the schools will find the special players.”
Berenson and his staff have no problem finding those “special players,” possibly because many of them are in-state recruits. Seventeen of the 26 players on the Wolverines’ 2008-09 roster hail from Michigan, and many of them were brought up through the USHL.
Buffalo Sabres forward Thomas Vanek, a native of Austria, is a USHL graduate. He spent three seasons with the Sioux Falls Stampede in South Dakota. “The hockey was great,” Vanek says. “Besides that, I think it really matures a 15-, 16-year-old kid. It really helped me before the college level.”
“Helped” is clearly an understatement. Vanek went on to star at the University of Minnesota, leading the Golden Gophers to the national championship in his freshman season and scoring the game-winning goals in both the national semifinal and title games.
It’s been business as usual for Vanek since he entered the NHL in 2005. He’s led the Sabres in goals in each of the past three seasons, including two 40-goal campaigns.
“I think [the USHL] is a great developmental league,” he says. “I would say it’s a few steps above high school.”
Another talented NHLer who played junior hockey is Shawn Horcoff, the Edmonton Oilers’ center. “There’s no high school hockey in Canada,” says Horcoff, who hails from Trail, British Columbia. “For me, the decision was between going to play major junior hockey in Canada, and trying to get a scholarship to a U.S. college.”
Horcoff played three years for the Chilliwack Chiefs of the British Columbia Hockey League, which attracts scads of college and pro scouts—just like the USHL. Horcoff elected to play at Michigan State University, where he had a storied career. He played four seasons as a Spartan and was a Hobey Baker finalist and the Central Collegiate Hockey Association Player of the Year his senior season.
“I wanted to go to a school that was going to give me the best chance of making it to the NHL, yet have a chance to get a degree from a good university,” says the eight-year NHL veteran. Horcoff, who earned his degree in finance and mathematics from MSU, says, “I’m fortunate that I made the right decision.”