Junior hockey helps teenage hockey players prepare for the next level and life after hockey

Words by Turner Olson
Video by Geoffrey Daley

The scene is a familiar one: hockey players skating back and forth across the ice after the coach blows the whistle. The Des Moines Buccaneers players are filming a promotional video meant to evoke memories of the classic scene from Disney’s Miracle. But it also serves as a reminder that the original men from the 1980 United States Olympic Men’s Hockey Team were nothing more than amateur hockey players themselves.

The 1980 Olympic team even played in Buccaneer Arena in September 1979 for a preseason National Hockey League exhibition against the St. Louis Blues, Olympic coach Herb Brooks recommended the area start a junior team to fill the vacant arena. Thus, on February 15, 1980 the Des Moines Buccaneers were formed.

“Growing up in Minnesota, playing hockey there, you always hear about guys leaving high school early and going and playing in the USHL,” said Eric Otto, a Bucs forward. “And I knew that was always something I wanted to do. I was always willing to leave school or leave home early to come play in the USHL. This is, I feel, the best chance for me to get into college hockey.”

With more than 400 players committed to play Division I hockey this past season, the United States Hockey League (USHL) is instrumental in preparing athletes for the next level.

They come from a variety of different backgrounds and upbringings, including as far from the Midwest as Cologne, Germany in the case of Bucs defenseman Colin Ugbekile, who made the team on a tryout.

“I saw it as a great opportunity for me to show myself,” Ugbekile said. “Here there are a lot more scouts than in Germany.” Like professional leagues, an annual draft is held each year.

“Infrastructure within the teams are meant to maintain high end international players. And you can see manipulation and recruitment seep in,” said Aaron Westendorf, USHL Director of Communications. “The draft is meant to provide parity and competition around the league.”

Players who enter the draft risk being uprooted to a new area to begin their hockey careers.

“It was easy for me to choose to play in the USHL and I had the opportunity to come to camp,” Otto said. “But leaving home was the hard part.”

Buccaneer Arena, affectionately known as the Madhouse on Hickman, has produced its fair share of stars since the formation of the Buccaneers. In 2011, the team became just the second in the history of the USHL to win 800 games.  Over the years, as players and coaches come and go, some move on to the next level.

“Obviously, my main goal is to make the NHL, and I saw that as a great opportunity to get to where I want to be when I’m older,” Ugbekile said.

In 2001, the Buccaneers joined the USHL, which offers the highest level of junior hockey competition in the country. The league is classified as the only Tier 1 junior hockey league in the United States.

“Junior hockey is primarily 16 to 20-year-olds and serves two major purposes,” Westendorf said. “One, it’s the top Junior league in America, primary feeder to college hockey and two, it creates high-end NHL draft prospects.”

The league, which has established itself as the top junior league in the United States, has its sights set on competing with the best junior leagues around the world.

“Players have lots of skill and talent. The goalies are amazing,” Otto said. “There’s nothing bad about this league. Every player is a great player.”

The goal for players is always to make it to the college and NHL ranks after a short stay in Tier 1 junior hockey. A full list of those the league has helped on their way to stardom can be found at ushl.com.

“College coaches have told us the players they get from the USHL learn how to handle themselves with time management,” Westendorf said.

Goalie Nick MacNab has committed to play at Yale University after playing in the USHL, and credits his time in the USHL for helping him develop into a better player.

“All these guys are going on to play Division I hockey,” MacNab said. “You can’t take a day off. You have to be relentless during practice as well as games.”

Yale approached him after a tournament on the east coast. They told him to be patient with them even though he might get other offers.

“Yale’s always been one of those schools that, if I had the opportunity to go to, it’s something I’d want to jump on,” MacNab said.

He is just one of the many players in the USHL who will be playing NCAA Division I Hockey in the future. The league produced more than 400 such players last season, more than ever before.

“It’s a part of me growing up all around the Midwest. I’m very fortunate for that,” MacNab said. “Now I’m excited to head out east and see a different part of the country.”