Denfeld News

Dec. 6, 2007
Duluth News Tribune

Players’ choice: stay with their team or leave for junior league?
By Rick Weegman

Jake Johnson and Drew LeBlanc have a lot in common.

The cousins were among Northeastern Minnesota’s elite high school hockey players in the 2006-07 season. They have traveled extensively, playing on some of the nation’s best youth teams in international competitions. And while both can put the puck in the net, they often are more dangerous setting up their teammates.

Johnson and LeBlanc also were targets of the United States Hockey League. Each was asked to leave his senior season behind and play junior hockey in a league for 16- to 21-year-olds.

Johnson, who attends Duluth Denfeld, eschewed the offer and opted to return to the Hunters. LeBlanc, who led Hermantown to an undefeated season and a Minnesota Class A state title last season, decided to make the move.

With the NHL snapping up younger players out of college, and colleges wanting seasoned recruits, it’s a decision that several of the area’s top players must make on a yearly basis. More often they are choosing to leave.

“I’d have to say it’s the hardest [decision] I’ve had to make,” said LeBlanc, who scored a team-record 90 points in the Hawks’ 29-0-2 title-winning season and now is playing for the Chicago Steel of the USHL. “Leaving everyone I grew up playing hockey with and being away from home was tough.”

Seniors-to-be Nico Sacchetti of Virginia, Keegan Flaherty of Duluth East and Brady Hjelle of International Falls also took that route this fall. Players such as Anthony DeCenzo of Hibbing and Denfeld’s Johnson stayed home.

Johnson did so despite his future team advising him that the alternative was better for him.

“You get a lot of pressure from the [USHL] coaches to go there,” said Johnson, who probably will join the Sioux City Musketeers in the spring. “Sioux City’s coaches understood how big of a deal the state tournament is. But they thought it’d be better for my development if I leave.”

Denfeld coach Kevin Smalley said he respects Johnson’s decision to play one more year with his high school teammates.

“It depends on the circumstances and the situation,” Smalley said. “I do know the one thing you can’t get back is high school sports. To me, that’s been No. 1 — to play with your friends.”

Last winter, Johnson said he was 95 percent certain he was coming back in an effort to help the Hunters reach the state tournament for the first time since 1989. He made a definitive choice after Denfeld lost in the Section 7A playoffs to St. Cloud Cathedral.

“After our loss to St. Cloud, it went to 100 percent,” he said. “I wasn’t even thinking about leaving.”

The 18-year-old LeBlanc didn’t have to weigh the factor of playing in a state tournament. He wanted to go up against players who were faster and stronger, something that the USHL and its multitude of future Division I college players offers.

“I had a great time in high school. We went undefeated and won a state title,” said LeBlanc, who lives with the Steel’s coach, former NHL defenseman Steve Poapst, and attends Willowbrook High School in Lombard, Ill. “Not many people get the opportunity to play in the USHL their senior year.”

LeBlanc, who has signed to play at St. Cloud State, has scored eight goals and has nine assists in centering the Steel’s top line.

Guy LeBlanc, Drew’s father, encouraged his son to stay in high school and play hockey, football and baseball.

“At Hermantown, we promote the three-sport athlete,” the elder LeBlanc said. “But it was time for him to pursue his [main] interest.”

Guy LeBlanc said St. Cloud State, while not forcing his son’s decision, told him they wanted him to be a contributing factor right away next season, and playing the USHL’s 60-game schedule would be the best way to achieve that.

“Would one more year [in high school] have killed him? No, he would have been fine,” Guy LeBlanc said. “But he wanted to speed up the process. If you get an A-plus in Algebra II, you don’t take Algebra II again.”

Sacchetti says USHL makes players better

Sacchetti, 18, made up his mind to leave before being drafted by the Dallas Stars in the second round of the NHL Entry Draft in June.

“To say it was a tough decision is a complete understatement,” Sacchetti said. “There were positives and negatives.”

Sacchetti, who has signed to play at the University of Minnesota, said the turning point was talking to Minnesota sophomore Tony Lucia. Lucia, son of Gophers coach Don Lucia, told him that if he hadn’t gone to the USHL first, he wouldn’t have been ready to play his freshman season.

“It definitely is [a trend], because the level of hockey is so good and it makes you a better player,” said Sacchetti, who has three goals and three assists in 14 games with the Omaha Lancers.

Sacchetti is the first player to leave for the USHL in Keith Hendrickson’s 22 years of coaching the Blue Devils.

“Some kids feel because they are going to college right out of high school, they feel the need to be more prepared,” Hendrickson said. “It wasn’t like he didn’t feel he could get any better here.

“If he ends up playing professional hockey, playing juniors won’t have anything to do with that. He’ll still get to where he wants to go.”

Hendrickson says the recent trend is a trickle-down effect.

“The NHL is taking more and more younger players out of college, and the colleges are playing younger players,” he said. “Now, it’s trickled down to high school.”

Sacchetti, who scored a Northland-high 94 points as a junior, says the difference between juniors and high schools is immediately noticeable, and he feels it’s going to make him a better player in the long run.

“The biggest difference in this league than playing in Minnesota is you have to be a two-way player,” he said. “It makes me focus on something that I’ve never focused on in my life, and that’s play more defensively.”

While some players in the USHL use the league to hone their skills before heading off to college, others are hoping to land a Division I commitment by playing well in the league.

Flaherty, 17, wants to eventually sign with a team in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association after his stint with the Green Bay Gamblers. He has one goal in 13 games.

“I definitely am happy with the decision I made,” said the forward, who is living with the Cottrell family and attending Ashwaubenon High School. “I told myself I would have no regrets, and I haven’t so far. It’s been a great experience.”

Some choose high school over junior hockey

Not everyone was drawn in by the USHL experience.

Hibbing’s DeCenzo was offered a roster spot by the Tri-City Storm. While he hopes to play there next year and be offered a college scholarship, like Denfeld’s Johnson, the lure of appearing in the state tournament was too tempting.

“We’ve been in the section finals three years in a row [and lost], and I want to get to the state tournament really bad,” he said.

Surprisingly, DeCenzo said playing one more year for his father, Mark, was not a big consideration.

“Right away, he said he wanted to stay and play with his classmates and try to get to the state tournament,” Mark DeCenzo said. “There’s advantages and disadvantages. By and large, I don’t think a kid needs to leave. They can always go [to the USHL] next year.”

Those who did leave often find living on their own a bigger challenge than the hockey.

“Moving away from home you don’t think is a big deal a year earlier, but it makes you realize the world is a lot bigger than Duluth,” said Flaherty, who plans on transferring back to East in mid-April in order to graduate with his class.

Sacchetti, who lives with the Gyhra host family in Omaha, has a more succinct description of the experience. “Overnight, you’re forced to become a man,” he said.

That’s one aspect that Hendrickson is concerned about. He believes the high school experience is one that can never be duplicated.

“I’m a big believer in the journey,” he said. “But some just see the destination and want to get there so bad, the journey just passes them by.”

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