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USHL Alumni Voices: College Hockey's New Stars

Sunday October 16, 2011

USHL alumni John Gaudreau, Garrett Haar, and Nick Mattson. (photos by Jim Naprstek, mJoy Photography, and Whiteshark Photography)

by James D'Amanda, USHL.com

As USHL teams geared up for Week 3 of the 2011-12 season, they also entered their third week of learning how to win games at the USHL level.  Ask just about any first-year player whether they have fully adjusted to USHL competition, and very few will respond with, “Sure I have – it was easy!” 

The same can be said for the many USHL alumni who have now officially joined the college ranks.  With over one-third of all college hockey players carrying USHL credentials, the top teams in the nation have once again bulked up their rosters with League vets.  USHL.com checked in on a few of these elite young players at a critical stage in the transition process, and here’s what the had to say:

First up: John Gaudreau.

The Fighting Saints grad and current Boston College Eagles freshman has gotten off to a hot start with the team ranked #1 in the country.  Affectionately known as “Goo” by his USHL teammates, Gaudreau the League’s 4th leading scorer of the 2010-11 regular season with 72 points in 60 games (36 goals, 36 assists) and second leading scorer of the postseason with 11 points in 11 games (5 goals, 6 assists).  When all was said and done, Gaudreau left the USHL with a Clark Cup title and USHL Rookie of the Year honors. 

It came as no surprise to Fighting Saints fans – okay, even they were a bit surprised – when the Calgary Flames snagged Gaudreau in the 4th round of the 2011 NHL Entry Draft.  Even still, skeptics wondered whether the 5-foot-7, 145-pound forward would adjust well to the college game. 

So far, Gaudreau has answered that question with Hockey East Rookie of the Week honors after a four-point night against the University of North Dakota at the Ice Breaker Tournament in Grand Forks, North Dakota. 

How do you feel about your play so far, just two games into your NCAA career?

I feel great – winning those two games on the weekend (against Michigan State and North Dakota) and getting a couple points there to help the team win.  It’s been awesome playing with two really good players in Steven Whitney (Omaha Lancers, ’08-09) and Pat Mullane (Omaha Lancers, ’08-10), they are giving me pointers and if I’m doing something wrong they tell me what I should be doing.  They’ve been helping me a lot.

What’s different about the college game from the USHL?

I was pretty nervous when I went to the USHL being a small guy, and coming to college I was thinking, “Ah man, I’m going to be playing against bigger stronger guys,” but I went to Calgary’s development camp this summer and played with a lot of the older guys – it’s pretty much the same as college hockey.  So going to camp really helped with the transition and I’m really thankful that I got drafted.

Did you expect to get drafted?  What did it feel like to hear your name called?

Throughout my career there were all those rankings coming out and I was never on them.  When the final rankings came out they put me at #190, so I was like, “Well, it’s cool to be on it but let’s get real, John – you’re 5-7, 145 – it’s not going to happen.”  But my coach, Jim Montgomery – he was talking to a lot of NHL teams and helping me out a lot during the process – he said I was going to go between 3rd to 5th round and I was like, “You’re kidding me, right…there’s no way.”  Hearing my name called…it was awesome.  I was ecstatic.  No words to describe it.

How’s the team chemistry so far?

We’re coming together really well.  All the guys from the team like each other, and there isn’t that one guy who feels out of place.  The way our chemistry was in Dubuque was just awesome, I feel like that’s the reason why we won last year and I feel the same way here right now.

You have your home opener coming up on Friday night…are you ready for it?

I’m really excited – got some family coming up who live in Boston.  Coach said it’s going to be pretty much sold out, and I’m definitely thinking it’s going to be an awesome time playing here in front of a sold-out crowd.

Note: Gaudreau is one of twelve USHL alumni on the Eagles’ roster, which currently holds eight NHL draft picks (Including “Goo”).

Nick Mattson

This fall, the reigning USHL Defenseman of the Year joined eleven fellow League vets as a proud member of the University of North Dakota Fighting Sioux.  After an exceptional year with Indiana Ice, Mattson finished the regular season as the USHL’s second leading scorer among defenseman.  The 6-foot-1, 190-pound blueliner was already selected in the 6th round, 180th overall, of the 2010 NHL Entry Draft by the Chicago Blackhawks following his rookie campaign.   This season, Mattson became one of 15 NHL picks on the Fighting Sioux’s roster, and having spent part of this summer at Blackhawks development camp, he’s more than ready to give the 6th ranked team in the nation a serious boost at the blueline.

How were the first few weeks on campus?

It’s been unbelievable.  I expected a lot coming in and it has exceeded my expectations.  Every day is a blast – the guys, the coaches, all the students that go here…. All the freshmen here living in the dorms, so hanging out in the dorms and in the cafeteria is awesome and getting to know new people, going out on weekends.  You have a lot of freedom so you have to be responsible and make the right choices.  People say college will be the best four years of your life, and it has definitely seemed that way so far.

What has been your experience so far with Fighting Sioux fans?

They’ve been unbelievable.  I couldn’t even imagine the kind of support we get just in the community.  I still get chills every time I go out for the games – one of the biggest rushes I’ve ever felt, it’s really loud and exciting and gets me pretty jacked up.

How have you developed as a player since you joined the USHL back in 2009?

I gained a lot of confidence last year and was able to work a bunch of skills that will help me a lot in college.  Just the overall development in the USHL – you definitely become a more intelligent player, and you’re able to work on some of the smaller skills that aren’t always noticeable to the casual fan but make a big difference.

What’s the transition like from the USHL to college hockey?

The guys are faster, bigger and stronger…you really just have to be mentally prepared for every game and just try to bring your best effort.  Playing with such skilled players on Indiana made the transition easier.

Why did you choose North Dakota?

I think the one thing that stood out to me the most about UND was that they run their program as if it were an NHL program.  The rink is unbelievable, the facilities are some of the best in the world, and the caliber of the players they recruit is awesome.  They expect to win every year and take great pride in doing things the right way and being professional.  It’s truly an honor to be a part of this program – I can’t say enough about it – so excited to go to the rink every day.

Garrett Haar

After a strong finish to the 2010-11 campaign – a season in which the Fargo Force defenseman collected 25 points (6g, 19a) in 56 games (including the playoffs) – Haar would receive a nice reward over the summer.  With the fourth to last pick of the 2011 NHL Entry Draft, the Washington Capitals would select Garrett Haar from the USHL.  The move took many by surprise – including Haar.  But at the Capitals’ rookie camp this summer, the scout who insisted the Capitals give him a closer look would receive plenty of pats on the back, as Haar’s performance caught the attention of Caps’ general manager George McPhee.

“I thought Haar was the biggest surprise of the camp,” McPhee said.  “Liked his hockey sense, the way he competed I like the way he defends and he looks real strong on his skates.  We’re really delighted with a kid that we took in the seventh round that performed the way he did.  It’s pretty impressive.”

This fall, Haar enrolled at Western Michigan University, where he looks to carry that momentum into the 2011-12 season.  Including Haar, seven of the ten incoming freshman have USHL ties, with WMU’s roster boasting 23 USHL alumni in total.

How were your first two games playing college hockey?

My first few games I played against Toronto and Alabama-Huntsville, which are two big physical teams.  In my first college game, I expected to make mistakes – as I did – but I don’t think I played that poorly overall.  Right now, it’s a learning curve that I’m going to have to adjust to, and the team’s only going to get better.

Looking back on your year in the USHL, what do you remember most?

I loved playing for the Force, to be honest.  In Fargo, we had a great arena, first off.  We probably have the best arena in the USHL.  We got over 3,000 fans a game, it got loud.  The fans are great people, they’re really down to earth, their easy to talk to, and after games sometimes we would do “Skate with the Force” or we’d sign autographs.  I really enjoyed that.  They were really interested in you as a player and they cared about your life, too.  If anyone asks me if they should go play there, it’s an absolute “Yes.”

Can you describe what it felt like to hear your name called so late in the draft?

I didn’t go to the draft because I didn’t want to sit there and not get drafted.  I don’t really know what to say.  When I found out I ran downstairs and yelled at my parents and they started freaking out.  Honestly I’m at a loss for words.  The happiest day of my life.  Everything I’ve worked for in my life was leading up to that.

Were you happy with the way you played at Caps development camp?

I thought I had a good camp – I did surprise myself, I thought I played better than I was capable.  Everyone telling me that I played well, it’s a tribute to the Force and the USHL as a league.  I truly believe that.



Headquartered in Chicago, Illinois, the USHL celebrates its 10th season as the nation's only Tier I junior hockey league in 2011-12. With 28 picks during the 2011 NHL Entry Draft, 18 NHL draftees on its rosters last season, and over 280 players committed to NCAA Division I schools during the 2010-11 season, the USHL is emerging as the world’s foremost producer of junior hockey talent. For more information, visit us on the web at www.USHL.com or visit the League’s multiple social media platforms, including Facebook (www.facebook.com/ushlhockey), twitter (www.twitter.com/ushl), and YouTube (www.youtube.com/ushlinteractive).

It’s not just hockey. It’s the USHL.

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