Eeli Tolvanen thinks back to his home in Finland when the USHL dream began. He and his two brothers would play hockey together in their backyard. Atte, the lone goaltender, would take shots from the younger Eeli and help him refine his game. Two years ago Atte traveled overseas for a tryout camp with the Omaha Lancers. It was the first time that either brother had heard of the junior league in America, and it left quite the impression on both.
The Sioux City Musketeers signed Eeli to a tender contract last season, utilizing their 2015 Phase I Draft 1st round pick on the promising Finnish forward. At the time, Atte was finishing his second season with the Minot Minotauros (NAHL) and had just committed to Northern Michigan University. The two brothers were set to play on American soil the following year, together for the first time since their backyard in Finland.
This season both Tolvanen brothers have shared headline worthy success. Despite Atte’s .932 SV% in 20 games with the Wildcats, it has been Eeli stealing the majority of front-page news.
The 16-year old forward has scored an impressive 31 points in 29 games and is currently ranked second in USHL rookie scoring. Those 31 points already place Tolvanen 10th all-time in USHL scoring during a player’s U17 season, with 27 games still remaining this season. That kind of production places Tolvanen into an elite group of players with the likes of Nick Schmaltz (Green Bay Gamblers) and Kyle Connor (Youngstown Phantoms), both first round NHL Draft picks. The top-10 also includes potential 2015 NHL Draft first rounders Kieffer Bellows (Sioux Falls Stampede) and Clayton Keller (Team USA).
Sioux City Musketeers head coach Jay Varady has noticed Tolvanen’s potential, and already sees what might be to come.
“I think Eeli is similar to other top level NHL drafted players I have worked with in the past in the sense that he is ultra-competitive and wants to be the best,” Varady said. “He has a strong desire to do the little things that will make him and his teammates be successful.”
Tolvanen has been Sioux City’s best player this season, leading the team in both points and goals. The Musketeers are 9-2-1 in games that Tolvanen scores a goal, one of the largest compliments to a 16-year old budding superstar in a league dominated by older, stronger men. Tolvanen admits that some of this year’s early success in the USHL, and internationally, has caught him off guard.
“I’ve been a little bit of surprised,” Tolvanen said. “The first game when I got a couple of goals was a surprise. This season has all been a little bit of a surprise.”
Early success has led to a variety of consequences both good and bad. Media and scouts alike have begun to put a magnifying glass over Tolvanen’s potential hockey future after this season. Despite what some players might consider a stressful situation to be in at such a young age, Tolvanen has found comfort in knowing that the future decisions he has to make are both exciting and fun.
“It has been pretty exciting for different schools to tell me what they can offer,” Tolvanen said. “They call me and tell me why they want me at their schools. So far school has been easy here, which is good too.”
In just his first USHL season, Tolvanen noted he’s been able to find a best friend in teammate Jackson Keane, has enjoyed living with his new billet family and wanted to thank the Sioux City fans for their support this season. Another interesting moment earlier this year was when Tolvanen found himself at the faceoff circle with Madison Capitols forward Eetu Selanne. Eetu, son of former Anaheim Ducks forward Teemu Selanne, joins Tolvanen as one of five players in the USHL with ties to Finland.
For now, Tolvanen isn’t worried about what might happen the rest of this season. He preferred talking about the bus trips with his teammates, playing back at home with his brother, and focusing on one thing: playing good hockey.
Varady has taken notice of that in his rookie phenom. “Eeli has a real passion for the game. He comes to the rink trying to find a way to improve his game. He plays the game with a smile on his face.”
Headquartered in Chicago, Illinois, the USHL celebrates its 14th season as the nation's only Tier I junior hockey league in 2015-16. A record 37 players were chosen in the 2015 NHL Draft and more than 375 players on team rosters last season committed to NCAA Division I schools, further establishing the USHL as the world’s foremost producer of junior hockey talent.