Photo by Hickling Images
The United States Hockey League has given Bloomington Thunder defenseman Daniel Willett quite a bit over the last five seasons, and this weekend Willett will give something back.
On Saturday night, when the Thunder face Team USA in Plymouth, Michigan, Willett will dress in his 237th career USHL game and establish a new league record for career games played.
His five-year career has run the gamut of emotions from the highs of making his commitment to the Rochester Institute of Technology to play Division I college hockey to the lows of being traded three times and having to leave behind teammates and friends.
But for the Bayville, New York, native, those ups and downs are all part of achieving what started nearly 10 years ago in the hopes of one day playing at the collegiate level.
“It was a dream for me to play in the USHL ever since I found out about what the league was when I was 10 or 11,” Willett said. “I always knew that this was the best league and this is the league you want to get to if you want to play college hockey.”
One of just a handful of players to play into his fifth year in the highest level of junior hockey in the country, Willett has received his fair share of jeers and jests from opposing players as he’s approached the record for most games played. But there have also been congratulatory remarks and acknowledgement of what he’s about to do.
In the eyes of Thunder head coach Dennis Williams, there’s nothing wrong with the elongated path Willett has taken.
“The quicker you get out of junior hockey, the quicker you go to college and the quicker you have to go to work,” Williams said.
Willett, the oldest of four children, has always had a place as an older brother in his immediate family. But he started his USHL career as one of the youngest players in the league, playing in his first game on Sept. 28, 2012 for the Lincoln Stars at the age of 16.
Since then, he’s grown to be, in his words, the older brother in his hockey family, too. That experience is what led the Thunder to acquire him at the end of last season to bolster the veteran presence on the blue line after losing a crop of older players.
“He brings leadership. He brings maturity. He brings competitiveness, dedication,” Williams said.
For someone who’s been in the league for multiple seasons and has a commitment to play college hockey next season like Willett does, those characteristics aren’t always the reality.
“You get worried when you have a player in the league that’s played multiple years — how motivated they are,” Williams said. “Are they checked out? Are they already looking at college?
“And he’s the opposite. He’s checked in. He wants to win a Clark Cup. He wants this team to succeed. He wants his teammates to succeed. You can see that on and off the ice of how hard he works.”
In the midst of a run to the Eastern Conference Final last season, the Thunder acquired Willett in a trade with the Madison Capitols. Williams knew he’d be losing some key pieces in the defensive corps with the likes of New Jersey Devils prospect Jeremy Davies (Northeastern), Brogan Rafferty (Quinnipiac), and 200-game veteran Butrus Ghafari (Michigan State) all moving on to college.
In that trade, Bloomington got a player that added the experience and veteran presence that Williams and the coaching staff were looking for. Although slightly undersized for a defenseman at 5-foot-6, Willett displays more than enough exuberance and effort to make up for his smaller frame. His work ethic has remained a constant despite already having a college commitment, something that’s not always the case for players in the later stages of their junior career.
“He really appreciates what he has and he doesn’t take it for granted,” Williams said. “It hasn’t been that steady, upward path for Dan. But he’s taken it all with great measures.”
Part of that path stems from Willett’s father, Dan Sr., who got a late start in hockey and didn’t get the chance to play at a higher level like his son. But Willett’s father made sure his son would have that opportunity and had Dan Jr. on skates at the age of three.
“My dad knew that when he had a son, he would get him into hockey right away. I really appreciated that,” Willett said. “He’s always been taking care of me, driving all over the place. Hopefully now, going to a great school and getting into college from the USHL, I’ll be able to pay him back for all of that.”
When Willett steps onto the ice on Saturday at USA Hockey Arena, he will leave his name in the USHL record books with a record that might never be broken. Ironically, it will come against Team USA, a team whose entire roster features players three years his junior, many of whom are in their last season in the USHL while on the fast track to college hockey through the National Team Development Program.
Although the path to college hockey has been longer for Willett than most, the result is still the same. He’ll play college hockey at one of the more prestigious Division I institutions in RIT come next season, and he’ll do it with a vast amount of previous hockey experiences at his disposal.
Those experiences might result in some flak from opposing players on the ice, but the end result is well worth the wait.
“If you ask college coaches, you can never go to school too late, Williams said. “A lot of college hockey players struggle because they go too early. They’re not ready for the adjustment. They’re not mature enough. They’re not physically ready for the grind of academics, work outs every day. With Dan, he’s ready to go in. He’s going to be an impact hockey player.”
Headquartered in Chicago, Illinois, the USHL celebrates its 15th season as the nation's only Tier I junior hockey league in 2016-17. 30 or more players from the USHL have been selected in four consecutive NHL Drafts, and more than 400 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.
Tag(s): Player News