Former Waterloo Black Hawks teammates Cal Petersen and Cam Johnson will take the ice in Cincinnati for the 2016 NCAA Hockey Championship this weekend. The two were both a part of Waterloo’s 2014 Anderson Cup championship, and have since graduated to play for the University of Notre Dame and University of North Dakota respectively.
Petersen, a Buffalo Sabres prospect, is playing in his second season at the University of Notre Dame. The Waterloo, IA native played two full season with the Black Hawks, including one season after being selected in the 2013 NHL Draft in the 5th round, 129th overall.
That 2013-14 season was when the Black Hawks acquired Johnson, a NHL free agent attracting more attention this season, from the Fargo Force. Johnson played two seasons with Fargo, making it a natural progression to attend the University of North Dakota.
“When I was playing in Fargo I was right in their backyard,” Johnson said. “I got to catch some games and got to see their coaching staff a good amount. It was nice to play in Fargo and made the transition pretty smooth.”
Johnson is one of five Mike Richter award finalists, awarded to the NCAA’s top goaltender each year, giving USHL alumni four of the five finalists. He is also the youngest finalist as a sophomore. Meanwhile, just as noteworthy has been Petersen’s big games to keep Notre Dame in the hunt for a NCAA title.
Petersen posted a 19-10-7 record this season with Notre Dame with a .928 SV% and 2.19 GAA. All of the numbers were an improvement from last season, something Petersen and the Buffalo Sabres are both happy with.
“I’ve been very proud of this year,” Petersen said. “I think we’ve put ourselves in good position to be here at regionals and making the tournament. It’s all been a progression from the USHL to moving up the ranks to college and trying to get better each year, not just from a statistical standpoint but a consistency standpoint and being a leader on and off the ice. It’s been a continuation and I’m proud of the way the USHL prepared me to step into college and make an immediate impact.”
Petersen noted that although he’s a Sabres prospect, he’s first and foremost a University of Notre Dame right now. It can be hard at times to separate the media speculation and hypotheticals, but the Buffalo Sabres have made it a point to allow the goaltender to focus on his game.
“They’re a first class organization and they treat their prospects really well and understand the space I need being in college in respects to being with the team I’m with now,” Petersen said. “Going to the development camps is a priority of mine and theirs, but they’ve been very supportive and are there if I ever need anything. I’m looking forward to having an opportunity to play with them soon.”
Johnson compared the similar experience of media speculation to being a blessing in disguise. He is allowed to potentially sign a contract with any of the 30 NHL teams, and can decide based upon depth charts and organizational situations what is best for him. He credited the USHL and University of North Dakota for getting him to this point and is excited for what might be to come.
“I’m very happy where I’m at and I’m at an unbelievable school,” Johnson said. “This is definitely a good stepping stone for the NHL maybe some day. It’s a goal now but growing up I never thought about it and I just would think about playing college hockey and getting a scholarship to make it easier on my family.”
Both goaltenders echoed one another in respect to USHL and college hockey giving young goaltenders the extra opportunity to develop into NHL prospects. With the extra time allowed to sign an NHL entry-level contract, and the extra off-ice development, goaltenders tend to benefit from the pace of development.
Since 2010 the USHL has produced more American NHL goaltenders than all other developmental leagues combined.
“It’s imperative and I’ve always been completely comfortable with my decision to go the USHL and college,” Petersen said. “I’m not in a rush and I want to be at the right point in my development for when I’m ready to make a step. Timing is everything whether you move to the next level and being ready to step in and make an impact right away and not feel like you’re behind the curve.
“I think the USHL prepares you for college, and you can leave when you’re ready to leave, and college prepares you perfectly for professional hockey with four extra years, or whenever you decide the right time is to continue your career, which is important for goaltenders who take a little longer to gain that maturity and that confidence and experience.”
Neither goaltender has the immediate concern or pressure to settle on future professional plans. The focus for now is giving their respective teams a chance to win, and get to Tampa Bay, FL for the Frozen Four.
As for the future generations of USHL and college hockey players, both goaltenders think that junior hockey in America will continue to produce talented NCAA and NHL prospects similar to the trend in recent years.
“You have to stick to the process and you have to keep working,” Johnson said. “If you’re good enough, they’re going to find you. If you put the work in you’re going to get rewarded. It’s all about staying with the grind and not getting discouraged. Things will eventually turn your way when you’re doing the right thing.”
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.