What were you doing when you were 16?
Junior hockey players across America will already have a full scouting report on them by the age of 16. That report follows them for the rest of their hockey career, from junior hockey to college and pro.
Not every player is destined for the NHL at age 16. In fact, the majority of players aren’t destined for junior hockey at that age. American junior hockey continues to develop, through a progressive ladder, elite hockey talent for college hockey and beyond at the proper pace for each individual player.
Players are allowed a maximum opportunity to develop in American junior hockey, from as young as 16 to as old as 24 by the time college is complete.
Sioux Falls Stampede forward Austin Albrecht and Chicago Steel forward Johnny Walker are the most recent examples of the progressive hockey development in America. Both began their junior hockey careers in the NAHL, and have quickly surfaced as leaders in the USHL this season.
“The owners and coaches in the NAHL place a premium on player development,” said Mark Frankenfeld, Commissioner and President of the North American Hockey League. “Both Johnny Walker and Austin Albrecht had great success developing and earning an NCAA Division I commitment while playing in the NAHL, so it’s great to see players that had success in the NAHL continue to be successful as they continue their journey to NCAA Division I hockey.”
Every player is different. Everyone has a different story to tell. This is a story of two players, with completely different hockey upbringings, who have found early success in the USHL this season.
TOUGHER THAN STEEL
No player has seen the growth of Arizona hockey perhaps more than Chicago Steel forward Johnny Walker. Six years ago, while many teammates were pursuing careers in the WHL, Walker set his sights on playing college hockey. Now his younger brother, a 2004 birth year, has a NCAA Division I program to watch alongside the Arizona Coyotes.
Odds are, he’ll be watching.
The older Walker, a Phoenix, AZ native, is committed to Arizona State University following his junior hockey career, a decision he is very happy with.
“I always wanted to play college hockey,” said Walker. “I was skating with a kid this summer at camp and he said if he was my age or a couple of years younger he would have never thought about going to the WHL. It would’ve been automatic Arizona State, no-brainer.”
Since joining the Steel full-time this season, Walker leads the USHL in goals and has compiled a six-game goal streak, a personal best in his junior hockey career. But he wasn’t always in a position to score goals.
Walker started hockey as a defenseman, and even began his NAHL career on the blue line. A position change that late in a hockey career isn’t necessarily common, but it catapulted Walker’s hockey development.
“I was always extremely offensive even as a defenseman. I loved it, I love being up in the play and I think my coaches kind of saw the offense and gave it a shot,” said Walker. “I guess it worked out pretty well.”
Walker’s play caught the eye of the Chicago Steel organization prior to the 2015-16 season, and they selected him in the 4th round, 55th overall at the 2015 USHL Phase II Draft. But the timing wasn’t quite right. The Chicago Steel, an organization in transition, didn’t believe Walker was ready for the USHL just yet.
Between the Topeka Roudrunners and Minot Minotauros in the NAHL, Walker compiled 52 points in 52 games. He was called up to Chicago for three games and scored his first career USHL goal. His most memorable moment came in a shootout when he scored the game-winner for the Steel in a time when the team was desperate for wins.
Walker knew what he needed to do in the summer if he wanted to be back in the USHL.
“Up until this past summer I don’t think my focus level was where it needed to be in terms of being a hockey player,” said Walker. “I got away with just my skill level. This past summer it was a huge focus. A lot of credit to the coaching staff, who held me accountable for my physical condition for this season. It’s the best shape I’ve ever been in.”
The Steel believed in Walker, again drafting him in the Phase II Draft, this time in the 1st round, 11th overall. When he showed up to training camp, Walker knew this time would be different.
“Last year I was drafted and I went into camp thinking I could make the team but my preparation wasn’t there. Once I got drafted again I told myself there’s no way I would let this slide by. Not too many people get a second chance. Getting that, and taking advantage of it is something special.”
Walker originally learned how to play hockey in the desert, played three years and 130 games in the NAHL, switched from a defenseman to a forward, and now leads the USHL in goals scored, showing how hockey continues to grow across the United States, from small towns to cities in the desert.
Walker is excited to see what options his younger brother has when it’s time for him and his Arizona teammates to consider where to play junior hockey. And it goes beyond his family, as Walker noted with Arizona hockey that players are making headlines everywhere: Auston Matthews in the NHL, Ottawa Senators prospect Todd Burgess (NAHL) and NCAA champion Colten St. Clair.
“It’s awesome to see it grow especially for my little brother. The skill level and talent that his team has, and playing against teams in Phoenix that 10-15 years ago weren’t there. It’s just awesome.”
But to his credit, Walker attributed his success to his coaches and the NAHL. He mentioned the league continues to attract elite talent and continues to develop NHL Draft picks and NCAA Division I commits, including the USHL’s leading scorer.
“What Austin is doing this year is awesome, especially not just for himself but for the North American league. He’s proving to people that you don’t have to be 16-years old and out of high school playing in the USHL. He spent his time in the NAHL, and he’s just tearing it up.”
ABOVE THE HEARD
Austin Albrecht first became friends with Johnny Walker at the NAHL Top Prospects Game. The two were placed on a line together, combining for two goals and three assists. The two would stay in touch up until the 2016 Robertson Cup Playoffs, the NAHL postseason.
Albrecht’s Wichita Falls Wildcats would defeat Walker’s Topeka Roadrunners in a playoff series. It was an exclamation point in a season in which Albrecht scored 60 points in 58 regular season games before going on to score 12 points in nine playoff games.
Despite producing at a point-per-game pace in the NAHL, Albrecht found himself dropping on USHL Draft day. The Stampede selected Albrecht in the third round, a complete surprise to the forward.
“I had no idea they were going to draft me, I talked to everyone except Sioux Falls,” said Albrecht. “They took me in the third and I got a call shortly after that.”
Just before the 2016-17 USHL season, the Flemington, NJ native announced his commitment to the University of Massachusetts. Albrecht was near the end of his summer workout routine, with a college commit in hand, looking forward to the season ahead.
Now one month into the season, Albrecht leads the USHL in scoring with 16 points in nine games.
“I wanted to be one of the better guys on the team and had goals in my head,” said Albrecht. “So far I’m on track.”
Albrecht has enjoyed everything about his time in Sioux Falls, SD, from the fans to his billet parents. The Stampede have averaged over 6,000 fans per game so far this season and are set to host the 2017 USHL/NHL Top Prospects Game in January. Albrecht smiled while talking about how special the environment is as a junior hockey player in Sioux Falls.
What’s Albrecht’s recipe for success? While the summer workouts and chemistry with his Stampede teammates are important, it’s important to note the two years and 110 NAHL games he spent with Wichita Falls preparing him for this season.
“The NAHL is a great league and a great feeder league into the USHL,” said Albrecht. “If you have success there it can set you up here. It’s very quick, high skill, the NAHL is very good hockey.”
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.