A version of this article originally appeared in the February issue of MiHockeyMag.
By Michael Caples –
Often times, the tales of budding stars’ hockey journeys are romanticized and celebrated.
Just three months ago, Zach Werenski graced the cover of MiHockeyMag, as we talked about how he made a trek through youth hockey, USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program and two years at Michigan look easy as he strolled into the starting line-up of the Columbus Blue Jackets at age 19.
Werenski’s story gets told time and time again, however, because of how unique it is. Of the 1 percent who ‘make it,’ even fewer had such a simple progression through the hockey ranks.
For most, it’s seizing opportunities; for capitalizing on chances when they present themselves.
The NAHL Top Prospects Tournament is one such opportunity, and it begins today in Plymouth.
Each year, the junior league brings together their best players still working towards a Division 1 college commitment. They also gather the top NHL Draft-eligible players for a ‘select’ team, as well.
The players show up at USA Hockey Arena for two days of games. Sure, there will be some fans in the stands, but the important attendees are the scouts and the coaches.
There are many. And they are watching, searching for their next recruit or their next draft pick.
White Lake native Anthony Scarsella could be viewed as a poster-boy for the Top Prospects Tournament; less than a month after skating in the 2016 edition, he committed to Michigan State.
“The prospects game is an unbelievable event,” Scarsella said. “I think they do a great job with it where it’s not so much an all-star game… It’s fast-paced, it’s good, and I think what’s so great about it is you take the top players from each organization and you get to play against the top guys.
“Everyone’s there, schools are represented, which is nice. It’s tough when you play a Thursday game, like where I played – Springfield – it’s a little harder to get to than in Plymouth, so it’s nice, it brings everyone to one location, where all the schools can get to easy.”
Williamston native Chad Catt spent three years in the NAHL hoping to land a D1 college offer, going from Amarillo, Texas to Aberdeen, S.D., to Sault Ste. Marie while building his goaltending resume. The Compuware, Honeybaked and Victory Honda alum seized one of his final opportunities, skating in the 2015 Top Prospects Tournament and catching the attention of the Maize and Blue. He is now a sophomore with the University of Michigan hockey program.
“At that point, you have nothing to lose. You don’t have anything set up and you’re just trying to give it one last push. For me, it was three years. I know a lot of kids started playing juniors their junior, senior year of high school, but I knew it was kind of my last chance. Why be nervous when you just have that one opportunity?”
And while it’s a ‘last-shot’ type of deal for some, it’s a profile booster for others. Tecumseh’s Cameron Clarke (the one on the cover), played on the NAHL Selects Team last year – the collection of NHL Draft-eligible players. He was already committed to Ferris State, but the added exposure led to him being selected by the Boston Bruins in last summer’s draft.
“You get to go there for the week, a couple days there and play two games,” Clarke said. “It’s great to be able to have all those scouts there in one building to see everyone play. You’re just trying to have fun with it, not put too much pressure on yourself, but it was great exposure for me and I’m sure all the other guys, too, so it’s a great event that the league puts on for us.”
This year, a new crop of Michigan boys will get their shot at the Top Prospects Tournament. Advice from the above list of success stories:
“There’s a lot of hype and build around it, especially with all the teams in the stands. Just go, do what you normally do. Something small, is warm up the same. Just go and do what you do best, and don’t try and score 100 goals because Michigan State is sitting in the stands. Just play your game and let the game kind of come to you and play to it.” – Scarsella
“Patience. Don’t let your mind get in your own way. For me, I know that was my issue my second year. My third year, I think I kind of understood everything’s a process. Yeah, a lot of kids don’t want to go into college at 21, but if it’s what you really want to do, you have to just take it and overall it’ll help set you up for success in the future.” – Catt
“Just to not put too much pressure on yourself, just go out there and have fun. Play your game and don’t do anything different than what you would do in a real game. Don’t try to do too much. If you’re a goal scorer, try to score goals. If you’re a playmaker, make plays. Don’t try to be out of your element, because most of the people there know what type of player you are, and they’re looking at you for certain reasons, so stay focused and play your game.” – Clarke