June 22, 2005
All the Young Dudes

College coaches set sights on 15- and 16-year-olds

By Paul Shaheen

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If 16-year old Freddy Adu can be considered one of the country's top soccer players and 15-year-old Michelle Wie can rank among the world's best female golfers, it should come as no surprise that college hockey coaches are devoting more time to identifying potential prospects at an earlier age.

Need proof? Read on and you'll learn about two 16-year-olds who've recently committed to CCHA schools, a 15-year-old who will mull the college route versus major junior hockey in Omaha this season and the one that got away coveted 16-year-old Montreal native Angelo Esposito.

Nick of Time

15-year-old defenseman Nick Petrecki is a man-child who's been garnering D-I attention for well over a year.

A 6-3, 203-pound native of Clifton Park, N.Y., Petrecki has a combination of size, speed and quickness which has thus far translated into standing offers from the Ontario Hockey League's Plymouth (Mich.) Whalers and longing gazes from schools such as Michigan, Boston College, Boston University and Wisconsin. The confident but soft-spoken Petrecki, who registered five goals, 23 points and 159 PIMs in 53 games for the Eastern Junior Hockey League's Capital District Selects last year, has committed to improving his game next season with the Omaha Lancers of the United States Hockey League.

"I sat down with my parents and discussed the pros and cons (of whether to go to the OHL or not), and at this point, I don't think I need to give up on college just yet," said Petrecki, who was the eighth overall selection by Plymouth at this year's OHL draft. "(Whalers coach and general manager) Mike Vellucci is a very good man and it was a great honor to be taken by them, but right now I believe Omaha is the best place for me, both academically and on the ice."

Omaha coach/GM Mike Hastings took a flier on Petrecki in the second round of this year's USHL draft. It seemed like a risky move at the time, but in hindsight was one that was well worth it.

"He's really a special hockey player and a special young man," said Hastings. "He has tremendous size and strength, and he has what I like to call 'want to.' He wants to be an elite player and he wants to do what's necessary to get there."

As of now, Petrecki’s quest includes an odd pre-game ritual.

"Four hours before every game, I drink one gallon of water and eat two Power Bars," explained Petrecki, who has gained 20 pounds in the last 12 months. "Any flavor, peanut butter or chocolate, it doesn't matter. I started doing it at a tournament earlier this year. I played well there, and I've been doing it ever since."

Cole Mining

Sixteen-year-old defenseman Ian Cole was not unlike Petrecki. Talented, skilled and offensive-minded, he also had the CHL in mind. Motivated to earn a degree and piqued by the notion of Jeff Jackson taking over the reins at Notre Dame, Cole opted to commit to the Irish earlier this month. He’ll likely enroll in the fall of 2007.

Bronx Bomber

In an effort to further his career and earn a shot at a Division I scholarship, 19-year-old forward and Bronx, N.Y., native Tom Mele left home this past season to play for the Central Ontario Junior Hockey League’s Hawkesbury Hawks. The team is based in a bilingual town of 12,000 residents situated along the Ottawa River halfway between Ottawa and Montreal.

"I admit it's a bit unconventional," he said. "Here I am, a big city kid from the States playing in a French town. But I found it very relaxing. It's a much slower pace, everyone's into hockey and I really learned a great deal about the people and their culture."

He’s even learned a little French along the way. "I've begun to be able to understand it,” Mele explains, ”but when it comes to speaking, I need help."

On the ice, Mele's play needs little translation. He scored 25 goals and 49 points in 56 games with the Hawks and helped the team to the Royal Bank Cup, the Canadian junior A national tournament.

"When I got him, he was very raw," said Hawkesbury coach Eric Veilleux, a former Hawkesbury player in the early 1990's who enjoyed an eight-year career in the American and International Hockey Leagues. "Did he have speed? Yes, that was his prime asset, but he had to adjust his game. He really had to work on things like turning sharply and finishing checks. But he had the grit to do it, and his game totally changed."

Mele has caught the attention of D-I schools, particularly those from the ECACHL. Union is taking a hard look at him, likely for the fall of 2006.

Perhaps Mele's move to Hawkesbury is unconventional but considering where his baseball loyalties lie, he seems to have developed a pattern of out-of-the-box thinking.

"We're from the Bronx, we've got five people in our household and the only Yankee fan in the house is my sister, Kim," Mele laughed. "The rest of us root for the Mets." — P.S.

His college choice provided a moment of levity for Cole’s teammates with the U.S. National Team Development Program the following day. No one mentioned the commitment during the team’s routine spring skate that day until he walked into the locker room after practice and was greeted with a chorus of "Roo-dee, Roo-dee, Roo-dee" in reference to the 1993 film about Notre Dame football walk-on Dan “Rudy” Ruettiger.

"That morning, (NTDP defenseman) Trent Palm got wind that I'd committed to Notre Dame and…text messaged the guys on their cell phones," Cole explained. "I had no idea anyone knew.”

Unlike the pint-sized Ruettiger, Cole measures 6-foot-1 and 207 pounds, having gained 20 pounds during the past year thanks to his assiduous work in the weight room. He has loads of offensive ability, but his physical prowess stands out most.

"For being the youngest guy out there, he's done pretty well," said NTDP coach John Hynes, who's been overseeing Team USA's spring workouts. "He's very good in one-on-one battles because he's so strong on his skates, and he's very difficult to knock off the puck when it's in his possession."

Hynes didn't see him skate on a regular basis last year, but Brian Burke, coach of Cole’s Victory Honda midget AAA team, did.

"He is built like a man," said Burke, who convinced Cole to leave the Compuware system to join his club last fall. "Holy smokes, just try shaking his hand…he's very thick and physically strong."

Add offensively gifted to that list of praises. Last season, Cole helped Victory Honda to the Michigan state midget AAA title with nine goals and 31 points in 68 games.

Cole narrowed his list of colleges to Michigan, Notre Dame and Wisconsin. The Ann Arbor, Mich., native knew Notre Dame assistant coach Andy Slaggert, his coach at the 2004 USA Hockey Select 15 Festival in St. Cloud, Minn., last summer. Cole felt comfortable with Slaggert and wound up taking an unofficial visit to South Bend earlier this year.

“I grew up a Michigan fan, but I really liked the size and the tradition of Notre Dame and…I didn't want to stay in Ann Arbor my whole life,” Cole explained. ”At Notre Dame, I can get an Ivy League education without having to go out east. And Jeff Jackson becoming the head coach swayed me even more.

”I know Notre Dame had a tough time last season…but I think Coach Jackson can turn things around."

In-State Style

Speaking of 2007, Ohio State joined the youth movement recently by securing a commitment from 16-year-old forward John Albert, a Cleveland native who last season scored 34 goals and 94 points in 67 games for the AAA Cleveland Junior Barons.

"I never thought…I'd ever be able to get an offer in only my sophomore year," said the 5-10, 160 pound Albert, who attends Lake Catholic H.S. in Cleveland. "(The OSU coaches) started talking with my coaches halfway through the season. Then I went down there for a couple of (unofficial) visits and I really loved the campus.

“I grew up an Ohio State fan and being only two hours or so away from home was big part of it as well."

Albert was born and raised in the Cleveland area and in time may become the latest torch bearer in the city’s growing college hockey fraternity which includes the likes of Tom Fritsche (Ohio State), older brother Danny Fritsche (Columbus Blue Jackets), and former Michigan State standout Jim Slater, a Michigan native who starred for the Barons’ North American Hockey League squad.

"Johnny's a very dynamic player," said the Barons’ AAA coach Greg Heffernan, a Toronto native who spent two years as a Mercyhurst assistant. "He has all the offensive tools, but he's also very responsible in his own end. He's not that physical, but he usually seems able to get himself in the right position on the ice."

Albert claims to have grown nearly two inches taller in the last 18 months. "By the time I get to college, I'd love to be 6-0 and 180 pounds," said Albert, who played three games for the NAHL Barons late this season. "I need to get bigger and stronger and keep working on my face-offs."

"I think he holds himself to higher standards than a lot of kids I've seen through the years," said Heffernan. "He's such a competitor. And he's a good student, and an overall good kid."

With eight juniors on its roster for the coming season, there’s little wonder why the Buckeyes are pegging Albert for the fall of 2007. That spring, OSU will graduate five forwards including Bryce Anderson, Matt Beaudoin and Andrew Schembri.

Espo a No-Go

Shattuck St. Mary's star forward Angelo Esposito announced Tuesday his intentions to join the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League's Quebec Remparts next season.

The Remparts, co-owned by future Hall of Famer Patrick Roy, traded up to select the 16-year-old with the 11th overall pick in last month's QMJHL draft. This despite Angelo's father, John, insisting for months his son had no desire whatsoever to play in the major junior ranks.

''I'm sad for Mr. Roy because he lost a first round pick," John Esposito said two weeks ago. "He has a year to pass in Shattuck, then he will choose between Boston University and the University of New Hampshire."

Esposito's agent, Philippe Lecavalier, is insisting no money has or will be exchanged between the Remparts and the Espositos. Lecavalier, a former Clarkson blueliner and brother of NHL star Vincent Lecavalier, claims the Remparts will guarantee Angelo the four-year college education of his choice regardless of his professional hockey future, and adds that the Remparts took the time to show the Espositos how playing hockey and getting an education would work in the QMJHL.

Paul Shaheen is the publisher of Research on Ice and will contribute recruiting updates to Inside College Hockey throughout the year. To subscribe to Research on Ice's free daily recruiting e-mail newsletter, contact Paul at puckkeg@comcast.net.

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