WATERFORD, MI – John Baker is experiencing a homecoming of sorts this season with the Metro Jets.
As a Waterford native, Baker has come home for his last season of junior hockey and said the opportunity to play for the team he followed growing up was a chance he couldn’t turn down.
Last season, Baker played out west for the Yellowstone Quake of the Northern Pacific Hockey League and then started this season with the Leamington Flyers of the Greater Ontario Junior Hockey League before coming to the Jets, the team that selected him in June’s NA3HL draft.
“I feel lucky to be able to play for the Jets,” said the 20-year-old defenseman. “Junior hockey is a great experience and what better place to play than in your hometown. I think the team has really turned its name around since (Jason) Cirone has been coaching. I remember seeing the Jets grow up winning nationals (in 2002) and see them go through some ups and downs. I'm glad I'm playing here and I feel like this year is the year to restore the team and have a nice winning season and make a big playoff run.
“There's no doubt in my mind that our team can compete with every team in our league. I feel like we have played well, but nobody has seen us play our best yet. I feel like the second half is going to be really exciting to see how talented the team can be and how dangerous we can be if we’re all going.”
On and off the ice, Baker said it’s been fun to re-connect with players he played with or against in high school and has been “the time of my life.”
“Our team chemistry is different than any other team I've ever been on,” Baker said. “I think it helps us a lot playing with local guys. I've played with a majority of the team growing up and honestly our team chemistry is unreal. Playing with guys like (Chris) Hellebuyck, who I played high school hockey with, I feel like we just connect. Playing a year of juniors last season with (Will) Shier, (Branden) Morganroth and (Mike) MacKinnon (with Yellowstone) has made us more than just teammates. We’re all pretty much best friends on the team and there's nobody we don't not get along with. We can all have fun and joke around.”
As for his role with Metro, Baker plays the vast majority back on the blue line, but can play forward if need be.
“I try my best to do whatever I can to keep us in a game and battle in the corners and get under the other team’s skin,” explained Baker. “I think as a defenseman, I am our most offensive defenseman of the group and can contribute, but it’s all coach’s call if he wants me to play a few shifts on forward and bring some energy with a couple big hits; I like to do that, too.”
Baker isn’t sure if this will be his last season of competitive hockey, but if it is, he’ll have no hard feelings and will also have his hockey apparel company to fall back on.
When looking ahead, Baker is as realistic as he can be.
“If I can play more hockey next year, I will for sure be playing, but if not, then I'm just planning on working,” Baker said. “I’m hoping the rest of the season goes well and I keep progressing. I still think we can play better and I think I can still improve even though it’s my last year. I'm not going to have any regrets at the end of this year and with the amount of 91s and 92s, I know we can make it far this season with the talent and heart our team has.”
LOOKING BACK, LOOKING AHEAD
The Jets suffered a regulation loss and a shootout loss over the weekend.
Metro took a 2-1 lead into the third period Friday night, but the Toledo Cherokee scored twice in the final period to come away with a 3-2 win at the Team Toledo Ice House.
Doug Andrews and Zach Mohr scored in the second period for Metro, who saw its three-game winning streak come to an end.
“We should have won this game,” said Cirone. “I think for two periods, we outplayed them, but then we fell asleep. You can’t win a game in this league, or hold onto a lead when you take just two shots in the first 18 minutes. It was a great win for Toledo; they took a lot of shots and worked hard and we paid for it.”
In net, Devin Williams finished with 32 saves.
Sunday afternoon in Flint, the Jets jumped out to a 2-0 lead, only to see the Jr. Generals score the next six.
No matter, the Jets scored the next four to tie the game at 6-all.
After the five-minute overtime didn't solve anything, the game went to a shootout where Flint escaped with a 7-6 win at Iceland Arena.
"Flintis a good hockey team and I believe we're a good hockey team," said Cirone. "We usually have a cleaner game against them, but sooner or later, you have defensive breakdowns and both teams have a lot of guys that can score goals. That's what (Sunday) was – a lot of breakdowns and a lot of goals."
MacKinnon and Josh Beleski staked the Jets to a 2-0 lead in the first period, but Cody Damon answered with two of his own to send the game into the first intermission tied at 2-2.
In the second, Hayden Hanson, Anthony Terzo, Luke Dmytro and James Odom made it 6-2 Flint.
Metro starting goalie Dillon Kelley was pulled after Terzo's goal for Williams, but went back in after Dmytro's goal.
Cameron Bazin made it 6-3 at 19:34and then as time expired, Hellebuyck scored to bring the Jets to within a pair.
"I thought overall that Cam was our catalyst and he's the one that really got it started by scoring the goal and drawing a penalty at the same time," said Cirone. "With him making that play happen and then with our power play stepping up at the end of the period, I thought our kids did a great job responding."
Beleski and Matt Stirling scored the only goals in the third period, making it a 6-6 game.
Flint came close to winning the game late in the third and in the overtime as co-captain Warren Carter hit the crossbar twice behind Kelley.
In the shootout, Flint goalie Ben Myers stopped Steve Klisz, Andrews and MacKinnon. Hellebuyck was the only player to score.
Jr. Generals co-captain Andrew Lay, Richard Jansson and Carter solved Kelley, whose only save came on Eddie Osowski's attempt.
Kelley finished with 34 saves, while Williams had three.
Myers earned the win with a 26-save outing.
The Jets (15-11-0-1) now break for the holidays and return to action on Jan. 7 at Lakeland Arena against Flint. Metro finishes the first half of the season with as many wins as it had all of last season and in third place in the NA3HL's East Division, 10 points behind second-place Flint.
"I'm actually welcoming the break," said Cirone. "We have a lot of first-year juniors that are finding out that junior hockey is a grind and I think this is going to be refreshing to them. I think it'll give them time to reflect and get a little bit of rest and get ready for the second half."
Forward Matt Stemkoski saw time on defense against Flint and fared well.
“Stemmer is a very versatile player for us,” said Cirone. “He played defense the first period, then forward the second and back on D in the third. There were no complaints from him and that shows the type of leader he is. He just wants to do what it takes to help this team win.”
WHERE ARE THEY NOW?
Goaltender Colin Greeley was in net for four of the Jets’ seven wins in 2008-09 and for the past two seasons, the 19-year-old Howell native has played for Leamington.
Greeley was drafted by the Ontario Hockey League’s Saginaw Spirit in 2008.
Thus far this season for the Flyers, Greeleyis 10-5-1-0 with a 2.74 goals-against average and a .903 save percentage.