WATERFORD, Mich. – At the Tier III Junior A level, players are taught to learn certain systems and absorb all the coaching and teaching they can to push for a spot on rosters at higher levels.
For the Metro Jets, Graham Day personifies that mentality as a rookie forward with the North American 3 Hockey League club.
Day skated for the Rochester United high school program in 2013-14 and was then selected in the 12th round by Metro in this past summer’s NA3HL draft.
“I was contacted by (Jets’ assistant coach) Randy Wilson expressing the team’s interest in me after the high school season,” Day said. “He told me about the level of hockey and I felt it was the best opportunity to advance my hockey career. Playing for Rochester United helped me adjust to the junior levels. My coach, Craig Staskowski, like ‘Q’ (Jets’ head coach Justin Quenneville) and Randy, tries to bring the best out of every player. Due to this, I was able to adjust to be able to play the way I play and not try and change to fit into a system.”
This year in Waterford, Day has played in 19 games and amassed three goals among eight points to date. His goal last Tuesday at the NA3HL Showcase in Blaine, Minn., stood as the eventual game-winner against the Chicago Jr. Bulldogs.
“That kid (Day) is the perfect model of buying into the process of development in this league,” Quenneville said. “From where he started and where he is now, he’s not only peaked what I thought was going to be his potential, but he’s surprising me every day with not only his decision making, but his work ethic. He’s much more of a cerebral player than I thought he’d be and he’s played multiple positions on multiple lines with multiple roles – he’s an extremely versatile player. It’s a lot of fun to coach a kid like that.”
“Recently, I had a talk with ‘Q’ and he told me, ‘You have the style of the game down, but now you need to be able to play every game and be able to produce while playing well,’” added Day, an 18-year-old from Rochester, Mich. “So I have been trying my best to do exactly this. I think my current role is to be someone on the team that isn't afraid to get in the dirty parts of the ice. I try my best to block shots, get in front of the net to screen and to win battles along the boards.”
Day has played on a line lately with Jacob Drinkard and Jacob Gleason and has found some chemistry there.
“I feel that as of late, the season has been successful both personally and for the team,” Day explained. “I've been able to adjust to the speed and ability of others in the league. As for the team, we have been able to play well together all season and have been effective at shutting down even the top teams. My personal goal this season is to say I played to the best of my abilities every game I'm a part of. I want to be able to make an impact on the game every shift I take. Also by the end of the season, I want to be able to hone my abilities to make my game more well-rounded in all different categories of the game.”
And when Day thinks about those around him that have influenced his hockey career, his family is obviously at the top of the list, including his younger brother, Sean, now in his second season with the Ontario Hockey League’s Mississauga Steelheads and is a potential first-round pick in the 2016 NHL draft.
“I'm proud of Sean and I'm one of his biggest fans,” Day beamed. “Since a young age, Sean and I played hockey on the same team, so we were always together. Hockey is the biggest reason we are so close together. Watching him in Mississauga is a blast and always is entertaining. Through what he has experienced, I have a better understanding of the hockey community as a whole.
“I use Sean's success with hockey as motivation to push myself to improve my own game. It's a friendly competition between brothers where we are always pushing each other to do our best in each game. So while Sean has accomplished more than me, I still want to be able to make it as far in hockey as I can. Whether that means moving up to the NAHL or onto college hockey, I just want to be the best I can.”
At the end of the day, family matters above all else to Day.
“My family has always been my No. 1 supporters through my entire career,” said Day. “They would go out of their way and change their schedules around to accommodate hockey needs. They have spent a lot of time traveling to my games to watch me. I appreciate all the time they have spent getting me to where I am today.”
LOOKING BACK, LOOKING AHEAD
Metro split a home-and-home with the West Michigan Wolves last weekend, with the home team winning each game.
West Michigan won 4-1 on Friday night, while the Jets took a 5-2 win Saturday night at Lakeland Arena.
“Friday night, not only did we not come to play, but we watched,” Quenneville said. “I was a little disappointed in how we started and how we responded. Coming off the Showcase and how well we played, we wanted to be held to that standard and you could tell they were a little rusty – that’s a lot of hockey in a short amount of time. The kids responded well Saturday and we mixed up the lineup a little bit, needed a couple guys to step up and they did.”
Friday night, Matt Dempsey opened the scoring 13:03 into the first period, but the Wolves scored the next four to secure the win. Kam Limburg made 34 saves between the pipes for the Jets.
Then Saturday night, Dempsey and Jason Newel each notched two goals and Jake Stephan finished with 29 saves in goal.
Dempsey added an assist for a three-point night, while Andrew Sawyer scored once and tacked on two helpers. Kyle Shreve and Jake Sealy registered two assists apiece.
This weekend, the Jets (15-12-0, fourth in East Division) travel to Pittsburgh for two games with the first-place Vengeance. Game times are 8 p.m. Saturday night and then 11:40 a.m. on Sunday.
“We’ll address the element of competing this week at practice and we’ll turn the page and immediately build towards a game plan against Pittsburgh,” said Quenneville. “They’re the leaders of this division and they’re the team we need to beat, and it’s on the road. We need to find a way to put together a solid 60 minutes on the road two nights in a row.”
For the entire duration of the Jets’ franchise, no player has ever worn jersey No. 13.
Defenseman Evan Wilson made his Metro debut Saturday night at home against West Michigan. Wilson, a 19-year-old Milford, Mich., native, was originally drafted by the Jets in the eighth round (134th overall) of the 2013 NA3HL draft out of Milford High School.
“I was really impressed (Saturday),” Quenneville said of Wilson. “The first thing I noticed, even from practices, is his feet. He’s got great feet for a d-man. He’s a calm defenseman and was calmed than I anticipated. He’s deceiving, right? He’s not extremely fast and not extremely skilled, but he shows flashes of elements of the game where we need help and he brought that."
Jets’ captain David Chavis II, who was called up to the NAHL’s Minnesota Wilderness three weeks ago, is now back in Waterford for the foreseeable future.
“He’s a rock for us and obviously, he’s a big presence on the back end,” said Quenneville. “It was a tough decision he made to come back and he made that decision on his own. He wasn’t released by Minnesota. That speaks volumes for the program here and what he’s been able to do with his opportunities here and we want to continue to help him in any way we can. He’s a big bonus for us.”
WHERE ARE THEY NOW?
While he never played for the Jets, Connor Hellebuyck did sign a tender with Metro back in May 2011 after a stellar season at Walled Lake Northern High School.
Hellebuyck then unexpectedly made the roster of the NAHL’s Odessa Jackalopes, went on to be named the league’s rookie and goalie of the year in 2012, committed to NCAA Division I University of Massachusetts-Lowell and earlier this year, signed with the Winnipeg Jets.
Winnipeg drafted Hellebuyck in the fifth round (131st overall) of the 2012 NHL draft in Pittsburgh.
He also won the inaugural Mike Richter Award this past April as the best goalie in NCAA hockey after going 18-9-2 with an NCAA-best 1.79 goals-against average and a .941 save percentage in his sophomore season. Hellebuyck’s freshman year at UML was even better as he was 20-3-0 with a 1.37 GAA and a .952 save percentage.
This season, Hellebuyck has played 20 games with the AHL’s St. John’s IceCaps with an 11-7-2 record, a 2.44 GAA and a .928 save percentage.
Hellebuyck’s older brother, Chris, played for the Jets during the 2011-12 season, posting 23 goals and 43 points in 42 games.