WATERFORD, Mich. – Jake Stephan is the lone non-Michigan player on this year’s Metro Jets roster, but the Wisconsin native is taking it all in stride so far this season.
An 18-year-old native of Eagle River, Wis. (he turns 19 on Sept. 28), Stephan backstopped the Jets to a season-opening two-game sweep of Cleveland and West Michigan back on Sept. 6-7 at Lakeland Arena, including a 20-save shutout against Cleveland.
Stephan followed that up with a dazzling 40-save outing last Saturday night in Toledo, only to see the Jets’ offense falter in a 4-1 loss.
“Opening weekend was a lot of fun,” said Stephan. “I really wasn't too nervous; I don't get nervous too often. I am a cool, calm and collected guy and I don't let things get to me very easy, which makes focusing easier, too. Over the years, I have trained myself to get into a zone. When I’m in the zone, I don't hear the crowd or the opposing players chirping at me. I become more aware of my surroundings and can almost make things seem slow motion, so as far as staying focused goes, I don't really need to worry about staying focused – it just happens.”
Over the summer, Stephan went to a handful of North American Hockey League tryout camps, but each time, came up just a tad short. At the Springfield Jr. Blues’ pre-draft camp, Metro assistant/goaltending coach Randy Wilson was in attendance (Wilson also scouts for Springfield) and liked what he saw out of Stephan.
And Stephan liked what he heard from Wilson.
“We had been trying to get me a spot in the North American Hockey League, but ong story short, I had no team to play for and didn't know what my next move was,” Stephan explained. “After being cut at the Springfield main camp, Randy asked me, ‘Why don't you consider my team, the Metro Jets?’ At the time, I admit that I wasn't super excited because I had my sights set on playing in the NAHL. After I was cut from three other NAHL main camps, I started to put more thought into it and my parents and I decided it would be the best decision because of the coaching staff and their success with moving kids on to new leagues.
“The NA3HL is a great league and gives a lot of kids opportunities to move up.”
Off the ice, Stephan is living with Jets’ rookie defenseman Tyler Baker and his family in Saline, Mich., a great situation, according to Stephan.
“Living away from home is pretty nice,” said Stephan. “I enjoy meeting new people and traveling, so being 10 hours away from home is always interesting. Before I left, I told my parents that I'm ready to leave home. My mom smiled and said, "That means we did our job."
On the ice, Stephan fancies himself as a hybrid goaltender and a “very technical goalie.”
“I like to be in my butterfly to play certain in-tight situations, but like to stay standing on high shots from far out,” said Stephan. “I like to move as efficiently as possible and waste as little energy as I can. Being efficient in movements also helps me to adjust to different game speeds easier, but as far as the NA3 goes, it is about the same pace as high school hockey in Wisconsin. It isn't so much a pace change, but it is easier to develop because you have a whole day to utilize rather than worrying about school or homework.”
And when Stephan alluded to playing in a league that moves players on to higher levels, the Jets are in that boat as well. That said, Stephan showed a mature side when realizing advancement is all in the hands of the player that wants to move up.
“In juniors, you just have to take it one day at a time – you don't know what is going to happen tomorrow and you just have to let life flow,” Stephan said. “Personally, I look to move up to the NAHL, USHL, or maybe even the OHL before Thanksgiving – that is my goal. As for the team, I look to help them out as much as I possibly can before I leave, whenever that is. The Metro Jets might not end up with the best record, but it’s all about getting opportunities for players to move up and at Metro, Randy and ‘Q’ (head coach Justin Quenneville) have a lot of connections, they work well with players and they are the best in the league at moving kids on.
“Everything happens for a reason and as a player, you just need to focus every day and if you play your game, the opportunities will come to you.”
LOOKING BACK, LOOKING AHEAD
Toledo swept the Jets in a home-and-home series last weekend as the Cherokee won by identical 4-1 scores Friday night at Lakeland and Saturday night at the Team Toledo Ice House.
Friday night, Jason Newel netted Metro’s lone goal and Stephen Wroe stopped 27 shots between the pipes.
The next night, Jake Rutkoske scored for the Jets and Stephan finished with 40 saves.
This weekend, the Jets travel to Pittsburgh for two games with the Vengeance. Game times are 8 p.m. Saturday night and then 11:40 a.m. on Sunday.
All games are available on www.fasthockey.com.
Two Jets have NHL connections and in very different fashions.
Forward Jake Gleason, acquired in the offseason from the Southern Tier Xpress, is a cousin of longtime NHL defenseman Tim Gleason, who played for Carolina and Toronto last season and recently signed to return to the Hurricanes. He was originally a first-round pick of Ottawa back in 2001.
Another forward, Bruiser Freatman, has literally seen the top American talents come through Ann Arbor via the U.S. National Team Development Program as his family has billeted many out-of-town players. The past two seasons, the Freatman family housed Sonny Milano, who was drafted in the first round in June by Columbus and now plays for the OHL’s Plymouth Whalers – and is again living with the Freatmans.
WHERE ARE THEY NOW?
Two players from the 2013-14 Jets’ squad – forward and former captain Zach MacKay and defenseman Josh Hosking – are teammates again on the Adrian College ACHA Division I team.
MacKay, a Brighton, Mich., native, played two seasons with the Jets, amassing 10 goals and 44 points in 85 games.
An Oxford, Mich., product, Hosking played 14 games last year with eight assists after tallying two goals and 11 points in 23 games during the 2012-13 season.