Just up the road from Cedar Rapids, in Waterloo, Iowa, P.K. O’Handley has been developing countless young hockey talent as coach of the USHL’s Waterloo Black Hawks.
Current NHL standouts Joe Pavelski and Craig Smith, as well as Lightning prospect J.T. Brown, count among the many standouts O’Handley has molded in his decade at the helm. As the Hawks’ season winds to a close with yet another Clark Cup Final in their sights, you can safely add another name to that rarefied list: A.J. Michaelson.
Yes, that name may remain a mystery to most. After all, Michaelson just turned 18 and remains a raw talent in many respects. But if O’Handley is to be believed, it won’t be long before the attacker with NHL speed and skating ability becomes a household name.
“From the day he got here, the biggest thing that strikes me is his relentless work ethic,” O’Handley told NHL.com. “He never wavered. Any scout that will listen to me, I will say, ‘He will play in the NHL, and he will have a long career.’”
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That diagnosis -- as well as Michaelson’s No. 87 ranking among North American skaters -- was not always a certainty. As recently as this past fall, Michaelson’s struggle to adapt to the USHL after a lucrative high school career in Apple Valley, Minn., had some scouts wary of his big-league potential.
In his final year of prep hockey in the Minneapolis suburbs, Michaelson filled up the stat sheet with 31 goals and 31 assists in 28 games. But that stream of points dried up once Michaelson ventured south to Waterloo, where the rigors of junior hockey limited his ability around the net. But with two Hawks taken in the 2011 NHL Draft and five named USHL Top Prospects, Waterloo was a championship-caliber team. With talent surrounding him, Michaelson’s scoring faded, but the rest of his game came into focus.
“From the outside, the points weren’t there,” O’Handley said. “But I was paying attention to how he was doing, and just watching his professionalism -- he’s the first one here, he’s the last one to leave, he’s working off the ice, he’s working on the ice -- he’s got it. His understanding of managing the game, offensively, defensively, positioning -- he’s really become complete in that way.”
Michaelson scored his first USHL goal in Waterloo’s fifth game, a 3-1 win over Cedar Rapids in early October. He didn’t score another for almost three months, a span of 20 games. For many young players, especially those who averaged more than a goal a game just a season before, that sort of drought can be fatal. Not for Michaelson.
“In January, I asked him, I said, I know you’re frustrated and it’s not where you want to be,” O’Handley said. “He just said, ‘I’m good, I’m good, we’re good, everything’s good.’ That’s a pretty rare trait in professional sports, and he’s got it.”
“I think I’ve always been a very positive person,” Michaelson said. “When I was struggling this year, I talked to my dad a lot and he kind of motivated me to stay positive, stay in the moment and keep working hard every day.”
That attitude paid off. After snapping the drought on Jan. 13 in another win over Cedar Rapids, Michaelson exploded for five goals and six assists in 13 games. A big boost came in late January during the first-ever NHL/USHL Top Prospects Game. Skating on a line with Austin Farley and Luke Johnson, Michaelson opened the scoring with a highlight-reel goal and assisted on a Farley goal later in the game.
“We kind of found chemistry right off the bat and put the puck into the back of the net that game,” Michaelson said. “It gave me big confidence coming back to Waterloo. That game really helped me.”
It also helped his case with NHL Central Scouting. Though his ranking has remained steady, NHL Central Scouting’s Jack Barzee said the game reminded NHL personnel of Michaelson’s killer instinct.
“He was always an extremely strong skater with real open-ice speed, a very intense, very honest, hard-working player,” Barzee said. “But he did not show up in the scoreboard very well in Waterloo. At the prospects game in Muskegon, he had a really good game, he got on the scoreboard and showed some flares and flashes of what people think of him.”
Michaelson continued his progression into the USHL playoffs, where he and his Waterloo team are peaking at just the right time. After locking up the three seed in the Eastern Conference, the Hawks have dominated both teams ahead of them -- Omaha and Lincoln -- en route to the Final, and Michaelson has two goals and four assists in 10 playoff games.
“We’ve just had all four lines rolling and our goalie has been playing really well,” Michaelson said. “My line’s been playing really well lately, moving the puck, skating. It’s been a lot of fun.”
Barzee equated Michaelson to a couple of other players excelling at the same time in a different postseason.
“I’m watching these guys in the (Stanley Cup) playoffs, and Matt Hendricks and Ryan McDonagh came out of the USHL,” Barzee said. “And here are these two guys I knew really well, and in high school they had some tangibles but they also lacked a lot of things. But it didn’t hurt them, it hasn’t hurt them (in the playoffs).”
No matter what happens in the Final against Green Bay, Michaelson is committed for 2012 to the University of Minnesota of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association, the same conference that produced Pavelski, Smith and Brown. It looks like those comparisons to past Waterloo greats won’t end anytime soon, but O’Handley assures they are well-deserved.
“I’ve had a lot of kids with his type of talent who have gone the other way,” O’Handley said, “but that’s not going to happen with A.J. His dream is to be a professional hockey player and he’s approached it as such. It’s going to happen for him.”