In July of 2005, an 18-year old Mercier was seated at a Pittsburgh airport on the way home from a roller hockey tournament in Florida. It was there Mercier received a phone call informing him that he had been drafted by the Colorado Avalanche. The joy and excitement of the call nearly caused him to choke on the Pennsylvania staple he had been munching on when his phone rang.
At the time, Mercier was coming off a 25-point season (11g/14a) with the U.S. National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor, Mich., and was preparing to begin his freshman year at Miami.
“I was just ecstatic to learn I had been drafted by Colorado because the team has had great success,” said Mercier. “Everyone dreams of getting to that level. Even though I’m not there yet, you still have a feeling of accomplishment. It’s a step in the right direction.”
If being drafted was the first step, the next step was taking his game to Oxford, Ohio, to learn the ins-and-outs of the collegiate game and further his development under Miami Head Coach Enrico Blasi.
The year before Mercier arrived in Oxford, the program experienced a down season, finishing seventh in the CCHA while posting a 15-18-5 record. That sub-.500 mark didn’t cause Mercier to even bat an eye.
“I believed in Coach Rico. Every time I met with him it sounded like he had a plan for the team,” said Mercier. “I also had a relationship with Nate Davis, who was a year above me. I talked it over with him, and it sounded like Miami was going in the right direction. I saw Miami being an elite program in the near future.”
Mercier made an immediate impact on the Miami program, which also rose to unprecedented levels itself. During a freshman season in which Mercier led all RedHawks freshmen in scoring with 10 points (3g/7a), Miami earned its first-ever No. 1 ranking in the USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine College Hockey Poll.
To further his development, Mercier attended the Avalanche’s Development Camp following his freshman season. Each year at the camp, many of Colorado’s top prospects undergo both on and off-ice conditioning, as well as power skating sessions, nutrition and physiology presentations, fitness training and various team events.
|Mercier was named CCHA Player of the Month for October after scoring six goals in six contests. |
It also gives the players an idea of what it takes to make the transition from the amateur to the pro world, which served as a wake-up call of sorts to Mercier.
“It gave me a glimpse of what it takes to get to the next level. At the time, [Brad] Richardson had played in a few NHL games and I was at camp with him and Wojtek [Wolski],” said Mercier. “We went through a series of tests and seeing the levels they reached compared to myself was an eye opener. Here I am, thinking I’m working hard, but then I realize I’m still strides away from getting there. Now I realize this is what I have to do to get to that level.”
The camp also allowed Mercier to sit down with Avalanche Director of Player Development Craig Billington
, who gave Mercier some valuable advice. Billington assured Mercier that college is a four-year process, and that if he kept working hard, he would soon become the player both parties knew he had the potential to be.
A little more than a year later, Billington can see that the Miami forward has taken his words to heart.
“From an on-ice standpoint, Justin brings good speed and energy to a lineup. I think he’s got good awareness. He’s the type of guy when we sit down and review the hockey information, he’s not forgetful,” said Billington. “Development is a process; it’s not an overnight thing. When you’re asking players to implement certain things into their game it takes time. He’s got great support from the coaching staff at Miami, which is a big help.”
Since he attended the development camp, Mercier has steadily improved his overall game by concentrating on aspects such as quickness, working the puck down low and getting his shot off quicker. In his sophomore campaign, Mercier more than doubled his rookie season scoring output, recording 25 points (10g/15a) in 40 games and finishing second on the RedHawks in both goals and points.
This year, Mercier got off to one of the hottest starts in all of NCAA hockey. The 20-year old led the nation in goal scoring during October, recording six goals in six games as the No. 1 ranked RedHawks posted a 6-0-0 record. He also tied for the CCHA scoring lead with eight points (6g/2a) and carried a +8 rating. For his efforts, Mercier was named the RBC Financial Group CCHA Player of the Month for October.
“I really do have to give credit to my linemates. I’ve been playing with two outstanding freshmen in Carter Camper and Tommy Wingels,” said Mercier. “I also have to look at the coaching staff, because since I came to Miami, Coach Rico has believed in me.”
Playing the role of older brother to Miami’s youngsters is something that Mercier relishes. As an upperclassman, he realized coming into the season that he needed to assume more of a leadership position, even if he’s not wearing a letter on his sweater.
“Whenever you enter a new atmosphere, there’s a lot of getting acquainted to your new surroundings. It’s kind of flattering that coach gave me a role and allowed me to put these guys under my wing,” said the 5’11”, 190-pound forward. “Even though there’s no ‘C’ or ‘A’ on my jersey, having the coaches put me in that position is pretty amazing.”
Aided by his fast start, Mercier has recorded seven goals and three assists through 10 games this season, serving as a catalyst for the RedHawks’ 9-1-0 start and prominence in the national rankings. Of his seven goals, three have come on the power play and two have been game-winners.
While Blasi and Mercier’s RedHawk teammates have to be more than pleased with his early-season production, there may be one downfall if he keeps producing at his current rate.
His opponents might just send a few Philly Cheesesteaks to the Miami dressing room for a pre-game meal.