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Local hockey pipeline strengthens after USHL draft

by Rob Mixer / Columbus Blue Jackets

Under the watchful eye of the hockey world, the United States won gold at the 2013 IIHF World Junior Hockey Championship in seemingly improbable fashion.

The Americans took down Russia, Canada and Sweden en route to their second goal medal in four years - but this one had added significance in central Ohio. Two Columbus natives (Sean Kuraly and Connor Murphy) were key contributors to a U.S. team led by head coach Phil Housley, helping push central Ohio's already-impressive youth and amateur hockey programs further into the national spotlight.

Ed Gingher, program coordinator and head coach of the Ohio AAA Blue Jackets team based here in Columbus, had been waiting for such a moment. In the years since the Blue Jackets established their roots in Ohio's capital city, hockey has taken off and the city boasts one of the largest adult hockey programs in the country - but locals were eager to see the first Columbus-raised and developed kids play on the big stage.

Kuraly, a sophomore at Miami (Ohio) and a fifth-round pick of the San Jose Sharks, has yet to reach the NHL but the Dublin native is on the right track. Murphy, also from Dublin and a first-round pick of the Phoenix Coyotes, is in that club's long-term plans, as well - but they are now officially the trail blazers for Columbus' hockey pipeline.

Last weekend, the United States Hockey League (USHL) held its annual draft over a two-day period. The amateur circuit is the country's largest and most prominent junior hockey league, and is the U.S.' comparable to major junior leagues such as the Ontario Hockey League, Western Hockey League and Quebec Major Junior Hockey League in Canada.

In the draft, seven players from the Ohio AAA Blue Jackets program were selected - a huge day for Columbus hockey and a proud moment for those who have worked hard over the years to build a successful program on and off the ice.

"If you put those numbers out on the table, I don't think anyone would say that's from Columbus, Ohio," Gingher told "It was pretty neat to see, and you never really know how the draft is going to turn out. It was a roller coaster for the players, their families and for us – as excited as we are for the guys who were picked, there’s also three or four players who didn’t get picked.

"They know the work is only beginning, but to hear or see their name getting selected was nice to see. It’s a good representation of what the Blue Jackets and the AAA program are trying to build here, and those kids are starting to get recognized for it."

Connor McDonald led the way, selected in the second round by the Dubuque Fighting Saints. Other products of the AAA Blue Jackets program to get the highly-anticipated phone call were: Jerad Rosberg (Cedar Rapids), Austin Pooley (Omaha), Henry Dill (Cedar Rapids), Charlie Gerard (Cedar Rapids), Bailey Seagraves (futures, to Chicago) and Kole Sherwood (futures, to Youngstown).

Sean Kuraly is a Dublin native and won gold with Team USA at the 2013 World Junior Hockey Championship in Ufa, Russia.

Used as a springboard between midget-level hockey and U.S. college hockey, the USHL has proven to be a viable training ground for NHL talent.

Gingher said the presence of an NHL team in the city has provided a huge boost in getting more local kids playing the game and becoming passionate about success in hockey as they get older.

"It’s a big step - this league is where all of our kids want to play," Gingher said. "Not every kid gets that opportunity, but for the ones who get drafted, it’s extra special. A lot of it is attributed to the Blue Jackets, the exposure they bring not only at the NHL level but their fingerprint is all over youth and amateur hockey in the city.

"It’s neat to see that when you look at it, and realize that all the resources our NHL club has put in are starting to reap their rewards at virtually every level now. Selfishly for me, as part of this program, it’s really fun to see and the kids take notice. It gives them hope that they know they’ll get a chance, and if they do the things that everyone is asking them to do, those opportunities will come."

The first local kid to get that opportunity was Trent Vogelhuber, who had his name called by the Blue Jackets in the seventh round of the 2007 NHL Draft held at Nationwide Arena. Vogelhuber, who attended Miami and played for coach Enrico Blasi and the RedHawks, has caught on with the Blue Jackets' AHL affiliate in Springfield.

Vogelhuber started it and others like Kuraly, Murphy, Jack Roslovic and Kiefer Sherwood have stepped up and helped pull the rope. It's not about getting attention for the program and hockey in Columbus, Gingher said (though it's a welcomed by-product), but it's most importantly about building a program the right way.

"Those guys who paved the way early on have done such a good job representing what we and the Blue Jackets set out to establish, and that’s build a program that people can be proud of," Gingher said. "It’s developing good kids who represent our city well, and in the big picture, it’s a great thing for all of us.

"It’s only going to get better from here, and hopefully it’s easier for the kids coming behind them as well."

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