We heard it all summer: the Columbus Blue Jackets needed to get off to a better start than the past two seasons. A week into the season, the Jackets have done just that with a 3-2-0 record out of the gate.
But there’s another team that is setting the bar much higher for players wearing the flag-draped star in Ohio - the undefeated U-18 Midget AAA Ohio Blue Jackets.
It’s been 14 games and 14 wins for the young Jackets, the only remaining perfect team in Tier-1 Elite Midget hockey in the United States. The Blue Jackets are 10-0 in league competition and have won another four games outside the league schedule.
Playing in the Detroit Division, the Jackets are constantly thrown against traditional Midget powerhouses like Belle Tire and Victory Honda. But as of today, the Jackets are a combined 4-0 against both those teams and their first-place lead in the division is 19 points (second-place Victory Honda has four games in hand on the Jackets, and wins are worth three points in the standings).
It wasn’t long ago that the Ohio AAA Blue Jackets were struggling in the standings, finishing with a 14-21-5 record in 2013 and improving to only a couple games above .500 a season ago. That record has turned around dramatically in only two years, and so have the expectations.
“We’ve had a nice run,” said head coach and program coordinator Ed Gingher. “It’s definitely the best start we’ve had, and the best thing is that we see a lot of room for improvement. If we can continue down the path we’re on, it can be a special season for the boys.”
The Blue Jackets feature the top two scorers in the league. Kole Sherwood has 14 goals and 25 points in only 14 games, while Carson Meyer follows him up with 24 points. Goaltender Grant Valentine is 14-0 in net with a .920 save percentage and a 2.29 goals-against average.
These are talented young athletes, playing at a high level with a demanding travel schedule. And yet, they are still young men in high school who face the same challenges of any youth growing up, attending school and figuring out life. There is no shortage of distractions for a young player working his way through youth hockey.
But this team is focused and hasn’t bowed to the pressures of their good start, despite battling through tight games to do it. Seven of their 10 league wins have been by two goals or less.
“We’ve played in all kinds of games, but the kids don’t panic and I haven’t seen anxiety raise its head once. In tight games the heart beat doesn’t waver much,” said Gingher, before channeling his inner Todd Richards and adding, “We’re never too high and we’re never too low.”
These are ambitious young men who know they are in the final push for an opportunity to play at the next level, and their success has put them right under the microscope. Being in Ohio, the AAA Jackets are centrally located for all major scouting services, USHL, OHL, college, and NHL scouts.
The next step will be major junior for many players when the USHL and CHL hold their player drafts in the spring. The next stop for some could potentially be the U.S. National Team Development program, a factory-like program pumping out NHL and Division-1 NCAA talent, where all of these young men soon hope to be.
“These are kids with college and junior aspirations, and programs know how good the players coming out of our program are,” said Gingher. “Our current players are picking up where our alumni left off.”
The Blue Jackets program does have a history of success developing players. The Jackets have produced three NHL Draft picks, including first-rounder Connor Murphy of the Phoenix Coyotes and fifth-rounder Sean Kuraly of the San Jose Sharks, both taken in the 2011 draft and both members of USA Hockey’s gold medal winning team at the World Junior Championship in 2013.
Their alumni also include 14 Division I players and 12 playing at the Division III level.
Two current Jackets are already committed to play Division I hockey, with Meyer and defenseman Brendan Demler committed to play for Dartmouth College in the Eastern Collegiate Athletic Conference (ECAC). Demler is also on the NHL Central Scouting’s “Players to Watch” list for the 2015 NHL Draft, the only Midget U18 player with that distinction.
Gingher expects many more of his players to be locked up by colleges before season’s end because, ultimately, that’s what it’s all about.
“Most of these kids have been playing together since they were nine years old and have been friends a long time,” said Gingher. “They’ve come through our program together and it’s great to see them have success.”
“It’s a wonderful start for the our players and a chance to gain exposure, but at the end of the day our win-loss record doesn’t mean much. It means a lot to the players, but it’s all about development. This start escalates our exposure and scouts are talking about our players, and if we keep working hard the results will take care of themselves.”
The AAA Blue Jackets play their next home game against Victory Honda on Nov. 8 at the OhioHealth Ice Haus.