It's amazing to witness the transformation of a fresh-faced rookie who is asked to produce in the only Tier I junior league in the United States despite being its youngest player.
But at 6-foot-2 and 211 pounds, it isn't as if Seth Ambroz
of the Omaha Lancers wouldn't be able to hold his own in the United States Hockey League, either. When Ambroz joined Omaha from New Prague (Minn.) High School as a 15-year-old in 2008-09, he turned heads right away, notching 14 goals, 17 assists and 88 penalty minutes in 60 games.
It was at a time when Ambroz wouldn't reveal much to reporters -- perhaps a combination of his reserved demeanor and bursting upon the scene at such a young age.
As he enters his third season with Omaha, those days are history.
"I've definitely grown as a player and a person in my three seasons in the league, coming in young and learning the ropes," Ambroz told NHL.com. "Now I'm coming into my third year as that guy that people look up to and it's nice to kind of pass on that knowledge on to the younger players coming into the league as I become more familiar with the league."
Ambroz, an alternate captain this season, has grown into one of the more respected players in the league in a short time. It looks like nothing is going to stand in his way of fulfilling a lifelong dream of being drafted by an NHL team in the state he was born when the 2011 Entry Draft comes to the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul in June.
In the meantime, he'll look to expand his already impressive resume that included a pretty eventful 2009-10 season -- leading the U.S. Under-17 team to a 3-0-0 record with 5 goals at the 2009 Four Nations Cup and earning a silver medal for Team USA at the Ivan Hlinka
Memorial Tournament during the summer.
While Ambroz has gotten off to a slow start through four games, notching 2 points with 7 PIM and a plus-1 rating, he's also been clearing space for his teammates.
"Seth is off to a good start and he's doing the little things that a power forward has to do to be successful," Omaha coach Bliss Littler said. "He has shown leadership in his role as one of our captains, and we expect a big year from Seth. I would think that after talking to many pro scouts, with the year we expect Seth to have, he is a legit high first-round pick."
Ambroz has been labeled a player possessing a tremendous shot with a propensity for sticking up for teammates -- he's been involved in seven fights in his three seasons in the USHL. In fact, dropping the gloves is one area the New Prague native cannot avoid -- and he realizes that.
"I know I have to bring a big physical presence … play big around the net, work the corners and be able to muck it up a little bit," Ambroz said. "I can't try to be someone I'm not. I can't try and be a big, skilled forward because that's not my game. I'll get in front of the net and battle, be that first man in on the forecheck to put a body on someone."
That's quite a statement from a youngster who chose the collegiate route over Canadian junior hockey. Ambroz was drafted by the Seattle Thunderbirds of the Western Hockey League in 2008, but instead committed to the University of Minnesota after notching 35 goals and 68 points in 22 games in his final high-school season. He'll likely join the Gophers in the fall of 2011.
The university's coaching staff actually informed Ambroz that there wasn't a spot open this fall since the team does have a seasoned group of returning upperclassmen.
"There were no guarantees (in Minnesota), and I knew I'd get more exposure in Omaha where I could show off my skill and get a lot more playing time," Ambroz said. "It would have been great playing for (Minnesota), but I need to stay mentally tough and focus on having a great year."
If his 2009-10 performance is any indication, that shouldn't be a problem.
Ambroz scored 22 goals and finished with 49 points, a plus-24 rating and 118 penalty minutes in 56 games with Omaha last season. He'll look to build on those statistics even though he remains one of the league's youngest players.
NHL Central Scouting's Al Jensen was impressed with Ambroz's play during the USHL Fall Classic in September, when he scored 5 goals (4 on the power play), 6 points and had a plus-1 rating while generating 17 shots in five games.
"He's a John Tonelli
-type player, very strong," said Jensen, comparing Ambroz to the four-time Stanley Cup champion with the 1980s New York Islanders
. "I've seen him run over players along the boards to get by them. He competes very hard and has good hands and puck skills. He has a strong skating stride -- not lightning speed, but very effective and strong. He has a good, hard wrist shot and is responsible in his own end."
It's likely Ambroz will be among the top 15 players chosen at the Entry Draft in June. He admits having an opportunity to be drafted in the same arena that was his home away from home growing up as a kid would be something special.
The hockey lineage in the Ambroz family runs deep. His sister, Kacey, is a junior at the University of Minnesota-Duluth and his brother, Matt (6-4, 207), is a senior at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. Matt notched career highs in goals (10) and assists (14) as a junior and led the team with 65 penalty minutes.
Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mike_morreale