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Undrafted Ohio brothers attend Blue Jackets camp

by Craig Merz

COLUMBUS -- The Columbus Blue Jackets development camp June 29 to July 2 featured many top prospects from recent NHL drafts.

Oliver Bjorkstrand, a third-round pick in 2013 NHL Draft and the Western Hockey League's player of the year in 2015, was at the practice facility at Nationwide Arena. So were 2015 first-round selection defenseman Zach Werenski from the University of Michigan and 2014 first-rounder forward Sonny Milano.

But two undrafted invitees attracted the most media attention.

Brothers Kiefer and Kole Sherwood from the Columbus suburb of New Albany participated in their first camp after many years of viewing them from the bleachers in the OhioHealth Ice Haus.

"It's a dream come true," Kole said. "It's the hometown team you always grew up watching. To be able to play with them at the same level is a big honor. I'm humbled."

Kole, 18, and Kiefer, 20, represent the emerging youth hockey scene in central Ohio that has its genesis in the minor league Columbus Chill in the 1990s and exploded when the Blue Jackets took to the ice for the first time in October 2000.

"I started playing hockey about the same time [the Blue Jackets] came. It definitely had a huge impact," Kiefer said. "I know a lot of people and a lot of young kids started playing because of the Blue Jackets."

The city's strides in hockey development took a major step June 26 when forward Jack Roslovic became the first Columbus-born player to be chosen in the first round of the NHL Draft when he went to the Winnipeg Jets with the 25th pick.

"To be a part of that whole growth of youth hockey in Columbus is huge," he said.

The Sherwoods were also hoping to be drafted in the later rounds but when that didn't happen inviting them to the development camp wasn't a publicity stunt, Blue Jackets development coach Chris Clark said.

Kiefer will play his freshman season in the fall at Miami (Ohio) University along with Roslovic and senior Sean Kuraly from the northwest Columbus suburb of Dublin. Kuraly was 133rd pick in the 2011 NHL Draft by the San Jose Sharks. His rights and the Sharks' 2016 first-round pick were traded to the Boston Bruins for goaltender Martin Jones on June 30.

Kole has committed to Boston University but said he will play this season for the Youngstown Phantoms of the United States Hockey League.

The Blue Jackets wanted to draft him but couldn't make a deal to get another pick in the final round.

"As soon as the draft ended, I pushed send on my phone," Clark said. "Myself and [scouting coordinator] Scott Harris each called one of the brothers because we wanted them at camp. We didn't want to wait and have them say yes to someone else. I had my phone ready and pushed call and within 10 seconds was on the phone with them."

The Sherwoods held their own at the camp, which ended with a 4-on-4 tournament in which they were on opposing teams. Kiefer had had two goals in three games. Kole had an assist and was on the championship team.

"It was a good camp," Kole said. "I learned some things not only on the ice but some things off the ice from the pros. They know the ropes."

They are of a generation that only knows Columbus as an NHL town. Prior to that the, Chill of the ECHL was in existence from 1991-99 and began the drive to develop not only hockey fans, but players.

In 1993 the organization built and operated the Chiller ice facility in Dublin and opened the Chiller Easton on the east side of Columbus four years later. That's where the Sherwood's got their start in the learn-to-skate programs after watching their dad, Roger, playing in men's leagues.

"That was the first step when I was five," Kiefer said. "My dad wanted us to be good skaters so he kept us in there twice as long, a year I think, rather than six months. That paved our foundation, then from there we played house and travel hockey."

Their interest in hockey was also piqued by attending Blue Jackets games, mostly in the "nosebleed" seats of Nationwide Arena.

"That's where the dream was born, I guess," Kiefer said.

He still has that goal of playing in the NHL despite being an undrafted older player attending college.

"Everyone has their own path," Kiefer said. "I'm focusing on mine. Now that I'm officially a free agent, I've got my work cut out for me but I'm extremely ready and focused."

Trent Vogelhuber of Dublin, Ohio was the first player from central Ohio to be taken in the NHL draft when the Blue Jackets selected him with the 211th and final pick in 2007. He will play this season for the Lake Erie Monsters, the Blue Jackets' new American Hockey League affiliate.

Former Blue Jackets player Andrew Cassels coaches youth hockey in Ohio, and the Sherwoods are friends with his son, Cole, another area product who won the Memorial Cup with the Oshawa Generals last season and was a third-round selection of the Vancouver Canucks in 2013.

"Columbus is definitely emerging and on the rise," Kiefer said. "We're trying to compete with the best out there."

He also credited the Ohio AAA Blue Jackets elite program for spurring the local development. There are more than 5,000 participants in youth hockey today, up from less than 150 when the Chill began nearly 25 years ago.

"It's really growing," Kole said. "The young guys look up to me and some of the other guys who've gone through the program.

"Guys like us are setting the path for the young guys to watch and follow their dreams. It's going to keep growing. Not only on the ice but in the community you want to set an example for the young guys."

Clark played for the Blue Jackets from 2009-11 after a trade with the Washington Capitals and joined the staff in June 2012.

"The Blue Jackets have done a lot in this city," he said. "They've been around 15 years and the youth organizations have really grown in that time.

"We're surrounded by Detroit, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, some of the traditional hockey markets, and it was only a matter of time before it was here, and it's here. … In my four years here I've seen a lot of growth."

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