Everything is bigger in Texas, including Texas-born Stefan Noesen's play with the Plymouth Whalers of the Ontario Hockey League this season.
"The bigger the game, the better he plays," Whalers coach Mike Vellucci told NHL.com. "He plays big in the big games and there's not a lot of guys like that."
Noesen led the team in the regular season with 34 goals and tied for the team lead with 77 points. It's no wonder he was No. 35 on NHL Central Scouting's final ranking of the top North American skaters for the 2011 Entry Draft, a jump from No. 47 in the mid-term rankings.
"To be ranked that high is an honor," Noesen told NHL.com. "Every game I push myself to be better and better, and the more I push myself, the higher I go in the standings."
Learning to push himself is something Noesen picked up from his youth hockey days in Dallas, about a 25-minute drive south from his home in Plano. Noesen spent his formative hockey years playing under the tutelage of Karson Kaebel, the director of the Dallas Ice Jets hockey program. Prior to working for the Ice Jets, he spent eight years in the minor leagues, including a 25-game stint with the Cornwell Aces in 1994-95.
"I started playing with (Karson) when I was like 8 or 9, so ever since then, I learned how to do the little things, like eat right and train correctly," Noesen said. "I still keep in touch with him today, anytime I need some advice or some help he's always more than willing to help me -- he has been the most influential coach."
Noesen played nearly 10 years in the Ice Jets program, where he helped lead his team to a U-12 Tier I national championship.
"He is a winner," Kaebel said. "He likes to win, he knows how to win, he's won on every team he has ever played on, and he has played on a lot of good teams … he has tremendous drive to succeed."
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Perhaps some of Noesen's drive comes from his family's athletic background -- his parents, Glen and Jamie, both played college basketball.
"It kind of just carried on," Noesen said. "It's so hot down in Dallas, so we would get a good workout and go outside and shoot some hoops in the backyard."
However, the hardwood never captured the attention of the 6-foot, 195-pounder once he discovered the thrills of the ice.
"I just felt more of an attachment to hockey," Noesen said. "My grandpa taught me the motions of ice skating in his living room when I was 3, and once he taught me that, I just wanted to get right onto the ice."
Despite the hot, humid climate in Dallas, hockey became a way of life for Noesen. He played roller hockey in the summer and ice hockey in the winter. When he wasn't playing hockey, he was busy training for it.
"He is a kid who has trained pretty much 12 months out of the year since he was 8 or 9 years old, and obviously you are seeing the fruit of his labor," Kaebel said.
That intense dedication to the sport helped Noesen develop into a dynamic two-way forward with fantastic hands and playmaking ability.
"Stefan backchecks hard and is very responsible defensively," NHL Central Scouting's Chris Edwards said. "He plays a high-energy, two-way game … he is smart and aggressive, makes good decisions."
It was Noesen's hands that first caught Vellucci's attention.
"(Noesen's) hands are phenomenal, he works on them constantly," Vellucci said.
Vellucci first noticed Noesen -- and his hands -- when he coached a practice for the Detroit Compuware team where Noesen played Triple-A hockey and won a U-16 national championship. He was drafted by Plymouth in the fourth round (No. 64) of the 2009 OHL Draft.
"His scoring and his playmaking are two areas that we rely on the most," Vellucci said. "He has a very high hockey I.Q."
Noesen also possesses a unique ability to thrive under pressure.
"He wants to be in that pressure-cooker moment where he is relied upon. He actually looks forward to it," Vellucci said.
This has been good for the Whalers, who beat the Kitchener Rangers in the first round of the Ontario Hockey League Playoffs, thanks in large part to Noesen's play. The right wing had 9 points in that seven-game series, including a 2-goal, 2-assist performance in Game 4. Plymouth lost to Owen Sound in the second round, but Noesen finished with a team-high 6 goals in the playoffs, and his 11 points in 11 games was second on the team.
It was a solid finish to his second season; his first was limited to just 33 games on a team that featured top players Tyler Seguin and A.J. Jenks.
"It was kind of tough to crack the lineup," Noesen said. "Last year I thought it would be a cakewalk, but it really wasn't … it was good to learn what I needed to work on and all summer I dedicated myself to focusing on the little things and doing everything right."
That attention to detail has helped Noesen continually improve his game. So far it's taken him from Plano to Plymouth, and next -- hopefully -- to the NHL.
"When the game is on the line, he wants to be involved," Vellucci said. "He is the ultimate competitor."