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Local player a prodigy in the making

by John Tranchina / Dallas Stars

By now, most hockey fans in the Metroplex know how the interest and participation in children playing hockey in the area has increased astronomically since the Minnesota North Stars moved here back in 1993.

Starting with a total of about 250 youth players, no area high school teams and just one ice rink devoted to hockey full time, the Stars paid particular attention to growing the game from the ground up. They started their own youth hockey association, built new ice rinks and promoted the sport over the years to the point that there are now about 25 ice sheets in the Metroplex, over 5000 registered players, multiple youth ice hockey organizations and close to 80 high school squads.

Another indication of the incredible growth of the sport in the area comes from the fact that elite-level players are starting to emerge from the local youth ranks. First it was goaltender David McKee, from Irving, who tended net for the local NAHL Texas Tornado, and then starred for Division One power Cornell in the NCAA. He was the first local to sign an NHL contract, with Anaheim, following his junior season in March 2006.

Then the Stars selected Dallas native Austin Smith with their fifth-round selection (number 128 overall) in last June’s NHL Draft, the first North Texas player ever chosen. 

The next step just might be taken by 14-year-old Coppell resident Colin Jacobs, who is currently one of the top-rated players in his age group in North America. Colin was a key component to the Ice Jets Peewee AAA team that won the USA Hockey national championship in 2006, the only team from Texas ever to win a Tier 1 level national title.

“It was awesome,” Colin said of the experience of winning the national title.  “I just still couldn’t believe that we actually won the game.”

That team proved that Texas kids could compete on par with - and even better than - the best players from the more traditional American hockey hotbeds of Michigan, Minnesota and Massachusetts, not to mention other fertile areas such as upstate New York, Illinois and Ohio. 

Now, Colin is being heavily scouted and pursued by the highest-level Canadian major junior Western Hockey League (WHL), the USA Hockey national development program, and even Division One colleges - even though he’s only in ninth grade.

“He’s definitely on the radar, I think he’s one of the top players I’ve seen in his age group this year,” noted Josh Dye, a scout for the WHL’s Portland Winter Hawks, the same club Dallas Stars captain Brenden Morrow apprenticed with. “We talked to him briefly. I talked to our guys back in Portland and let them know how interested we were in him, so I’m sure that he’s a guy that we’d definitely be interested in drafting.”

This season, even though he was born in 1993, which would put him in the ‘Bantam’ age group, Jacobs is playing up an age bracket, skating for the Texas Attack AAA team in the ‘Midget’ classification, with and against kids born in ‘91 and ‘92. While it has been an adjustment for him, Jacobs has performed better and better as the season has progressed.

“Colin certainly has huge upside and is a player we are monitoring closely,” said Chris Lepkowski, assistant personnel director for the USA Hockey National Team Development Program (NTDP), based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. “Our program is one that requires the highest level of dedication by the player and his family. We are not only looking for the most highly-skilled player, but a player who has character, can handle adversity, and will be able to effectively manage his time. Colin’s on-ice talent is in line with the NTDP’s past players.” 

That’s high praise when you consider some of the past graduates of the USNTDP program include Islanders goaltender Rick DiPietro, San Jose defenseman Matt Carle, Chicago 18-year-old rookie Patrick Kane (the number one overall choice in last June’s NHL Draft), Blues rookie Erik Johnson (the number one overall selection in the 2006 Draft) and Colorado blueliner John-Michael Liles, not to mention current Stars forward Brad Winchester.

A big Dallas Stars fan who learned to skate at the Valley Ranch Dr Pepper StarCenter which is right near his home, Colin used to watch the team practice when that was the club’s primary facility. Now he’s a scoring forward with some grit to his game, and that is what has scouts from the WHL, USNTDP and powerhouse Division One colleges such as Michigan, Minnesota and Notre Dame drooling, not to mention NHL agents who have already begun contacting him. 

In fact, the family has already signed on with Murray Kuntz at CAA Sports to be their family advisor, joining the same company that represents such NHL superstars as Sidney Crosby, Dany Heatley and Jaromir Jagr, not to mention Peyton Manning, LeBron James and Derek Jeter, among many others.

Colin is already about 6-foot-1 and 190 pounds - at 14! - and has been adapting well to the more physical brand of hockey played by the bigger and older kids.

“It’s actually going pretty good,” Colin reported. “I’m getting a few points here and there and just working hard, really. Actually, I think it’s probably about the same as what I was at last year, just bigger and more composed guys in how they carry themselves out there.”

“He’s a very good skater, he’s got a great shot, he’s mean, he’s physical, he’s got good hands,” said his coach with the Texas Attack U16 AAA club, Eric Silverman. “Now that being said, he plays hockey like a 14-year-old. That’s why I always say, he’s got all the ability in the world, but it’s a long road to get to the NHL. And I’m someone who’s been through it. I played junior hockey, I played in the minor leagues for years, so I know the road he’s about to go through. But when you’re picking out 14-year-olds and trying to project, he just has a combination of size and talent that doesn’t come along every day, which is why he’s getting the type of recognition that he is.”

That combination is what has attracted the attention of the WHL and USNTDP scouts, among many others.

“Colin Jacobs is a strong power forward with skill,” Lepkowski said. “He uses his large frame to his advantage and that has enabled him to be referred to as one of the ‘sandpaper’ guys by his coaching staff.”

“I really liked his intensity, he’s one of the younger players on his team - and actually in the whole tournament - and played right near the top of the group he was playing with,” added Dye, the Portland scout, after watching the Attack play in Minnesota recently. “I really liked his hands. He still makes a few mistakes, but I think with time and just improvement, he’ll become a better hockey player, but what really stood out was his toughness, his intensity and his hands, playmaking ability. I like the physical play, he didn’t shy down from that either, and those are some of the things I like to look for in a player.”

The fact that Colin is performing at such an impressive level one age classification above his actual birth year has impressed many and will only help his growth as a player as he continues to climb the ladder.

“He’s playing with kids one and two years older than him, and from a talent perspective, I think he’s fit right in,” Coach Silverman noted. “I think it’s been great for his development because when he’s playing with kids his own age, he’s just so much bigger, stronger and faster that he’s able to kind of do whatever he wants on the ice, where now, he’s having to learn a lot of the little things it takes to compete at the high level, which I think is helping his development tremendously, because you need to bring more to the table the older you get than just talent. He’s learning a lot of valuable lessons now, a year ahead of his time.”

“Colin playing up this season has only increased his stock,” said Lepkowski of the USNTDP. “He has fit in very well playing with the older kids. Playing at the higher level is exactly what we do in Ann Arbor, often playing against opposing teams that have players three and four years older than the NTDP players.”

One by-product of the notoriety Colin has already gained at such a young age is that the opposing players often know who he is, and therefore, frequently target him on the ice. Dealing with the extra defensive attention, not to mention cheap shots to throw him off his game, has been another adjustment, but by all accounts, Colin has been handling it fairly well so far.

“Colin’s a kid who plays with a mean streak, he likes to mix it up physically, he likes to get involved, that’s part of his game, which is great for a kid with his size,” Silverman noted. “And I think that’s part of his allure, to see a kid that could skate like that, shoot like that, stick-handle like that but also likes to get involved and mix it up. And what happens is, he gets a lot of attention from different media outlets as being this stud player coming up, so it’s normal that guys on other teams say, ‘Oh there’s that Jacobs kid that I heard about, I’m going to go after him, I’m going to get under his skin and get him off his game.’ He’s kind of a marked man, but he’s done a pretty good job keeping composed and being mature enough to try to worry about playing hockey and not get involved with all that stuff.”

And how is this potential prodigy-in-the-making dealing with all the resultant fame and interest coming his way? Apparently, pretty well.

“I just keep looking forward and just don’t even listen to it,” Colin said, sounding very much like a pro hockey player already. “My dad’s been talking to me about how none of that stuff really matters, you just got to keep working real hard and that stuff will eventually come.”

He admits to occasionally feeling a little extra pressure from the lofty expectations placed on him, but it hasn’t affected his personality or performance on the ice.

“Sometimes I do, I just try to still keep all that away from me and just play hard, really,” Colin said.

“Everybody says he shows no sign of any pressure on him at all, they say every time someone raises the bar for him, he seems to meet it,” added Ron Jacobs, Colin’s father. “In two out of the last three tournaments, he was the number two scorer on his team. The USA national development guy watched him play in Chicago and he was really excited. He said he talked to the assistant coach at the University of Michigan, who was real excited. I’ve had one NHL agent fly down here just a few weeks ago to meet us. All of these are top-end NHL guys and they say, ‘Hey, you’ve got a young kid, but he’s obviously a very special hockey player.’”

Scouts first began noticing Colin after the Ice Jets won the national championship.

“They say your second year peewee, which is when you’re 12 years old, is when you first start getting a look,” Ron Jacobs said. “After the national championship - and he wore the ‘C’ as the captain for the team, and I believe he was either tied or the top goal-scorer for the national championship - obviously, that was a launching pad for him. And then from that point on, every time he’d go to a tournament last year, you’d hear people say, ‘Oh that Jacobs kid’s playing over here.’ This year is the year that it’s exponentially taken off, probably because he’s playing U16.”

While it may seem too young for a player to be receiving so much attention, the truth is, next summer Colin will be eligible for the WHL Draft.  The USA NTDP starts taking players at 16, so he’s just a year and a half away from that, and playing Midget AAA hockey this season, he’s already facing players that are competing for those spots. 

“I think it’s always a concern, but I think you also got to realize that that’s the way the game’s going and you have to respond positively to it, because the sooner you recognize it at a young age, the better advantage you have,” noted Karson Kaebel, Colin’s coach from age 9-13, including with the Ice Jets championship Peewee team, regarding the potential pitfalls of kids receiving too much attention at too young an age. “With the information highway the way it is, the internet, just all different avenues you can find out about players now, it’s probably a lot different than it was 10 years ago. But I think also, scouts are getting smart. I think they realize that when a kid’s good at 15, unless he has some off-ice issues, he’s still going to be a great player when he’s 20, and I think they’ve got to get in there and see who the best players are and they’ve got to start recognizing them at a young age. I think sometimes it is hard for the kids to realize that. I think sometimes it’s hard for the parents, too.”

As exciting as it is to hear that there is an elite player developing right in our own backyard, Colin Jacobs is not the only one. In fact, there are at least five other kids playing on the Texas Attack ’92 or ’93 teams that are rated just about as highly as he is, including three of his former teammates from that Ice Jets championship team and two current teammates on the Midget AAA Texas Attack squad.

“There’s probably about four or five kids that are right on that same plane, believe it or not, within about a two-year birth span,” Silverman pointed out. “Jacob Fallon, who’s a year older than Colin, is an unbelievable player, rated high by, you name it, US National program, NHL scouts, NHL agents, Division One college programs, major junior clubs - he’s one who’s rated as highly as anybody. There’s Jeff McMinimy, who’s a ‘92-born kid also, and there’s another kid, Cason Hohmann, and there’s a kid Trey Keenan. Those are probably the five guys that should all be sure-bet NHL draft picks, scholarships to schools of their choice. There’s actually one more kid in that birth class, a kid named Colton Hargrove, who’s also up for the National Development program. There’s probably three ‘92-born kids and three ‘93-born kids that are playing here in Dallas right now, that are really on the radar for superstardom in the future.”

“The Dallas area is quickly becoming a great stop for recruiters at all levels of hockey,” confirmed Lepkowski of the USNTDP. “There are currently two players from Dallas playing for the NTDP (Tyler Amburgey and Chris Brown). Five years ago a trip to Dallas to recruit a hockey player was almost unheard of in hockey circles. Today a trip to Dallas to watch a weekend of hockey is becoming common. The development of hockey players in Dallas and California in recent years has been significant. And yes, we have our eye on a few more talented players in the Dallas area.”  

This is all just an incredible by-product of what began just 14 and a half years ago, the same year Colin was born, when visionary owner Norm Green thought it was a good idea to move the struggling Minnesota North Stars out of a rabid hockey hotbed and into the Sun Belt. There’s no question that other sports would have attracted these outstanding athletes if there wasn’t NHL hockey in town.

“You get more kids playing because of the exposure because of it,” WHL scout Josh Dye noted. “Obviously, football is huge, but you might have a few kids that might have played football that are playing hockey and they’re phenomenal athletes. There are so many kids that are good athletes coming out of Texas, I think now some of them are playing hockey.”

“I would say that if the Dallas Stars weren’t ever in town, he would not have played hockey, he probably would have played football,” Ron Jacobs said of Colin.

And some day in the not-too-distant future, Colin could very well be skating at the American Airlines Center as a home-grown Star. 

“He’s doing well, and it’s going to be exciting to watch him over the next 3, 4, 5 years, to see how it all goes for him,” Coach Silverman said. “But he’s got everything in place to have a great future.”

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