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Top U.S. Junior League Stocks Up on Local Talent

by Mark Stepneski / Dallas Stars

Chances are you haven’t heard of Hank Crone, but the 16-year-old forward from Cedar Hill is on the radar in the hockey world.

Last month, Crone committed to Boston University and also locked up a spot as one of the youngest players in the United States Hockey League next season after he signed a tender with the Omaha Lancers.

“It’s cool,” said Crone. “Being 16 you wouldn’t think you would get an opportunity like this, especially being from Texas.”

Omaha gave up a draft pick to tender Crone, who will be guaranteed a roster spot next season and assured of playing in at least 50 percent of the team’s games in the top junior league in the United States.

The gifted Crone is a product of the Dallas Stars Elite program, joining it when it began in 2009. This past season he registered 40 points (17 goals, 23 assists) in 31 games with the Dallas Stars Elite U16 team.

“He’s a small forward who is a tremendous, high-end offensive player. His hockey IQ and his skills are probably as good as any player in his age group,” said Dallas Stars Elite U16 coach Eric Silverman. “He has the look to me like a player we’ll be talking about in the Hobey Baker conversation one day.”

Omaha’s decision to tender Crone said a lot about him and the level of play in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. Crone was one of 11 local players to go to USHL teams this spring. Two were tendered and nine others were selected in the USHL draft, which was held in early May.

“I think it means a lot for Texas,” said Crone. “It shows that you can live in a hockey market like Dallas and be successful.”

Grapevine’s Tyler Gernhofer, who has committed to the University of Vermont, was tendered by the USHL’s Bloomington Thunder. USHL teams drafted local players David Cotton (Parker), Johan Steen (Colleyville), Garrett Hallford (McKinney), Ryan Stevens (Euless), Branden Brown (Plano), Jason Cotton (Parker), Cam Donaldson (McKinney), Max Gerlach (Flower Mound) and John Zimmerman (Arlington).

It was a strong showing for the local kids, but not a surprise to someone like Silverman.

“This area has been producing some pretty good players over the last decade,” Silverman said. “This market is definitely on the radar when it comes to scouts, USHL teams and colleges looking for players. I think it is great for Dallas hockey.”

And great for young players such as Crone and others who are looking to play a high level of junior hockey and keep the college option open, since the USHL adheres to NCAA eligibility standards while the top Canadian junior leagues – OHL, WHL and QMJHL – do not.

“It’s the best league in North America if you want to play college hockey,” Silverman said.

And a lot of players have played in the USHL on their way to the pro ranks. Dallas Stars Alex Goligoski, Alex Chiasson and Erik Cole all played in the USHL. So did Stars prospects Jamie Oleksiak, Jack Campbell and Alex Guptill and Texas Stars forward and AHL MVP Travis Morin. Patrick Sharp, David Backes, Joe Pavelski, Thomas Vanek, Max Pacioretty and Kyle Okposo are a few of the current NHL players who suited up in the USHL.

Crone expects to play two or three years in the USHL before heading off to Boston University. It will be a lengthy development path, but at 5-8, 141 pounds he needs time to add some size and strength. The education aspect is important as well.

“That’s an extra four years that some guys don’t get because they can’t play juniors anymore and they can’t play college, so they are out of luck,” said Crone. “Being undersized and wanting to go to school, that could be a big help for me and making it to the pros.”

While Crone has his development path planned out for the next several years, Johan Steen’s is still a work in progress. The 17-year-old from Colleyville, who played for the Lone Star Brahmas of the North American Hockey League this season, has a dream to play college hockey. He hopes being selected by Dubuque in the USHL draft will help pave the way.

“To be drafted by a team like Dubuque, which has always been a good team, is such a huge honor,” said Steen. “It’s a good feeling to know that all your hard work is paying off.”

Steen is another product of the Dallas Stars Elite program. He was born in Stockholm, Sweden, but moved to Texas when he was three-years-old and all but one year of his hockey development has come in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. Muskegon selected him in last year’s USHL Draft, but when the team went through a management change he was left on the outside looking in. He tried out for and landed a roster spot with the Brahmas in the NAHL, the only Tier II Junior A league in the United States.

“Instead of playing another year of travel hockey, I wanted to get a taste of what junior hockey is like,” Steen said. “At such a young age, it definitely took a little getting used to. I had to get a little bit stronger to keep up with the 20-year-olds in the league, but I felt it was best for me this past year.”

Now, with some junior experience under his belt the two-way defenseman will take a shot at moving up a notch and trying to land a spot with Dubuque. There is nothing definite yet on the college front, but he does know that some schools are looking at him.

“I haven’t personally had any contact, but there have been teams contacting my coach, pretty much the message being sent through him that the teams are looking at me,” said Steen.

Playing in the USHL would be another step forward for Steen, who said that he and others are reaping the benefits of the level of play in the Dallas/Fort Worth area.

“You can see over the last couple years that players from down here are proving to be good players,” Steen said. “You’ve got a kid as young as Hank Crone, who gets tendered by Omaha and the same week commits to Boston University and you see how talented that kid is. And then you have Max Gildon (just turned 15 from Plano), who was taken in the WHL Draft. There’s plenty of good talent coming up here. Dallas has some high-end talent, people are no longer overlooking it and realizing Texas is a legitimate hockey market.”

And with people across North America taking notice, young players such as Johan Steen and Hank Crone are making the most of the opportunity.

This story was not subject to the approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club. Mark Stepneski is an independent writer whose posts on reflect his own opinions and do not represent official statements from the Dallas Stars. You can follow Mark on Twitter @StarsInsideEdge.

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