Rop: Jacks working hard to build for future
April 12, 2012
While this season has been winding down, the Lumberjacks' focus has been split between the present and the future. Veteran sports reporter Ron Rop explores the team's efforts in constructing a championship team for next year.
by Ron Rop
The United States Hockey League’s regular season lasts about six months.
But the preparation that goes into a USHL season is an ongoing process that really never ends.
“It’s been like that in the past, but we’ve really stepped it up this year,” Muskegon Lumberjacks assistant coach Dave Noel-Bernier said.
Noel-Bernier and fellow assistant Steve Palmer have logged thousands of miles in the air and by land. They’ve made countless phone calls, sent hundreds of emails and texts and done whatever they can to formulate a list of potential Lumberjack players.
Besides Noel-Bernier and Palmer, the Lumberjacks lean on scouts Chris Lacombe, who scouts high school players in Minnesota, Charlie Link with Michigan high schools and Jeremy Hill on the East Coast.
“We get help from the scouts, but we’ve been very active, especially of late,” Noel-Bernier said. “It’s been a lot of travel for the both of us.”
Noel-Bernier and Palmer quickly rattle off the places they’ve been looking for players – Detroit, Toronto, Youngstown (Ohio), Boston, New Hampshire and Connecticut, just to name a few. They’ve scouted tournaments and individual games along the way.
“(Muskegon Lumberjacks owner) Josh Mervis has been great,” Palmer said. “He’s a good mentor.”
“We set a schedule, we run it by him and he’s behind us 100 percent,” Noel-Bernier said.
The process begins with the Lumberjack coaching staff scouting games. When they return from their trip, they enter their findings into a computer program that the rest of the coaching staff can access.
“We want to make sure we’re all the same page,” Noel-Bernier said.
Following the scouting process, a list of players is made then the actual recruiting process begins.
“It’s finding the right kids and finding good kids,” Noel-Bernier said. “You want to get to know them a bit more. We want good hockey players, but we need more than that.”
The Jacks then focus on the top 40-50 players on their list and start gathering other information through emails and phone calls.
Palmer asks players questions about leadership, what they are doing off the ice to better themselves and if they’ve ever served their teams as a captain.
“You really can find out what these kids are like,” Palmer said. “If you talk to kids on a regular basis, you get a great feeling for what their goals are, and more importantly, what they are doing to reach their goals.
“We want to know these kids the best we can and make sure it’s the best fit for both sides.”
How well the Jacks have done their homework won’t be known until well into next season. And a lot of hard work still lies ahead. The Jacks would like to build a roster of older players, but building a championship caliber team is the No. 1 goal.
“We don’t want to get older just to get older,” Palmer said. “We want better players to put us in a better position than we’re in right now. We want an exceptional team for the fans, the city and ourselves. That’s not to take anything away from the effort this year, but this season is not what we were hoping for. We want to win a championship.”
Noel-Bernier estimates about half the players from this year’s team will return next season. The remaining players will be acquired through the drafts and trades.
The USHL Futures Draft (for players born in 1996) is May 1 and the Entry Draft (for other junior-age skaters) is May 22.
“We are very confident about the drafts,” Noel-Bernier said. “We’ve worked hard and we’ve worked smart as well.”
“It’s a tall order because this is a draft league,” Palmer said. “You have to have a Plan A and a Plan B and a Plan C and a Plan D.”
Even more work will be put into building next year’s team since this year’s Jacks did not qualify for the playoffs.
“We will take advantage of not making the playoffs and we will be out there even more,” Noel-Bernier said. “There is so much more to do before the drafts.”
Despite the struggles, the Jacks are undeterred in building a strong USHL franchise.
“We have a pretty good product with our team and our league,” Palmer said. “There are lots of benefits to being part of this organization.
“We are passionate and believe this is the best place.”
Ron Rop is a freelance writer who covered Muskegon hockey for more than 25 years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.