~ Written by Jamie Neugebauer (@Neugsie)
When Hounds’ defenceman Payton Jerome committed to Minot State University this past week, it completed an impressive goal of Notre Dame head coach and general manager Brett Pilkington and his staff: to ensure every 20-year-old on the roster from the pandemic-shortened 2020-2021 campaign had a spot to play in 21-22.
Find the full interview between Jamie and Brett on the Notre Dame Hounds podcast here.
Six 2000-birth years ended the year with ND, and six found spots, as Riley Kohonick, Hardy Wagner, Qaritaq Kusugak-Clark, Zach Trempner, Max Messier, and Jerome all know where they are going to become the fall.
Pilkington, with his characteristic humility, is quick to deflect praise for the accomplishment.
“When we get a kid in our program we set up a plan for them at the start of the year,” he says.
“To a man, all these guys were not too hard to move on because as players and as people, the resumes were there. It all goes back to who these guys are and the work they’ve done. The process of moving guys on is a process of three or four years for a lot of these players. Yeah, they missed this last year, but the resume is built from Day 1 they step into junior hockey. Schools can backtrack through video and revisit their resumes, so while it was tough to get blacked out by the pandemic, at the end of the day the resumes are there, and the conversations between the kids and the schools are what put kids into their spots at the next level.”
Claiming the likes of recent Stanley Cup champions Jaden Schwartz and Curtis McElhinney, and Carolina Hurricanes’ head coach and Hall of Famer Rod Brind’Amour, Notre Dame – and it’s Junior A team – makes no secret of a wide range of players that have gone on to successful NHL careers from the tiny college in Wilcox, SK.
Alumni can be found all over the world, in and outside of hockey, and the notion that the network of Hounds everywhere helps each other out is undeniable. Mix that fact with the clearly stated focus of the school to seek out players interested in playing the game competitively after junior at the university or college level, and you have a big part of Notre Dame’s recipe for success at moving kids on.
“When you have a program that is 100 years old like ours,” Pilkington says, “you have a lot of good hockey people, and good people in general, that have come through the program all over the world. Those people then understand the culture and the type of people that are developed through the college here.
“We at Notre Dame aren’t looking for the kids that just want to ride out their junior career and go into the real world, or finish hockey at 20,” he adds, “those don’t tend to be the kids were in for.
“We want kids who want to continue with their hockey careers and education. I give a lot of props to our staff, who through trade and recruitment has brought in a lot of those kids who are looking to do that, and we’re going to continue to look for those types of kids.”
Along with the 20-year-olds, three others also committed from the 20-21 squad, as 2003-born Kevin Anderson signed on with Princeton University for 2022-23, while 2001 birth years Truett Olson and Nate Albers both plan to attend Liberty University in the fall.
As a league, the SJHL has repeatedly mentioned its hope to attract more youthful players, as they are more often the targets of attention for NCAA Division I scouts looking to hand out scholarships.
Pilkington feels as though the league is moving in the right direction in that regard.
“We are trying to build players resumes within the SJ, and what I mean by that is we are trying to get the kids at 17 and 18 to come to the SJ and stay for their careers,” he says.
“That would make the SJHL an even more proven league in its own right in that coaches are not bringing in a kid after they’ve played a year or two somewhere else. As far as the league goes we have to continue to get younger and let our kids grow here, and I think we’re making strides as a league to do this. Time will tell, but when I’m looking at our program, that is a big focus point for us, to keep getting younger and to get the kids that always want to push and get better.”