With NHL Draft on Hold, USHL Prospects Prepare in Waiting

After a dominant regular season, Chicago Steel players are left at home preparing for the NHL draft—date TBD—instead of the Clark Cup playoffs.
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Chicago Steel winger Sam Colangelo doesn’t have a pristine in-home gym or a trainer’s makeshift garage-turned-fitness-center. Cross off any hope for an indoor ice rink, like the one enjoyed by Marek Hejduk, son of 14-year NHL veteran Milan, too. But, he does have his parents restaurant, Local 438 Grille & Sport, less than 10 minutes away from his Stoneham, Mass., home.

“Some of the food boxes are super heavy,” the 18-year-old Colangelo says. “I think it was boxes of steak meat —I was doing farmer carries and shoulder shrugs with them. It was kind of funny. Then out back, I have some rocks and I was putting them in this backpack and using it as a weight vest.”

Rather than working out with rocks and boxes of steak, Colangelo and the Steel, who owned a USHL-best 41-7-1 record, should have been preparing for the Clark Cup playoffs, which would have begun on Monday. The top U.S. junior hockey league postponed its season five weeks ago amid coronavirus concerns, sending most of its 550-plus players back home before outright canceling on March 18. Instead, over 1,000 miles east from the Steel’s Geneva (Ill.) facility, Colangelo is training for a 2020 NHL draft with a date and location to be named later.

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And he’s not the only one of his teammates doing so: The Steel have four players ranked among Central Scouting’s top-85 North American skaters and a handful of over-agers who could also be selected at the draft.

“It's something you look forward to your whole life,” Brendan Brisson, a potential first-round selection and son of NHL super agent Pat Brisson, says of the draft, which was scheduled to take place in Montreal. “With my dad's side being from Montreal and spending time there in the summer, I was looking forward to going. However they do it, it’s still going to be an honor to hear my name called.”

Even with uncertainty looming over the next few months, Brisson and Colangelo, as well as winger Sean Farrell, defenseman Luke Reid and forward Mathieu De St. Phalle, have tackled the limbo period in their own way. Brisson and Farrell have worked out, separately, with trainers. Reid has utilized his home gym. Most have taken to running, and Farrell has played some tennis. One shared thought: Peloton bikes are tougher than expected (“It’s pretty hard,” says Brisson, while Colangelo adds, “It’s beating me up.”)

No draft hopefuls can earn a larger spotlight through their play because, well, no one is playing. Junior hockey leagues have shuttered across the world. Sweden’s J20 SuperElit and Finland's Jr. A SM-liiga ended their seasons on March 13. The QMJHL canceled on March 17, with the OHL and WHL following suit a day later. Russia’s MHL has held out hope and paused all competition through at least April 30, even as the KHL scrapped the rest of the season. Varying degrees of training resources aside, any on-ice tape has been recorded, filed and will eventually be consumed by scouts in their work-from-home setups. There’s finality, but without closure.

“Going from playing hockey every day and doing what you love to not being able to get any ice and not being able to see the boys, it’s like jumping in an ice bath,” Reid says. “It’s totally different from what you’re used to. You learn to live with it. I still don't think I've fully processed it yet.”

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The USHL operates in its own unique space among American youth sports. For nine months out of the year, 16-to-20-year-olds leave their parents to stay with billet families, who house and feed the players. The term “billet” originates from the late 16th century, when a note would be issued to a soldier that required a householder to provide lodging. Dial back the militarism and ratchet up the care, and USHL players receive a new surrogate family and a brick-and-mortar school if they opt not to take classes online.

“I loved them and my billet brother, Benny. He was one of the biggest beauties I've ever met at his age and he could hold a conversation with anyone older,” says Brisson, who FaceTimed with his billet family for the dad’s birthday last weekend. “That was really fun, to see how [Benny] grew up even how long I was there for.”

Against this backdrop Larry Robbins, a billionaire hedge fund manager with philanthropic ties to education, acquired the Steel in 2015. Within five seasons the franchise retooled, twice, prioritizing development. Behind head coach Dan Muse, who is now an assistant with the Predators, the Steel won the Clark Cup in 2017 after missing the playoffs in eight straight seasons. The following year, the Steel agreed to a multi-year partnership with performance coach Darryl Belfry, who has worked with Sidney Crosby, Patrick Kane and John Tavares, and helps craft individual development plans for each player.

“From top to bottom, every day you're learning something new,” De St. Phalle says, “We're allowed to play with so much creativity. There's so many resources, whether it’s video, the weight room or developing on-ice skills. The atmosphere that they set for us is unbelievable and the best I’ve been around.”

Ahead of the 2018–19 season, Robbins brought in Ryan Hardy, then an amateur scout with the Bruins, as general manager and hired Greg Moore and Brock Sheahan to man the bench. The Steel were pegged to finish near the cellar with a roster largely composed of newcomers. Instead, the team reached its second Clark Cup in three seasons and Hardy was named the USHL’s General Manager of the Year for his roster-building wizardry.

The Steel returned with a roster stocked with talent⁠—Hardy traded for Brisson after he notched 101 points with Shattuck St. Mary’s and drafted Farrell first overall in the league’s Phase II draft—and were aware of how good the team looked on paper when they met for their summer development camp.

Brisson, Colangelo, Farrell and Reid competed for Team USA at the 2019 World Junior A Challenge, taking bronze, before returning in late December to continue the team’s 13-game winning streak. Along the way, they had spent eight-plus-hour days together, eating together after practice and taking night-time excursions. Brisson, with roommate Mackie Samoskevich, went to a few Blackhawks games and met with Kane, Jonathan Toews and Andrew Shaw. (The same Brisson who, as a boy, watched Tavares make protein shakes at his house and witnessed Nathan MacKinnon shoot pucks in his backyard.)

By the time the team got out to a 15-4-1 start, Sheahan assumed coaching duties after the AHL’s Toronto Marlies plucked Moore to replace Sheldon Keefe. Off-ice chemistry paired with on-ice talent led the Steel to become Clark Cup favorites, solidifying a season that was more than a stepping stone in the players’ hockey careers.

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In early March, the Steel were buzzing. De St. Phalle’s hat trick helped Chicago trounce the Dubuque Fighting Saints, the second-best team in the league, 7–2 in their own building. One day later the Steel returned home to Fox Valley Ice Arena and beat Dubuque, again, 6–5 in overtime with six different players scoring goals and more than half the team recording at least one point. With the two-game rout, Chicago extended its winning streak to 13 games.

That was the second 13-game winning streak of the season. Before this year the Steel had never won that many in a row, or done anything close to what it has achieved. The team’s 4.94 goals per game and 0.847 win percentage ranked best in USHL history, adding accolades onto a franchise-record 41 wins with 13 games remaining. De St. Phalle, Brisson and Colangelo topped the league in points with 60, 59 and 58, respectively. Seventeen-year-old defenseman Owen Power had more points (40) than any USHL blueliner.

“I don't even think we were going to lose another game for the rest of the year,” says Brisson. “Then, it's done like that in a snap.”

In February, before Rudy Gobert’s positive coronavirus test and the resulting shockwave that brought sports to a halt, Steel team president Dan Lehv was on a call with USHL commissioner Tom Garrity. The league began to prepare for all possibilities, including the suspension and cancellation of its season, as the virus started to spread in Europe and reported cases in America lagged behind. The league office remained in contact with the NHL and distributed a safe practices memo to each of the USHL’s 16 teams, and the season rolled on without interruption.

Until March 11. When the NBA suspended its season, Lehv and other executive committee members were on a call and decided that night that they needed to convene with the Board of Governors the next day. The team arrived Thursday for practice and completed its usual morning skills session.

“At the time I was in school, so my phone was blowing up,” says Farrell, who attended local Geneva High. “Then I got to the rink.”

“It's lunch time, before we had our 1 o'clock meeting, all the staff went for a meeting and we're like 'Oh boy, this is going down,’” says Reid.

The USHL announced the Board of Directors’ unanimous decision to suspend the season. Lehv met with the team to communicate next steps, with the hope that play would resume at some point. Practice ended, and the Steel’s quest to win the Clark Cup fell secondary to keeping the players safe.

After, De St. Phalle and his teammates tossed a football, taking in 56°F temperatures and crisp Chicago air. Later in the day, Brisson, Colangelo and a few others gathered at one of the host family’s homes, where they spent time watching 21 Jump Street, playing mini hockey with one of the billet brothers and shooting hoops. Most of the players’ families booked them return flights home for the next day.

“I said bye to as many people as I could,” Colangelo says. “But you didn't want to say goodbye forever because you wanted to be optimistic that the season was going to come back.”

The Steel flew home, with some of their gear and clothes left behind. The team recommended that players not take equipment back to avoid contamination. Brisson went west to California. Reid returned to Saskatchewan, where snowfall blanketed the region a week earlier. Colangelo and teammate Liam Devlin traveled back together to Massachusetts around sunrise, and continued to shoot pucks and play video games before social distancing guidelines stiffened.

They settled in, at first, taking advantage of their first time back home since Christmas. Six days after sending its players to their families the USHL officially canceled the season on March 18. Coaches conducted exit interviews over Zoom, filled with emotion and tears. The league awarded the Steel its first Anderson Cup, given to the team with the best regular-season point total, but the realization that the team’s run was over had already set in.

In the weeks since, the team keeps in touch over group chat and FaceTime (“I don't think there's a day gone by over this whole thing where I haven't talked with at least five guys on the team,” says Brisson.) Teammates celebrated Dawson Pasternak’s 17th birthday on Zoom. Brisson has done a podcast with defenseman John Spetz, talking about hockey and how coronavirus is affecting the world. Colangelo, Brisson and Devlin have been playing Fortnite and Call of Duty: Warzone⁠—Brisson is probably the best, notes Colangelo⁠—along with Gunnarwolfe Fontaine and Matt Coronato.

“As time has gone on, I've been pretty bored in my house, not really doing anything,” says Colangelo. “That makes me miss it more and more.”

Coach Sheahan and the rest of the team are pinning their hopes on a summer reunion in Chicago. Proper goodbyes are on hold, for now.

Even if the 2019–20 Steel never have the chance to share the ice again, they will see each other in NCAA rinks across the country. Over 95% of USHL players go on to play Division I hockey, according to the league. A scant glance at the Steel’s roster confirms as much. Brisson and Power will be teammates next year at Michigan. Devlin and Reid will skate for New Hampshire. Colangelo and Fontaine will join together at Northeastern, also in the ECAC. Farrell will suit up for Beanpot rival Harvard while De St. Phalle is committed to Wisconsin.

And last June, 52 active USHL players were selected in the 2019 draft, the most ever in the league’s 41-year modern history.

“Whether you get drafted or not, it's the beginning,” says Sheahan. “These guys have a long path [...] it's not an endpoint. A lot of players that play Junior, they can't wait to get that next step. We have a lot of guys that are going to play a lot of pro hockey on our roster. Our guys took advantage of every day they spent with the Chicago Steel.”