By Brian McDonough
When it comes to advancing players to higher levels of the game, few do it better than the Los Angeles Jr. Kings organization.
Over the years, thanks in part to its experienced and well-connected coaching staff, the program has helped dozens of its players reach the professional, NCAA and elite-level junior ranks - and it’s showing no signs of slowing down.
“I don’t think there’s any question we have some of the best in the business when it comes to our coaching assets,” said Jr. Kings general manager of hockey operations Nick Vachon. “These guys have so much knowledge and, the way they teach the game and run their practices, it’s no wonder we have so many of our players moving on to bigger and better things, on and off the ice.”
Among the Jr. Kings graduates skating in the NHL are forwards Kailer Yamamoto (Edmonton Oilers) and Bobby Ryan (Ottawa Senators) and defensemen Kevan Miller (Boston Bruins) and Chad Ruhwedel (Pittsburgh Penguins).
Ruhwedel celebrated a Stanley Cup championship last summer as a member of Pittsburgh Penguins, becoming the second born-and-trained California player to hoist the coveted trophy after former Jr. King Beau Bennett did so as a member of the Penguins the year prior.
Yamamoto made his NHL debut against the Toronto Maple Leafs earlier this month.
Others toiling in the professional ranks this season include Bennett, a forward in the St. Louis Blues organization; forward Mitch Callahan, who’s skating in the Edmonton Oilers organization; and Thatcher Demko, a goaltender in the Vancouver Canucks organization.
A handful of other Jr. Kings alums are also playing professionally in the ECHL, as well as overseas.
“Wherever you come from, reaching professional hockey is no easy task, so we’re proud to see a few of our own earn the right to compete at that level,” said Vachon. “And I have a feeling we’ll see a few more find their way there in the not-too-distant future.”
Plenty of grads are also playing in the NCAA Division I ranks - three of whom are just starting their college careers: forwards Ben Lown (University of Miami-Ohio), Alec Mehr (Brown University) and Eetu Selanne (Northeastern University).
Others playing NCAA Division I hockey this season include sophomore forwards Nick Rivera (Minnesota State University-Mankato) and Josh Wilkins (Providence College) and goaltender Gavin Nieto (Brown University); junior forwards Robby Jackson (St. Cloud State University), Patrick Newell (St. Cloud) and Filip Starzynski (Northern Michigan University); junior forward Ryan Siroky (Miami University-Ohio); and senior forward Nolan Stevens (Northeastern University).
“For these boys to be able to earn an education and, at the same time, play at the highest level of college hockey is an opportunity of a lifetime,” said Vachon. “We’re nothing but proud of how well these guys developed and matured during their time with our club.”
And a number of former Jr. Kings are continuing to excel playing high-level junior hockey - among them forwards Cole Guttman and Jake McGrew and defenseman Jack St. Ivany.
Both Guttman, a St. Cloud State recruit who was drafted by the Tampa Bay Lightning sixth round of the 2017 NHL Entry Draft, and St. Ivany, who will play his NCAA Division I hockey at Yale University following his junior career, are playing in the United States Hockey League (USHL) - Guttman with the Dubuque Fighting Saints; St. Ivany the Sioux Falls Stampede.
McGrew, who was selected by the San Jose Sharks in the sixth round of the 2017 NHL Entry Draft, is skating for the Western Hockey League’s (WHL) Spokane Chiefs.
Former Jr. Kings returning to the WHL this season include forwards Evan Weinger (Brandon Wheat Kings) and defenseman Keoni Texeira (Portland Winterhawks).
Goaltender Dustin Wolf, another graduate of the Jr. Kings program, is in his first season stopping pucks for the WHL’s Everett Silvertips, while forward Hunter Campbell is skating with the Calgary Hitmen.
Forward Rory Herrman, who also played for the Jr. Kings, is in his second season with the USHL’s Green Bay Gamblers and committed to Arizona State University.
Vachon is nothing but excited where the program is headed from a player development standpoint.
“I think we’re just scratching the surface,” said Vachon. “Between our coaching staff and all the other resources we have at our disposal, not to mention the added support of the Los Angeles Kings, I expect to see a lot more of our players recruited to the higher levels in the coming years.”