International Ice Hockey Federation

Ahcan dreams big

Ahcan dreams big

Small defenceman gets here the hard way

Published 25.04.2017 09:17 GMT-4 | Author Andrew Podnieks
Ahcan dreams big
Team USA defenceman Jack Ahcan during warm-up. Photo: Matt Zambonin / HHOF-IIHF Images
Jack Ahcan is only 5’7”, which is not such a big deal in the real world, but in the world of aspiring hockey players, well, let’s be honest--it is a big deal.

Add to the fact that he was never a part of the U.S. National Team Development Program, never played U18, and never played U20 before this year, and the 19-year-old is something like a World Junior miracle baby.

So how did he appear on USA Hockey’s radar so late in his junior life?

“I think my last year in Cedar Rapids was a big part of that,” he began, referencing the team with which he played in the United States Hockey League in 2015-16. “I was named USHL defenceman of the year. That helped me get invited to camp this year, and then I had a good camp as well. I also had a good start in St. Cloud this year, so I think every stage in the last year has been helpful. I just kept my head down and worked hard to get to where I am now.”

Indeed, he led the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders to the league championship (called the Anderson Cup, named after Harold Anderson, who helped found the Midwest Junior Hockey League, precursor to the USHL), and that in turn initiated scholarship offers from several universities. After touring around, Ahcan decided on St. Cloud in Minnesota, just 78 miles from his home of Savage, a town of 30,000 souls just outside Minneapolis.

Let’s step back a bit. Think of small players in the NHL in the modern era. Three come to mind in a flash: Theo Fleury, Martin St. Louis, Johnny Hockey (er, Johnny Gaudreau, that is). They are all forwards. How did Ahcan become a d-man when the odds against success are even greater?

“I always joked that when I was a forward, I could never score,” he said. “I would pick up a bunch of assists, but that’s it. The way I think when I play, I slow the game down when I get the puck, so when I’m on defence I can be more patient. I slowly became a defenceman in high school. After that, I stuck with it, and now I’m trying to master it.”

As a kid, Ahcan was “always a fan of Patrick Kane. He’s a forward but obviously he’s one of the best players in the world.” He also cheered for the home team, as it were.

“I loved all of the [Minnesota] Wild guys, like Marian Gaborik, but now that I’m a defenceman I’m trying to study those guys in the NHL, guys like Torey Krug and Anders Karlsson, It’s great to see what they’re doing.”

The undrafted Ahcan comes to this U20 knowing full well what’s at stake. He wants to help the team, favoured to win a medal, but he can see the opportunity being presented him as well.

“There are definitely a lot of scouts watching this tournament,” he acknowledged, “and hopefully watching me, and more watching at St. Cloud, so I’m just going to keep working hard and hopefully I can turn some heads. If it works out, great. If not, I’ll be fine. I’d be happy for any team to draft me. I don’t care which one. It would be a dream come true.”

“I’m just trying to stay optimistic,” he continued. “I think right now my chances of being drafted are pretty high. Making this tournament was a big thing. If I do, my family will be behind me, and it would be an honour. But if I don’t, it’s not a big deal. I haven’t been drafted the last two years.”

Ahcan is playing a smart game. He has a +4 rating through three games and is averaging 14:22 of ice time. Incredibly, he has yet to be on ice for a single goal against, and he’s playing within his means.

“They never assigned me a specific role,” he explained of the coaching staff’s use of him, “but I know the other defencemen on the team. I’m not out there to be a tough goon. I’m going to be making smart plays, moving the puck up ice quickly. It’s more of an offensive role, and, of course, I have to be responsible defensively.”

Know your limits, play within them, and play well. Sounds simple, but it isn’t, and if Ahcan can stick to his game plan, he might well be wearing a medal in a week and might well hear his named called at the 2017 draft in Chicago. Wouldn’t that be something?


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