One of Wall Street's most critical occupations
is that of the futures trader, the men and women whose job
it is to buy commodities based on long-range pricing prospects.
Guess right and they hit the jackpot. Guess wrong and they
risk swimming in debt.
College hockey has its futures traders as
well. They're called assistant coaches. Rarely in the limelight,
a typical Division I assistant spends countless hours in
a car or in airports, criss-crossing North America (and
sometimes Europe) on little sleep – all for the purpose
of finding the best players for his program's future.
And a tough job it is, because assessing the future prospects
of a teenager and differentiating a first-liner from a frequent
scratch can be a crapshoot. Still, the fate of a D-I program
hinges on it.
That said, there are a number of recruits out there Research
on Ice sees as "sure things", i.e., prospects
whose attitudes and attributes on and off the ice will surely
make them the type of player any program would love to have.
Here's a look at a few of them:
Cool Hand Luke
If you're looking for glitz and glam, then
U.S. National Team Development Program forward Luke Popko's
probably not your guy.
But if a dependable two-way center who can kill penalties,
back-check and win face-offs is on your wish list, the 17
year-old from Skillman, N.J., is someone worth investigating.
Now in his second season with the Ann Arbor-based NTDP,
the 5-10, 200-pound Popko has skated under the radar. While
nearly 17 of his teammates have made a college choice, Popko
remained uncommitted through mid-October.
"I think about that once in a while,
but it really doesn't bother me too much," said Popko,
"I don't really mind waiting it out. I've had some
schools talking to me and once I get some of my test scores
back, things will pick up, I'm sure."
"He's probably the nucleus of our team," said
U.S. Under-18 coach John Hynes, who took Popko under his
wing last season with the Under 17's. "He does everything
for us. He kills penalties, he plays the power play and
he may be our top face-off guy."
Formerly with the New Jersey (Junior B) Rockets, Popko has
attended five different schools over the last five years.
In 2002-03, while playing for the Rockets, Popko went to
Princeton Day School before heading to Taft School (Watertown,
Conn.) in 2003-04, which is where he was first "discovered"
and invited to Team USA's tryout camp.
"He did very well there," Hynes recalled. "He
was one of our leading scorers, [and] he did very well at
the [USA Hockey] Select 16 [Festival] that summer. His [Festival]
coach told us he was probably the most competitive guy out
there. He's been exactly that ever since."
Popko, who finished his junior year with a 3.7 GPA, and
scored a 1090 on his SAT, has taken unofficial visits to
Boston College, Cornell, Northeastern and Notre Dame and
prefers to get an offer from an Eastern school. "Playing
out east isn't imperative," he said, "but it would
be nice to play there as it's closer to home and my family
could see me play more often."
Odd are strong his family would like what they see. Popko
is pleased with his growth, but realizes he still has room
"I've become a better shooter, a better passer and
my skating's improved as well," Popko said, "but
I want to keep improving my skating, and my strength. I
hope those are the things colleges see in me, that I'm hard
working, competitive and do the small things well."
The strongest endorsement of Popko's abilities is his Hynes,
his current coach.
"He's a true leader out there and there isn't anyone
I know who could say a bad thing about him," Hynes
said. "His teammates love him and his housing family
"Put it this way – if I were to
ever leave here to start a college program, he'd be the
first guy I'd start the program with."
Road Less Traveled
Sometimes, D-I prospects come in pairs.
Case in point: Marcus and Mike Voran are linemates
for Stevenson H.S. in Livonia, Mich., a Detroit suburb.
Marcus, 17, is a junior while younger brother Mike,
15, is a sophomore.
At 6-0 and 190 pounds, Mike Voran vied for a spot
at last summer's USA Hockey's Select 15 Festival.
A long shot at best, he advanced through the first
tryout and traveled to Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., for
phase two of the process. There, he caught the eye
of Jon Cooper, the head coach/general manager of the
North American Hockey League's Texarkana Bandits.
Cooper was so impressed with Voran that he brought
him to St. Cloud, Minn., to play for his squad he
was coaching at the Select 15's. Cooper's instincts
bore fruit when the unheralded right winger finished
as the tournament's eighth-leading scorer with three
goals and three assists in six games.
"I was very nervous at first," Mike explained,
"but my parents [Paola and Mark] sat me down
and told me to relax and play my game. That helped.
I was much better from that point forward."
"They have a tremendous family and Mike is a
great kid," Cooper said. "He needs to work
on his skating, but he plays tough, he has a great
nose for the net and he can score."
Though his brother enjoyed a breakout summer, Marcus,
a 5-10, 170-pound left winger who scored 33 points
for Stevenson as a freshman, harbored no ill will
toward his brother, who registered 40 points last
"I look at it this way – as he gets recognition,
we'll both get recognition," Marcus explained.
"I'm so proud of what Mike did this summer."
Indeed, the pair has advanced to the point where a
number of schools are discussing scholarship offers
as a package deal, a rarity for prospects from Michigan's
high school ranks.
"Marcus really adds speed,"
said Mike when asked to assess his brother’s
game. "He knows what to do with the puck and
he can use his skating to separate [from] the defense."
"Some people tell me I look like [Detroit Red
Wings forward] Henrik Zetterberg out there,"
laughed Marcus. "I don't know about that, but
I do a decent job with foot speed."
Like many hockey parents, Paola and Mark Voran work
full-time jobs, spent countless hours driving to games
and practices and have made sacrifices – financially
and otherwise – for the sake of their sons.
Ultimately, the monetary burden became too large.
"The boys have played AA and AAA
travel hockey for a number of years and they could
be playing there now, but we got to a point where
it was becoming financially difficult for us,"
Paola Voran admitted. "There were some teams
willing to try and help sponsor the kids, but it still
would have been expensive.
"We've got them playing high school
hockey, even though there's been plenty of peer pressure
to do otherwise."
Though the Michigan prep ranks aren't considered a
fertile breeding ground for collegians, it hasn't
diminished interest in the Voran brothers. And, oh,
by the way…they're having fun, too.
"High school hockey's a great atmosphere,"
Marcus says. "We get the band playing, we get
good crowds and, in a way, we really get to know each
other as teammates because we're on the ice every
"They don't play as many games,
but they're home more often and they're really enjoying
it," Paola said. "To be honest, the midget
minor club we were looking at for the boys a year
or two ago…wasn't as good as the level of hockey
The Voran brothers have designs on playing for the
U.S. National Team Development Program in the future,
but for now, they’re content to spend another
season with the Spartans. "If we miss each other
on the ice, we're both sure to tell each other about
it," Mike smirked. “We really do have an
advantage. We're both home all the time and it gives
us a chance to talk about our play on the ice."
It also gives Mike and Marcus’s parents a chance
to enjoy the improvement they’ve witnessed in
their sons’ games.
"They've really progressed, and I hope they keep
it going," said Paola Voran. "It's a great
feeling when so many people come up to you and tell
you how well your two sons play together. As a parent
of teenage boys, you don't hear that too often.”
Not unlike Popko, Indiana Ice forward Jay
Sprague has led a nomadic existence over the last four years.
He's found a permanent home for the next four years, however,
accepting a scholarship offer from Michigan State, where
he'll enroll next fall.
A Georgetown, Ont., product, the '86-born Sprague made his
USHL debut in 2003-04, playing 33 games for the Chicago
Steel, whose coach at the time was Wil Nichol. Nichol and
Sprague had worked together at IMG Academy in Florida the
previous season – Nichol was IMG's coach at the time
and he'd recruited Sprague to come there to play.
Last season, the 6-2, 205-pound Sprague had great success
skating in the Ontario Provincial Junior Hockey League for
the hometown Georgetown Raiders. The gritty yet offensively
talented Sprague scored 24 goals and 63 points in 45 games
during the regular season helped his club to a berth in
the Royal Bank Cup, Canada's Tier II junior national championship.
The Raiders clinched a trip to the RBC by winning the Dudley-Hewitt
Cup, the OPJHL's postseason tournament, during which Sprague
led his side with five goals in four games.
Now he's back in the USHL and so far, the move has paid
off. Sprague had the opportunity to play college hockey
this fall, but he held off in hopes of getting a better
offer, namely, from Michigan State.
"It's somewhere I always wanted to play," Sprague
explained. "It's close to home and I used to watch
Michigan State on TV all the time. And I know some guys
who play there. [Sophomore defenseman] Jeff Dunne skated
with me in Chicago and I played against [sophomore forward]
Peder Skinner back home a few years ago."
Michigan State had its eyes on Sprague, but his performance
at the last month's Buc Bowl sealed the deal.
"He's a far better player than he was
even two years ago," said one scout. "He skates
well, he's physical and strong along the wall and he's also
"I think I see the ice pretty well and my skating is
strong," said Sprague', who has worked extensively
over the last few years with noted power skating coach Cindy
Bower. "But there's so much more I need to work on
to get ready for next year. I need to keep improving my
strength, my shot, and my puck protection."
On Eagles' Wings
Late last month, 16-year-old defenseman Nick Petrecki, who
currently skates for the USHL's Omaha Lancers, had an options
list nearly a mile long with regard to his hockey future.
After weighing offers from several schools including Boston
University, Michigan and Wisconsin and flirting with the
Ontario Hockey League's Plymouth Whalers – the team
that picked the Clifton Park, N.Y. native in the first round
of this year's OHL draft – Petrecki gave a verbal
commitment to Boston College.
"I appreciated every school where I took an unofficial
visit," said the 6-3, 205-pound Petrecki, whom we first
featured back in June. "All of them have great coaches,
but to be honest, Boston College is always where I've wanted
to go. I love their campus and their coaching staff, and
it feels great to get this decision out of the way."
Petrecki even took the time to phone the Whalers to notify
them of his decision.
"I thanked coach [Mike] Velucci for his interest and
again told him how flattered I was to have been taken by
them in the first round," said Petrecki, a junior in
high school. "But I informed him that the college route
was the one I really wanted to take."
Fresh off an excellent performance with the EJHL's Capital
District Selects last season, Petrecki has done nothing
in Omaha to dissuade those who feel his talent could be
of NHL quality someday. He remains a top-notch, offensive-minded
defenseman who knows when to pinch, when to jump into the
play and when to play it safe.
"I don't think I've been out of place speed-wise,"
Petrecki said of the USHL thus far, "but I know I have
to keep working on my defensive play, especially my gap
control in the neutral zone."
Petrecki's parents, Mark and Michelle, came to Iowa to watch
their son at the Buc Bowl. They preached patience to their
son regarding his future plans. Guess who came out on top
in that discussion?
"I was sort of itching to make a decision,
but my parents all along were telling me to take my time,"
Petrecki said. "I didn't think it was necessary to
wait another year before making my commitment."
Despite their sage advice, Michelle Petrecki – who
was born and raised not far from the Heights in West Roxbury
– couldn't hide her enthusiasm when her son chose
"Nick's dad played hockey at Babson College so we spent
many great years in and around Boston," she said. "We
have tons of friends and family in the area and are especially
excited to think that they can all see Nick play for the
Petrecki is the third commitment coach Jerry York and the
Eagles have lined up for the fall of 2007, joining Lawrence
Academy left winger Joe Whitney ('88/5-6, 155) and Thayer
Academy center Brian Gibbons ('88/5-7, 155).
Shaheen is the publisher of Research on Ice and contributes
recruiting updates to Inside College Hockey throughout the
year. To subscribe to Research on Ice's recruiting e-mail
newsletter, contact Paul at email@example.com.