TRAVERSE CITY – Speed is the measure of the time it takes to cover a given distance. It can also serve as a means to a college scholarship.
Such is the case for Traverse City North Stars forward Alec Shields, who committed last week to play his college hockey at Div. I Mercyhurst College. The fleet Shields will likely play another season of juniors in 2011-12 before enrolling at the 3,500-student Catholic school located in Erie, Pa.
“It’s a dream come true,” Shields beamed. “Like most of the guys who come in to juniors with a lifelong desire to play college hockey, it’s something I’ve wanted to do since I was a kid. Now I’ll get the chance; It’s a big relief.”
Shields first captured Mercyhurst’s attention at the North American Hockey League’s Showcase event in suburban Minneapolis last September. He took a visit during the Christmas break, and found it a good fit.
“I didn’t know anybody up there,” said Shields. “But I went on the visit, and toured the campus and locker room and facilities and stuff, and it was great.”
Shields has turned it up even more during the North Stars’ prosperous December-January run, scoring 14 points over his last 11 contests. He has posted career highs in goals (12), assists (19) and points (31) this season after spending 22 regular-season games with Traverse City last year. Shields appeared in all 10 games of TC’s protracted playoff run last spring, with a goal and four assists.
“Alec is fast and skilled, and it’s his dynamic playmaking ability that really caught their eye,” said Traverse City head coach/GM Anthony Palumbo. “He’s really made an impact in the time he’s been with us, and I think Mercyhurst really got themselves a player who will do the same at the next level.”
Shields, who hails from suburban Pittsburgh, says having his family so close to Mercyhurst – less than two hours by car – was among the attractive aspects to his signing with the Lakers.
“My dad’s family is from Erie, coincidentally,” he explained. “And it’s pretty close to home but not too close. It’ll be nice to have family get to come to games without too much road time.”
Shields, who has honed his own-zone game during his time in juniors, says there’s even more to improve upon.
“The biggest thing I can’t do is relax and get comfortable now,” he explained. “I need to take this time to make myself a better player, to keep up the same work ethic that has gotten me this far. … I’ve been trying to become a better two-way player in juniors. When I was younger, I was more focused on the offense. Now I know I have to play both ends of the ice.”
Like countless players who spend their youth traveling all over the continent to play hockey – and the family members who often serve as chauffeurs and travel companions – Shields says he’s grateful for those who helped him along the way.
“There are a lot of people to thank,” he said. “Like my midget coach Ralph Murovich, who got me up here to play. Coach Palumbo and Chad – they tendered me and have helped me get better along the way. And of course, my parents, who have always stood behind me as we traveled all over the country. I also have a pretty strong support network back home, like my lifting partners Jason Jacobs, Tyler Bonfanti, and my brother James Shields. No one gets to this point in their playing career without a lot of help and support.”
Shields and the North Stars will play host to the Port Huron Fighting Falcons this weekend at Centre ICE Arena, looking to extend a four-game winning streak. Traverse City (22-12-1) has claimed eight of its last nine, and is looking to climb the jam-packed North Division standings.
“St. Louis is pretty far out front right now, but we’d like to get into that No. 2 seed and get home ice in the first round,” Shields mused. “The goal is always to make it to the Robertson Cup and win it, and I think we have a realistic shot, given the players and experience we have on this team.”
(Nathan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)