Already one of the North American Hockey League’s finest goaltenders, Odessa Jackalopes backstop Connor Hellebuyck added to his impressive resume on Monday, as the team announced that the Commerce, Michigan native has committed to play Division 1 college hockey at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell beginning in the 2012-13 season.
UMass-Lowell competes in the 10-team Hockey East conference, featuring several of college hockey’s top programs including 2008 and 2010 national champions Boston College, 2009 national champions Boston University, Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont among others. Hellebuyck, 18, has distinguished himself as one of the league’s best players this season, as he currently leads all NAHL netminders in save percentage (.939), ranks eleventh in goals-against average (2.29) and ranks third in saves (728), fourth in minutes played (1232:33) and is 8-9-4 in 21 starts.
“It’s a dream come true,” said Hellebuyck Monday of the realization that he will have the chance to play college hockey at its highest level. “Just to sit and think of what’s being offered to you…the situation I’m in [with UMass-Lowell] is phenomenal.”
Hellebuyck says his decision to commit to Lowell was made easy once he talked to team officials. “Their facilities and training staff are great and once I talked to the coaching staff there, I knew it was a great fit,” said Hellebuyck, “the big deal is, will I see playing time, and they [UMass-Lowell] made it very clear to me that I will have a great opportunity to earn playing time right away.”
Hellebuyck also pointed to his current team as a major factor in his making this commitment. “The Jackalopes are a great team and a great organization,” said Hellebuyck, “the professional way they handle things and everything they’ve done to help me improve has led to me getting this opportunity.”
For the Jackalopes, Hellebuyck’s commitment marks an important milestone in the team’s transition from professional to junior hockey. “We know we had the staff and the wherewithal to expose hockey players to college and pro scouts,” said Jackalopes GM Joe Clark. “We are proud of what Bucky has done with his opportunity here. We told him from the beginning that it’s a two-fold deal…if he plays well and produces, we’ll make sure people find out about him.”
Hellebuyck’s on-ice contributions have led not only to personal opportunities, but also opened doors for his team on the ice this year according to Jackalopes Head Coach Paul Gillis. “I think he’s done a great job and he’s been our best player this season,” said Gillis. “He works extremely hard and I think it’s great news.”
Hellebuyck’s decision to commit to the River Hawks could bode well for the Jackalopes for the remainder of the 2011-12 season. “It helps greatly,” said Hellebuyck. “Now I can focus completely on my game and have the confidence boost of knowing that if I can play at the next level, then I should be able to play really well here [in the NAHL].”
(Nathan can be reached at email@example.com)