San Jose friends choose different paths in hockey journey

By Tom Schreier

Michael Mylchreest - Prince George Cougars

Photo: Prince George Cougars defenseman Michael Mylchreest is a product of the Jr. Sharks program in San Jose, California (courtesy of Marissa Baecker/Getty Images)

Ji Young Li and Michael Mylchreest grew up playing hockey with and against each other in San Jose, CA. Both were members of the Jr. Sharks program and distinguished themselves among their peers by choosing to leave the Bay Area and compete against 16-to-20-year-old's in junior hockey.

At around the time they first learned to drive, Li and Mylchreest had to make a difficult decision in order to pursue their hockey dreams: Do they choose the American junior route, which would allow them to play NCAA hockey? Or is the Canadian junior route, which will pay for one year of college for every year they spend in the league, but leaves them ineligible to play for the likes of Notre Dame, Michigan and Harvard?

Li chose to join the Springfield (IL) Jr. Blues, a member of the North American Hockey League (NAHL) coached by former Jr. Sharks president, Tony Zasowski. Mylchreest currently plays for the Prince George Cougars of the Western Hockey League (WHL).

The decision they faced – whether to leave home and their high school teammates to pursue a higher level of hockey – is one most standout hockey players have to make and is not unique to them specifically. After all, Americans Patrick Kane (Buffalo, NY) and Dustin Byfuglien (Roseau, MN) chose the Canadian junior route, while their NHL peers like James van Riemsdyk (Middleton Township, NJ) and Zach Parise (Minneapolis, MN) chose to play college hockey.

What makes the decision intriguing for a hockey player in California, a state that has three NHL teams and an increasing amount of young athletes that are interested in the sport, is that unlike players from the East Coast or Midwest, a hockey player from California is actually closer to WHL teams like the Seattle Thunderbirds, Everett Silvertips or Portland Winterhawks than they are to American junior and college teams. The USHL only has teams in the Midwest and college hockey has yet to move to the West Coast.

The NAHL has made a concerted effort to place teams in non-traditional markets in order to reflect the nation’s growing interest in hockey. While North Dakota, South Dakota and Michigan are all well represented in the “NA”, as it is known colloquially, the league’s South Division has five Texas-based teams and the West Division has two Alaskan clubs and teams in Fresno, CA and Wenatchee, WA.

By joining the Jr. Blues, however, Li had to travel over 2000 miles to play for Zasowski, a former Notre Dame goaltender and Illinois native, in Springfield.

“Definitely made the transition a lot easier,” Li said of his relationship with Zasowski, who he met while playing in the Jr. Sharks program. “It was definitely a big jump, but it made it a lot easier. It made me feel a lot more comfortable so I could build my confidence quicker.”

“I’ve known Ji for three years leading up to this and he played for the U-16 team that I coached last year,” says the coach. “We knew he had the talent and we knew what kind of player he was so when we invited most of the players from the Bay Area out to tryouts he jumped at the opportunity.”

An overlooked aspect of the growth of California hockey is that there are more people with connections to the Golden State in the game right now than there ever has been. Zasowski’s time in Northern California allows him to build a competitive edge by exploiting a niche other clubs had overlooked, and to provide an environment where the players feel comfortable away from home.

“That’s one thing that has helped make the transition easy for our guys on the West Coast,” he says, noting that there are six Bay Area skaters on his roster. “Between myself having been out in San Jose for five years and my assistant coach (Mike Janda, another Illinois native) having worked out there, they’re playing for two guys that they have some familiarity with, and almost all of the players have played for me or I worked with them in hockey camps before.”

Since age five, Li has focused primarily on hockey. He moved to San Jose from Singapore and in order to cool off in the warm climate, his mother enrolled him and his sister in figure skating.

“I decided that it was mostly a girl’s sport,” remembers Li. “I was pretty mad at my mom that she signed me up for that, but she switched me to hockey and that’s how I started playing.”

Aside from being an accomplished hockey player, Li is also a standout in the classroom and has Notre Dame at the top of his wish list when it comes to college hockey programs. Zasowski says that although the WHL teams are located closer to California, most of his protégés have chosen the college route.

“I’d say the majority of the players want to go the college route,” he says, but qualifies his statement by adding that most of the players he has coached simply are looking for an opportunity to play. “Just like any other player, it’s good to be wanted and recruited, so players out there like to have their options before they have to choose. Our guys are just hungry to go play Division I or D3 and will be happy with any team that will recruit them.”

One of the players Zasowski coached in San Jose, Mylchreest, has chosen to play in the WHL, however.

“I didn’t meet Tony until I was about 14 or 15,” he says. “He was coaching Triple A teams and was actually a scout for the team I play for here in Prince George. He scouted me for them and actually got me listed with this team.”

Zasowski was a primary consultant for Mylchreest and his family when making his decision to go the WHL. He briefed them on the pros and cons of both the American and Canadian routes, but allowed them to make the decision they thought was best. “He didn’t really force me one way or the other,” says Mylchreest, “just educated me on what paths I can take, whether it’s college or major junior.”

Mylchreest was well traveled before choosing to go to Prince George. Hockey had taken him to locations like Pittsburgh, Chicago and Omaha, but he was not going to be joining one of the five teams in the US Division of the WHL’s Western Conference, which are all located in either Washington or Oregon. Instead he was heading 1400 miles north to compete against other teams in British Columbia. And unlike Li, he is the only Californian on his team.

The move from the warm Silicon Valley to a smaller, more industrial small town was a big adjustment for Mylchreest. Not only was he living far away from home and playing against better players, but he would have to get a winter coat.

“Everyone said it was going to be a big change and it was a change,” he says, “that was for sure. Everyone said it was going to be a lot colder and I guess that was just kind of a given.”

Still, for all the ostensible differences between a sunbathed San Jose, known for being the IT capital of the world, and Prince George, a city that’s lumber mills are the largest employer, Mylchreest says that the two are not as dichotomous as a casual observer may think.

“Canada and the United States are a lot more similar than they are different, culturally,” he says, noting that English is the primary language in British Columbia. “It was not that big of a difference. For me, I’ve been to Canada before and I thought I adapted pretty smoothly. I felt like I was at home pretty quickly.”

Mylchreest calls home every day and also frequently speaks to Li, a person he considers a close friend. Before making their respective decisions, they talk about their divergent paths and why they chose the route they did.

“We always talk about the differences in our teams and where we are in our hockey careers,” he says. “It’s always interesting because the hockey world is pretty small, everyone kind of knows everyone and it’s always interesting to see what everyone else is doing.”

“I definitely talked to Michael a lot last year,” says Li, who joined the junior ranks a year after Mylchreest, “asking about his experience and how he thought the team was, how he thought the league was and I just felt I’d rather go play college and take my time and develop and not rush things too much.”

Li also spoke to his family about the decision. He said that the choice to play in Springfield was his alone and his father, who had read up on the WHL, supported him either way.

“He said the WHL is a really good league and playing there wouldn’t be bad because you play there a couple years and if you don’t make it, you still would have three years of scholarships so you can move on with your life,” Li says. “Playing Division I is good too because you have really good leagues like the NAHL and the USHL leading up to it and college is paid for.”

Mylchreest also discussed his decision with his family. “It was what my family and I thought was the best path for me,” he says. “At that time in my development we felt that it would be the best fit for me to fast track my development and that’s what the WHL is all about—developing younger players to go to the NHL. The college route is…a little bit longer and you might have to play a couple extra years of junior hockey before you get to your college team and there’s always that chance that I would never get that shot. I didn’t want to have regrets about maybe not taking this opportunity and I’m very happy with what I’ve done by coming here.”

Both players have had their fair share of trials and tribulations since joining the junior ranks.

“At the start of the season it was a bit shaky,” admits Li. He suffered a groin injury early on in the season and also received a five-game suspension for fighting before the halfway point in the season. “The first three, four, five games I struggled, but after my injury I was able to watch and just take everything in and I started practicing and getting back into things. I played a six-game stretch [after] and I thought played really well in those games. I’ve got a lot of confidence [now].”

Mylchreest had a strong first season in Prince George, but a concussion that cost him six games has hampered his development in Year 2.

“Last year we had a bit of a tough season with injuries to our team and just various factors,” he says. “They gave me a lot of opportunity to play and I got to play a lot of games. I really learned a lot last year when I was 16, a lot about the league and the way hockey is played. This year it has also been an adjustment and a learning experience. Second year in the league you’re still learning every day. I got an injury and it happens. It has been harder from that standpoint, you have to restart and get going again and it’s been a bit tougher to start the season, but it’s been getting a lot better and it’s going in the right direction.”

Whether the two friends Li and Mylchreest one day face one another at a higher level of hockey remains to be seen. But both players appear to have made well thought out decisions that should benefit them into the future, regardless of where they end up in their hockey careers.

Follow Tom Schreier on Twitter @tschreier3