EVERETT — T.J. Oshie is an Everett-bred hockey player, and undoubtedly one of the best ever from Snohomish County. But to get that good, Oshie had to leave home while in high school and move to Minnesota, a difficult but necessary decision that eventually helped him reach the National Hockey League in 2008.
Nearly a decade later, this area is still producing promising hockey prospects. But unlike Oshie, who had to relocate to reach his full potential, the kids today can stay home.
One good option is the U16 Everett Junior Silvertips, a team that competes in the North American Prospects Hockey League, or NAPHL. The league has teams across the country, which means a lot of travel, but an Everett team also offers local players the chance to play elite hockey without having to move away.
Living at home is “really important to me,” said Caden Pattison, a 15-year-old sophomore at Lake Stevens High School and a Junior Silvertips winger. “Being with my family and being able to go to the same high school as all my friends that I’ve grown up with is big for me.”
Jake McNeil, a 16-year-old sophomore at Snohomish High School and another winger, says he would have moved away to advance his hockey career if necessary, but the opportunity to stay home “is huge for me. It’s fun to be with the same guys I’ve always been with hockey-wise, but being at home with my family and seeing my grandparents all the time, that’s really cool.”
Hunter Campbell, a 15-year-old sophomore at Everett’s Cascade High School, actually moved away for hockey a year ago. He played for the Los Angeles Junior Kings, which required him to stay with a billet family while attending El Segundo (Calif.) High School. And although his billet experience was a good one, being home “is a better option,” he said.
“I missed my family when I was away and it was tough not to see them as much as I wanted to,” added Campbell, who is also a winger. “Being at home is good because I can get my friends to come to my games and I’ve got my family to lean on. So I like being home.”
The Junior Silvertips are led by first-year coach Turner Stevenson, a 44-year-old Prince George, B.C., native who played for the WHL’s Seattle Thunderbirds back in the late 1980s and then spent all or part of 13 NHL seasons with the Montreal Canadiens, New Jersey Devils and Philadelphia Flyers. Stevenson lives today on the Eastside and his son, Jakob, is a member of the team.
The Junior Silvertips will play close to 60 games this season, Stevenson said, and 22 of those are NAPHL league games on once-a-month road trips to Colorado, Minnesota and Michigan. The team generally travels to tournaments in Canada another weekend each month, and then hosts Canadian teams at Everett’s Xfinity Arena on a third weekend.
The NAPHL has 17 teams in its U16 division and the Junior Silvertips made a strong turnabout this season, finishing in second place with a 17-4-1 record after going winless in league games in 2015-16 (the league playoffs are in Michigan next month). And in late December the team went undefeated in seven games to win the Richmond (B.C.) International Tournament against a field of major midget-level teams from Canada, the western United States and Hungary.
It is, Stevenson acknowledged, “pretty remarkable what these kids have done in a short time. … It’s great that we’re in second (place), but I’m more into developing the kids. That’s the best part for me. It’s about doing things the right way, like when I was a player.”
Also important, he went on, is that talented players from the Snohomish County area can stay home and still play top-level hockey. “There are good players here,” he said, “but (in the past) they’ve had to leave. … You have 15- and 16-year-olds leaving home (for hockey) and the family part of it is the thing that takes a beating.”
That said, not all the Junior Silvertips are products of Snohomish County or even the greater Seattle area. One player is from Alaska, another from Oregon, a third from British Columbia and a fourth from Spokane. The out-of-towners stay with billet families, just like most of the WHL Silvertips players.
Regardless of where they are from, the chance to play for the Junior Silvertips comes with a cost, and a significant one at that. The player fee is $14,000 a season, with most of the money going to cover travel expenses.
But for young players with a dream of playing professionally, the chance to play top-tier hockey while staying at home is too good to pass up. It is a path they hope will lead someday to junior hockey or perhaps college hockey, and then ultimately to the NHL.
“There’s never a day goes by that I don’t think about playing in the National Hockey League,” McNeil said. “It’s such a big deal to me, and hopefully I’ll be there someday.”
Likewise Campbell, who has already been drafted and signed by the Western Hockey League’s Calgary Hitmen (he will likely join that team either next year or the year after). Campbell admits he dreams of the NHL “all the time.”
“I’m always thinking about it,” he said, “and I’m always trying to make myself better so I can strive for that goal. I want to make the NHL, which I can do if I work hard enough.”