When you excel in hockey, expect to take a different route to bigger times than almost any other sport.
In, say, football, basketball, cross country or track, stand-outs grab a college offer, preferably at the NCAA D1 level.
However, in hockey, you nearly need to be a superstar to get a college to give a sniff in your direction right out of high school, and that’s even if you stayed with your local high school for your prep career.
Only baseball offers routes as numerous, with community colleges that specialize in the sport as a stepping stone to bigger colleges or the three levels of minor leagues.
For hockey, strong juniors play is almost a prerequisite to college offers, and even if you’re eventually drafted by a pro team, you may continue your development with your current team.
Two excellent players with Merrill ties are currently testing those waters, albeit at different levels of development.
Matt Purmal has been through much of that rigamarole, from leaving Merrill High School after his sophomore year for an Upper Peninsula squad – the Marquette Electricians – then playing at the juniors level for the Wichita Falls (Tex.) Wildcats, Ft. McMurray (Alberta, Can.) Oil Barons and the Green Bay Gamblers before catching on with St. Lawrence U. last year.
Heller – a 2015 MHS graduate – is just starting the process, playing for a Junior A team, the Wis. Rapids RiverKings, in the USPHL.
The St. Lawrence team is currently ranked 10th in the nation, in the USCHO rankings that determine the 16 teams that make the national tournament. The Saints have played the seventh-toughest schedule in the country and compiled an 8-3-2 record with a 3-1-1 mark in the the Eastern Collegiate Athletic Conference.
“There’s a lot of hockey to go, but they’re in good shape and they’re playing well,” Matt’s father, Dave, said.
Matt, now 21, added, “Hopefully we just keep getting better and better. We want to win our division and move on to the national championships and give that a run.
“We’re expected to do a lot better this year. Our coach (Greg Carvel) would say we weren’t expected to do well (last year) so we could creep up on people. This year we have to be ready to play every night.”
Matt’s game could be on a collision course with a pro career. The 6’ 3”, 210-pound defenseman continues to hone his skills in the hopes that could happen.
“If I could play pro, I’d be very grateful,” he said. “Many kids dream of this. I’d most likely see my schooling through because my program is very good, but if an NHL team gave me a very good offer, I’d have to think about it. They’re helping shape my hockey style and make me even more ready through mentoring and coaching.
“It would feel awesome to play pro hockey. When you’re drafted, you’re not necessarily going to them right away. They want to watch you for a couple of years. Lots of drafted players get dropped and replaced with free agents. Teams can only protect so many players, year to year.”
Size is important to a defenseman, and Matt is working hard at adding muscle to his tall frame.
“I will continue to try to get bigger, so i can be a bigger force on the ice and meaner – push guys around the ice,” he said. “A big part of my game is to strip the puck and move the puck up the ice to our forwards.”
Six Saints were invited to pro camps last summer, with Matt and two teammates tabbed for the Chicago Blackhawks.
“The Blackhawk camp really gave me a confidence boost,” he noted. “I never thought I wasn’t sure if I could (handle to upper levels of hockey). I’ve always known I could play at the D1 level, but now it’s just reassuring. Every year I’m trying to add things to my game that can help out my team.
“I felt very privileged. It made me feel closer to the next step of pro hockey, whether that’s the AHL or NHL. Other draft picks and free agents were there, and I felt very comfortable. I felt I fit right in with the other guys. Most of them were playing major juniors in Canada or were in college as well.”
So what is Matt’s game?
“My game is the shut-down defenseman that provides a little offense when needed. I’m a key guy in the penalty kill. We were top 10 in the nation in penalty kill last year. I really enjoy being on the penalty kill because it’s an opportunity to work really hard and stop the other team’s offense in 5-on-4 or 5-on-3 situations, whichever it is.. I just want to be a consistent defenseman, a security blanket.
“My puck control between this year and last year has definitely gone up. When I was at the Parisi (Speed) School at Riverside Athletic this summer, I was incorporating stick-handling drills into my workouts. It really improved my confidence and puck control on the ice.”
Unlike lower levels, the Saints cycle a lot of players.
“To compete with the top teams, we have to have all 3 ‘D’ lines put up high numbers of minutes,” Matt noted. “Every line will be just as good as the next. We run 4-5 lines on the front end. In (the ECAC), teams can’t keep up with us because we tire them out in the third period. Other coaches play their top lines more. Our coach feels everybody is just as good as the next guy.”
The post-prep game is definitely different from high school.
“It’s 1,000 times better,” Heller stated. “It’s so much fun. You don’t have guys that can barely skate. Everybody is on the same level. It’s so much quicker. You get so much stronger and the game is so much faster.
“Seventy-five % of our team is from out-of-state. I’m the only one from this area. We have a couple of guys from Sun Prairie and our goalie is from Eau Claire. We’ve got guys from the Czech Republic, Lithuania, Ohio, Wyoming, Texas, Colorado, Illinois, all over the place.”
His squad is also off to a good start, with a fourth-place 14-4-2 record in the Western Division. His team will play a 60-game season before the playoffs start in early March..
“All three other teams (ahead in the standings) have 4-5 more (Western Division) games than us,” Heller said. “If all the games were equal, we’d be close to tied with everyone. Two teams dropped out after the schedule was made up and joined a different division.
“I’m having a blast. The team’s really come together. We don’t have guys that fight or argue. It’s a really good team. That makes it a lot easier. We went to Boston recently and swept all five games when we were there.”
The Star-Studded USPHL Showcase drew more than 100 NCAA and NHL scouts to Boston.
The only thing the pair have in common is the least likely. They both play defense, an anomaly for the forever-forward Heller, and home to Purmal who has played defense for most of his hockey life.
“It’s so much different,” Heller said. “I’m so offensive-minded, I always want to skate it up. Playing defense you have to know so much more. When the puck is in the defensive zone, you have so much responsibility. You have to be in position at all times. You can’t get caught running.
“At first I didn’t like it because I’m so used to playing forward. But now that I’m getting the hang of it, I like it a lot more.”
Apparently his team feels he’s catching on, too.
“I got moved up to the second line and have been playing a lot more,” Heller noted. “Every other shift I switch with the first line, so I really don’t sit much anymore. I’m a rookie and half the team has already played a year. I could skate with this team next year, too. I haven’t made my mind up, yet. Most colleges want a year or two of juniors, so this just opens the door for where you want to go school.”
Heller had a built-in safety net when he moved to Rapids, staying with his uncle Ricky Skinner.
“I get to stay with him, so I don’t have to stay with a host family,” he said. “Some kids already aren’t that comfortable with their host families, because they have a bunch of young kids.
“He got me a job, so I work in the day and play hockey at night. I’m taking on-line classes through UW-Marathon. We play every weekend, Friday and Saturday, and once or twice a month we play on Sunday.”