By Lindsey Willhite | Photos by Ross Dettman
There are two constants to Jordan Schroeder’s hockey career: Big-time expectations due to his talents and big-time judgments due to his size.
The big-time expectations began long before the Chicago Wolves center became the Vancouver Canucks’ first-round pick in the 2009 NHL Entry draft. He became so swift and so skilled at such a young age, Schroeder had to play with older players in order to be challenged.
There was the highly anticipated Pee-Wee game near his boyhood home of Prior Lake, Minn., when he served as his team’s best player and the other team had somebody just as good. The other team’s player scored 4 goals, but Schroeder scored five to give his team the 5-4 win.
He was good enough to play varsity hockey in eighth grade, so he enrolled at St. Thomas Academy in Mendota Heights, Minn. Not only did he thrive academically at the all-boys, Catholic, military prep school, he led St. Thomas as a freshman to its first state title in 2006.
“It turned out to be a really good school for me,” Schroeder said. “I grew up there. It teaches you all about leadership. That’s where the military part comes into it. You have uniforms that you wear every day. There’s certain parts of the school where there’s the whole Army thing, but you’re dressed in dress pants and a dress shirt and a tie usually every day.
“It was kind of fun because you didn’t have to care about what you wore to school. People didn’t judge you. Everyone was equal. You make close friends there and I still have close friends who I keep in touch with.”
Schroeder left St. Thomas Academy after his freshman year because he earned a spot in the United States National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor, Mich., where he enjoyed more success on a bigger scale. With 7 goals and 20 assists spread over three World Junior Championships, Schroeder broke Jeremy Roenick’s 21-year-old record for most career points by an American.
Schroeder also continued his accelerated academic pursuits while in Ann Arbor. He wanted to start playing in college a year early, so he spent the summer after his sophomore year taking a fistful of online classes via Brigham Young University.
“That wasn’t a fun summer,” Schroeder said with a smile. “I didn’t do much. I did a lot of work, but it was worth it to me. I felt like since I was already in Ann Arbor and playing in a junior league, I was ready to make the step to college hockey. I didn’t want to go to another school. It would have been my third high school.”
Schroeder’s academic discipline allowed him to enroll in the fall of 2008 at the University of Minnesota – his dream school – where he was the youngest player on the roster. Schroeder delivered 13 goals and 32 assists for the Gophers, which was 1 point away from the team lead.
Shortly thereafter, the Canucks made Schroeder their first pick in the 2009 NHL Entry draft. While that sounds like an incredible honor – and it was – Schroeder was projected to be gone long before the Canucks had the 22nd selection in the opening round.
What happened? This is where the big-time judgments – the other constant in Schroeder’s hockey life – come into play. He was listed at 5-foot-8 and 178 pounds on draft day, which served as a yellow flag for some general managers.
“Yeah, I’ve pretty much heard it my entire life,” Schroeder said. “It goes to show if you have enough heart and determination…look at the players around the league: (Martin) St. Louis, (Patrick) Kane, (Brian) Gionta, Ray Whitney, those type of players. Try and model your game after them. They’ve been successful.
“Size obviously is a big thing for the NHL,” he continued. “If you don’t have it, you have to use other skill sets. You have to be that much smarter, that much quicker out there.”
And that’s what Schroeder’s season with the Wolves – his second full year as a professional – has been all about. When the Canucks sent him to the Wolves shortly before the season began, Vancouver coach Alain Vigneault offered these thoughts to reporters:
“Schroeder played much better than in last year’s training camp,” Vigneault said. “I liked the way he positioned himself away from the puck, how he handled that. His next step is to dominate in the AHL. When people ask who is one of the better two-way offensive players, his name has got to come up. If he intends to play at this level one day, that’s the step he’s got to make. He’s not an overly big player, but he compensates with skill and speed.”
Through April 4, Schroeder owned 19 goals, 22 assists and a +7 plus-minus rating while appearing in every game. While the numbers look good – and acknowledge his ability to move the puck and finish when necessary – the other parts of his game have improved even more.
“Big progress for him,” said Wolves head coach Craig MacTavish. “Really has taken a nice step from where he was last year. Not just his offense, but also his general understanding of how to play the game on both sides of the puck. He’s added a lot of work ethic to his game, a lot of reliability that maybe he didn’t have last year. He’s been one of our most consistent guys all year.”
MacTavish and assistant coach Karl Taylor spent individual practice time with Schroeder working on the little things that can make all the difference for a 21-year-old phenom now listed at 5-9 and 177 pounds.
“I really tried to work on adding small pieces to my game, whether it’s on the forecheck – getting that step quicker and using your stick at a different angle,” Schroeder said. “You know, small things of the game that make a big difference. I think I’ve done a good job of that.”
MacTavish, who played 17 seasons in the National Hockey League and coached for 11 more, doesn’t put much importance on Schroeder’s size when assessing his chances to play for the Canucks.
“I don’t think there’s a handicap for smaller guys,” MacTavish said. “You’re competing against bigger, stronger guys, but smaller guys are subjected to the same evaluation as everybody else. It’s what you create minus what you give up.
“Smaller guys have a tendency, if they’re not real solid positionally, to give up more. So they’ve got to do one of two things: They’ve got to reduce the amount that they give up or they’ve got to create more. He has improved in both areas.”