Ben Freeman found himself pulling over his head the practice jersey of a 100-year-old pro hockey franchise, one of the most storied in the sport’s history.
Then, he was out there pushing his way down the ice and giving what he had against draft picks and other signed free agents whom the Toronto Maple Leafs were looking at to drive their own future. This was the Maple Leafs’ post-draft Prospects Camp.
Just two years earlier, Freeman was battling players looking to make their way into NCAA hockey – impressing the scouts and other coaches towards their own futures. He was a standout player with the USPHL’s Connecticut Jr. Rangers. Freeman, already committed to the University of Connecticut, was in the USPHL to further his development against some of the best young hockey players in the U.S.
That experience, and of course his one year thus far at the University of Connecticut, all led him to be in a position where he was right in the mix at Toronto’s Prospects Camp.
“I was invited early in the summer, I don’t know how for sure, but the Leafs were obviously at some of my UConn games this year,” said Freeman, who scored 12 points in his first 33 UConn games in 2016-17. “It was a really cool experience. I learned a lot. It was a good gauge of where I’m at, development-wise.”
He felt he was “pretty close” in skill level to the draft picks and other prospects at the Leafs camp.
“Maybe some of us develop a little later. When you’re pretty close, you just put in that extra work,” said Freeman.
The native of Falmouth, Maine, brought size (6-feet-4-inches, 206 pounds) and a scoring touch to the Huskies’ forward lines. He scored 20 goals and 38 points in 43 USPHL games in his sole season with the Jr. Rangers.
“I play center and right wing. I bring a mix of skill and power,” said Freeman. “I’m still not big, weight-wise, I’ve always been pretty skinny. I’ve adapted my game to a skill game, though I’m now adding to that physical aspect of my game.”
He worked on the physical side of the game during the 2015-16 season, as well, under head coach Vincent Montalbano.
“[Physical play] was definitely a focal point of development with the Rangers,” said Freeman. “I was just trying to finish my checks and use my body to protect pucks and play hard down low, and they were good. For off-ice training, the Jr. Rangers training was pretty similar to college.
“I worked in Connecticut with Ben Prentiss,” Freeman added. Prentiss was recently named as strength and conditioning consultant for the New York Rangers. “I learned a lot about what you have to do to stay in shape and the strength level that these college players are at, and even the pros.”
A couple years after committing to UConn as a junior at Northfield Mount Hermon School in Massachusetts, his future team still wanted Freeman to take another step forward before he could be ready for the NCAA Division 1 game.
“UConn was advocating for the Junior Rangers. I knew Coach Montalbano, and he’s been very helpful. It was a great place, and I’m grateful that I was helped towards playing for the Rangers. There was a really good relationship between the Rangers and UConn, with the proximity between UConn and Stamford.”
Fellow former Rangers Bryan Nelson and Steve Thulin also joined Freeman at UConn.
The Huskies finished 12-16-8 in Freeman’s first year with the team. He sees much better fortunes the next year.
“I was a little disappointed at the end. I feel like we underachieved, and that’s why I’m really excited for this next year,” said Freeman. “We have more experience – more seniors this year – it’s a good leadership group. We’ll have good goaltending and we’re strong up the middle.”
Freeman is in the business school at UConn, a challenge he welcomes.
“The business school is good, UConn is a good spot, academically,” said Freeman. “It’s still undecided in terms of specifically where in business I’ll go, but I’m leaning towards management. There are a handful of other players who are business majors, so we get to study a lot together. We also have really good academic advisors who help us a lot.”
While getting a great education at Connecticut’s flagship university, he also gets to play in one of the top college leagues in the country.
“Growing up, I would always go to the TD Garden to go to the Hockey East playoffs and to the Beanpot,” added Freeman. “It’s one of my dreams and goals to play for a Hockey East school. When UConn offered, I had to take that.”