Last season, the USPHL found a way to operate from coast to coast with all teams getting full (or close to full) schedules while still obeying health restrictions in place in different areas at separate times.
The USPHL became a top option for Tier 2 and other high-level players from north of the border looking for a place to stay competitive and remain locked in on their goals of attracting NCAA colleges.
Jordan Gagnon, 19, from Leduc, Alta. was one of those players, making his way from the Canadian Rockies to the southern U.S., where the 6-foot, 165-pound defenseman played for the Carolina Jr. Hurricanes USPHL Premier team. He was able to channel the opportunity into a commitment with Alvernia University, which opens its inaugural NCAA campaign in 2022.
Alvernia, located in Reading, Pa., got the verbal commitment from Gagnon this spring, as he prepares to play the 2021-22 season closer to home in Canada and get ready for his college hockey future.
“Personally, I want to have a breakout year, and I want to open some doors to potentially being able to go to an NCAA Division I school the following year. It has been a struggle the past two years with COVID and how the government handled it in Canada,” Gagnon added. “However, things are better now. Alberta just opened completely. So, since July 1, I've been skating with a bunch of other junior players. It's been good.”
Carolina was a big move for a player that played all his youth hockey in his hometown, a suburb of Edmonton, then moved away for the first time for a season in the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League.
Going from a province where hockey is a normal way of life to a growing hockey market in Wake Forest, Gagnon said the transition was not difficult.
“Life in the south is a lot different than it is up north in Canada,” said Gagnon. “Hockey was very much similar - they love their hockey down there just as much as we do up here. Obviously, there's a lot less fans [due to COVID restrictions], but other than the fans, the hockey and the way it was run was similar to back home.
“Other than hockey, life in the south was a lot different. The heat was a huge shock for me at first, I've never played hockey where I can go to the rink in shorts for practice or show up in a T-shirt. It was an awesome experience being down there though, and experiencing that culture.”
Working out and staying fit through the season was key, since Gagnon was surrounded by many folks with a certain culinary flair.
“The food was really good. My billets were awesome cooks and I got to try all the southern types of food; I really enjoyed the barbecue the most. It was the first time I had ever had that, and it blew my mind.”
Gagnon picked an exciting time to join the Jr. Canes. Always a good team in the ultra-competitive Southeast Division, the Canes put everything together resulting in a great playoff run, which did not stop until they reached the National semifinal round. He helped them get there offensively as well, scoring 22 points in 33 games.
“The chemistry on our team was really something. It developed faster than any other team I've been on,” Gagnon added. “We had a good run at the start of the year where we really bonded as a team and it just kind of clicked from there for the rest of the year. It was really something come the end of the year when we went on the playoff run how close all the guys were and how much we all just knew how to play with each other.”
As a defenseman with some previous experience, Gagnon became an on-and off-ice leader for the squad.
“I was definitely a leader in the locker room due to my previous experience playing on championship teams and my experience up north in Canada,” said Gagnon. “I'd say the coaches looked at me every night to help lead the team from the back end for sure. Me and [Jakub] Viedemann and [Timon] Prexler helped our back end out defensively, and we're counted on to contribute offensively.
“What made my job really easy though was the other three guys in the lineup any given night playing rock solid ‘D’ for us. Our special teams in Carolina was one of our strong points,” Gagnon added. “We had one of the best power plays in the league and I was glad to be a part of that. I didn't play as much penalty kill, however I did sometimes when it was important. I believe the Southeast division is the best division in the USPHL. The skill level down there this year was unbelievable. I was really shocked playing these teams like Charlotte. The games almost felt like they were Tier 2 games back home in Canada.”
The Jr. Canes were able to take its game to an even higher level in the post season and that did not surprise Gagnon at all.
“I did see the playoff run coming,” said the defender. “We were built like a playoff team. We had lots of experience, lots of depth and I really thought that we had a good chance this year at taking it all down and winning the title. Our team was back end heavy, built from the goalie out. We had an awesome goalie, so yeah, I really thought that we had a good chance at winning this year but when it comes down to the single elimination games in nationals. It can really go either way.”
In Leduc, Alberta, this summer, you can find Gagnon keeping his eyes on the prize - both to win a junior championship in his home country this year and to work towards his NCAA future.
“I've been in the gym the last month or so. Before, I was mostly just out doing what I can here and there - a lot of running, shooting pucks, working on my hands,” he added. “For the rest of the summer hopefully things will be back to normal but who knows?”
The USPHL congratulates Jordan Gagnon, his family, the Carolina Jr. Hurricanes and Alvernia University on his commitment.