IROQUOIS FALLS - When the Lindenwood University — Belleville Lynx take to the ice next fall for the team’s inaugural American Collegiate Hockey Association season it will have a distinctive NOJHL feel.
The Lynx will have at least one Abitibi Eskimo, one North Bay Trapper and a handful of Espanola Rivermen in its lineup for the 2014-15 season.
Eskimos forward Landon Hiebert is one of the first players to commit to the new men’s ice hockey program at the university located in Belleville, Ill., near St. Louis.
The coach of the Lynx, Lindsay Middlebrook, is a former teammate of both Eskimos coach Paul Gagne (New Jersey Devils, 1982-83) and Espanola Rivermen coach Tom McCarthy (Minnesota North Stars, 1981-82) and he scouted Hiebert and a number of other players during the NOJHL Showcase Tournament in January.
“It is hard to get to know the boys when you are a thousand miles away, so I rely on my scouts and I rely on the coaches of the their teams and I rely on teammates and even opponents,” Middlebrook said.
“These kids all know who the best players are, they all know who their competition is, and the things I have heard about Landon — and what I am looking for in our program — is quickness and speed. We don’t play a real physical game of hockey, so I am looking for guys who have good hands and who have a good head for the game.
“People tell me he is a pretty smart hockey player in the way he sees things and develops the game. His speed is an asset and his character. I can’t tell you how many guys I have turned down after you start looking at them a little further along.
“You have to look at what kind of teammate is he. The skill and the ability to play the game is important, but the chemistry in the room and the chemistry on the ice is also important.
“These guys are not going to play in the National Hockey League, so they have got to come here and play some college hockey that is very competitive, but they have got to enjoy playing with each other and enjoy the college experience and all of that.”
Hiebert is one of the players who stood out during the NOJHL Showcase Tournament.
“Within a period, or two of each game I was able to identify the guys, based on skill level, or what I was looking for in a hockey team,” Middlebrook said.
“So it was pretty quickly evident which players on which teams I was ear marking, but in the process leading up to today, that is when you learn a little bit more about the boys, talking to their parents, to teammates and coaches.
“There is a lot of work done from the time I first identify a guy until the final time when we offer him a chance to come and play here. There is a lot of behind-the-scenes work that is done so that you don’t feel like he is a guy who is going to come here for six months and then want to go home because he is home sick. You want to know how driven they are to be here and get their degree.”
That was the process Middlebrook went through with Hiebert, before offering the forward the opportunity to play for the Lynx.
Hiebert said: “It all started after our Showcase game (a 4-2 loss to the Soo Thunderbirds on Jan. 11) in Espanola.
“I knew it was a pretty big game, because I have played in a few showcases back in Saskatchewan, in the league I was at before I came here.
“There just seemed to be a little bit more on the line this time, so I wanted to try a little bit harder.
“Coach Middlebrook contacted me and we spoke briefly about it and he told me their hockey program was starting up and they were looking for some new players.
“I always wanted to play college hockey, so I jumped at the opportunity.
Hibert is not 100% sure, at this point, about what he wants to take at Lindenwood University — Belleville.
“As of right now, I am leaning toward majoring in sports management and minoring in exercise science,” he said.
If he gets his degree in sports management, Hiebert may some day find himself running a team like the Eskimos, instead of playing for them.
“Potentially, that is one of the routes I could go, for sure,” he said.
When Hiebert made the decision to join the Eskimos earlier this season he had no idea that he would get an opportunity to continue playing hockey while furthering his education next year.
“To be honest, I just came here expecting to finish off my 20-year-old season,” he said.
“I knew there was always a possibility, but I didn’t really have the greatest hopes for it. I am glad it came through, in the way it did.”
Hiebert realizes that there will be a difference in style between what he is used to in the NOJHL and playing at the university level.
“Obviously it is going to be a little bit bigger, faster,” he said.
“So I am just going to have to get a little bit stronger in the off season and be ready to come in with an open mind.
“I realize I might not be playing as much hockey as I was here, but I am used to playing other roles than I am right now, so it won’t be too big of a transition, I am hoping.”
The forward isn’t the only one excited about the news that he will be joining the Lynx next season.
“I talked it over with my dad as soon as (Eskimos coach and general manager) Paul (Gagne) brought it up after the Showcase game,” Hiebert said.
“I asked him to look into it a little bit further and he said it sounds like a pretty good school. Ever since then, all the information has sounded pretty peachy.”
Hibert has been to the United States before, but not the St. Louis area.
“I have been to Chicago and Cincinnati and few different places in the United States, so it won’t be a brand new experience for me, but it will be a change of what I am used to, for sure, being close to a big centre like that,” he said. “It will be nice.”
Hiebert is eager to get an opportunity to be part of a new hockey program at the university.
“That is what is most exciting about it,” he said.
“It is a fresh start for the organization and we are going to be building a foundation and, from what I have heard, we are going to have a pretty solid lineup.”
Hiebert’s current coach obviously had plenty of good things to say about the 20-year-old forward.
“He bring leadership to the lineup,” Gagne said.
“He is so professional, so mature. It is all business with him. He does whatever the coaches ask. He leads by example.
“On the ice, he protects the puck, he shoots, he forechecks, he compliments young (Brenden) Mr. Locke. They work well together. He is a good skater, he is solid, he will take a check, he will play hurt. He is just your all-around great player who shows leadership.”
Middlebrook’s familiarity with Gagne and McCarthy is one of the reasons that he has been so comfortable stocking his roster with NOJHL grads.
“I was kind of like a small home coming weekend,” he said.
“Having played with Paul and Tom, it gives me legitimacy in their minds. I am sure they get approached by other programs and other people and, as a coach you are trying to look out for the best interest of your kids and you have to be careful where you suggest they go, or stuff like that, so I think the fact that we played together and knew each other certainly put them at ease.
“And being able to talk to them, as former teammates, I got, I think, the real honest scoop on the players. As coaches, we all want to move the kids along and sometimes we will possibly say some things that are maybe what a guy wants to hear, as opposed to what a player is really like.
“So, I think I got the straight on a lot of kids from these guys.”
In addition to Hiebert, the Lynx could have a number of other NOJHL grads in their lineup next season.
“We are probably at seven, eight, or nine guys right now, that I believe we are going to have,” Middlebrook said.
“I have been talking heavily to Brody Wagner (of the Eskimos), also, and I would love to have him come in and play goal for us.
“We haven’t closed the deal on him yet. I am not sure what his other options are, or what he is looking for, but we are certainly talking with him.
“And we have got Brad Edwards, the captain of Espanola, and we have got Brandon Janke (Rivermen) and we are also trying to get Brennan Dubchak (Rivermen), we are still holding out hope for him, and we have a couple from North Bay, including Duane Wainman, and then there is Corbin Bean. We don’t have the official papers on him yet, but he is certainly in the mix.”
Hibert and the other NOJHL players who will be heading to Lindenwood University — Belleville in the fall, will put next year on the back burner, for the time being, as he tries to help the Eskimos advance as deeply as possible into this year’s playoffs.
“Every playoff game, we have to approach it one game at a time,” he said.
“It is do, or die, at this point in the season.”