Johnny Austin of Benilde-St. Margaret's is part of a standout group of Team Northwest defensemen. Photo by Katherine Matthews
Geographic regions serve as team names in the Upper Midwest High School Elite Hockey League.
Team Southwest players, as an example, typically come from the southwest area of the Twin Cities. Team Northeast draws most of its players from the northeast metro.
And so on.
The boundaries aren’t strictly defined, however, and the state’s top players could find themselves skating for most any team.
There’s your explanation for how undefeated Team Northwest features several players in its standout group of defensemen who hail from decidedly non-northwest locations.
Team Northwest defenseman Cameron Jackson of Lakeville South. Photo by Katherine Matthews
Cameron Jackson is from the far south – Lakeville South to be specific. His partner, Johnny Austin, is an Edina kid who played at Blake last season and has transferred to Benilde-St. Margaret’s for the upcoming season.
Matt Koch is from Hastings in the far southeast, Charlie Curti from Mound-Westonka in the far west and Tommy Vannelli from Minnetonka in the southwest.
The only northwest-based defenseman on Team Northwest is Rogers junior Travis Brown.
“At the beginning we weren’t necessarily comfortable with each other, but we are now,” said Jackson, who played a starring role in Lakeville South’s shocking state Class 2A tournament triumph over Duluth East last March. “At first we kind of had to play like, ‘I don’t know what he is going to do, so I have to play my best game.’
"We are a pretty tight knit team,” said Austin, a junior whose blonde, baby faced look Team Northwest coach Pat Williams likens to pop star Justin Bieber. “We go out and play soccer for warmups instead of traditional stretching and stuff like that.
Austin and Jackson have been partnered for the past handful of games. Their rock-solid play typifies that of the rest of Team Northwest’s defensemen, all of whom are capable of creating or joining the rush but also have the sense to stay back when their partner is thinking offense.
“If I go up, he stays back,” Austin said. “And if he goes up, I stay back.
“We look out for our partner.”
Team Northwest is allowing a league-best 2.11 goals per game. The next lowest total for a team with at least eight games is Team North’s 3.56.
“Our ’tender is helping us out,” Jackson said about Andover junior Chase Perry, the league’s runaway leader in most goaltending statistics. “His save percentage is way up there. That makes us look good.”
-- Loren Nelson, MN Hockey Hub editor
Chris Forney simply wants to get better.
The big, imposing defenseman from Thief River Falls is doing just that by playing for Great Plains in the Upper Midwest High School Elite League this fall, but his development path was almost much different.
This summer, Forney participated in tryouts with the Portland Winterhawks of the Western Hockey League, one of the three leagues that make up the Canadian Hockey League – or major juniors as we often hear it called.
Forney was liked by the Portland coaching staff, but ultimately it didn’t work out.
“I went out to Portland this summer and I made the first cut after the main camp, but they cut me later with other guys coming in,” Forney said. “I got to play against a lot of good players, learned a lot about what they do and got better. It was a good experience.”
Back in Minnesota, Forney realizes that his options are still open-ended when it comes to hockey.
“It was disappointing [after getting cut from Portland], but I’m still getting better,” he said. “Playing out here [in the Elite League] really helps with the speed of the game. These guys out here are going to go places, and playing against them night in and night out really helps with composure with the puck, making good passes and not forcing things, just letting it happen.”
Whether or not Forney will decide to give the WHL another shot or play college hockey is still to be determined. But had he made the Winterhawks’ roster, the route to college would have closed. As it turns out, being cut might be more of a blessing than making the team.
“It’s up in the air right now,” Forney said regarding where he’d like to go after high school. “I think I’d like to go to college. I wanted to just try it out in Portland and see a little different side of hockey.”
Although he didn’t mention any colleges that are currently showing interest, Forney will have another high school season to show off his talent to anyone who is watching.
“It’s going to be a good year, and I have to keep getting better.”
-- Zack Friedli, MN Hockey Hub staff
Four players scored and Chase Perry made 40 saves to propel Team Northwest to a 4-1 win over Great Plains in Upper Midwest High School Elite League action on Sunday, Sept. 23, at Mars Lakeview Arena in Duluth.
Team Northwest started the scoring when Jack Ramsey batted home a rebound from the right circle 7 minutes, 10 seconds into the contest.
Jacob Benson was able to answer about four minutes later, but that ended up being the only time Great Plains could crack Perry.
Johnny Austin’s long shot from the point late in the middle frame gave Team Northwest the lead for good, then a Matt Colford power-play goal and a Spencer Naas tally during a 52 second stretch midway through the third sealed it for Northwest.
With the win, Team Northwest improves to 7-0-2 overall, good for a three-point lead in the Elite League standings.
Great Plains falls to 3-5-1, nine points behind.
-- Zack Friedli, MN Hockey Hub staff