It’s been just seven years since Jack Hillen graduated from the Academy of Holy Angels following a wildly successful high school hockey career. But the current New York Islanders (NHL) defenseman sometimes feels as if the pressures of the high school game have taken the next generation of player down the rabbit hole.
“It’s a different time now than even when I graduated in 2004,” Hillen said in a phone interview earlier this winter.
He left Holy Angels with three straight state tournament appearances, including a state title in 2002 and a Mr. Hockey finalist honor in 2004, then followed up with a full four-year career at Colorado College in which he was named the WCHA Defenseman of the Year as a senior before being signed by the Islanders and called up for the final two games of the 2007-08 season.
At every stop, Hillen played through his full eligibility while enjoying the benefits that came with each. He’s now a four-year NHL veteran with 137 games under his belt by the age of 24 (he’ll turn 25 on Jan. 24) – not exactly taking the slow road.
He looks at today’s generation of players and questions both the pressure to move into higher levels before their time and early specialization. Hillen succumbed to neither and still enjoys a successful NHL career.
“Why end your career sooner than you have to,” asked Hillen. “There are so many kids playing now that the odds of you making it to college are not good, let alone playing pro past college. So why do you want to hurry up and end your career sooner than you have to? Play as many years as you can. Enjoy it. Let your body develop. Don’t rush into the real world because pretty soon it will be over.”
He relayed a story about a high school junior with whom he had recently talked. The youngster claimed he was already getting pressure to further his hockey career by moving the junior ranks. Flabbergasted, Hillen admitted that he would never even have considered such a move at that age, let alone as a senior at Holy Angels.
“I think it’s ridiculous, the pressure put on kids these days to move up and keep moving on to the next level,” said Hillen. “They should be left alone a little bit and allowed to be kids and enjoy high school.”
Current team: New York Islanders
High school: Holy Angels (2001-2004)
College: Colorado College (2004-2008)
Born: Jan. 24, 1986 (age 25)
"Why end your career sooner than you have to? There are so many kids playing now that the odds of you making it to college are not good, let alone playing pro past college. So why do you want to hurry up and end your career sooner than you have to?"
-- Jack Hillen
In Hillen’s case, he had a great support group that encouraged his participation in many activities at Holy Angels, including friends who all stuck around to lead the Stars to three straight state tournaments.
He finished his career as the leading defensive scorer in school history, with 130 points and an amazing plus-233 rating.
Hillen also participated on the school golf team, winning All-Conference honors as both a junior and senior.
Hillen claimed the school’s “Star Athlete” award as a senior, honoring his four years of contributions to the athletic program.
“I wouldn’t trade those four years for anything in the world,” said Hillen, who credited his great teachers and coaches for his love of the school.
“I never really believed it, but people would always tell me that I’d think back on my four years of high school and absolutely love it. And that’s so true. I just enjoyed it.”
Hillen also feels participating in many sports growing up helped make him a more well-rounded and conditioned athlete. In addition to golf and hockey, he played baseball, football and soccer until his freshman season at Holy Angels.
“The training you get in playing soccer and football, for your feet, is great for hockey,” said Hillen. “I think kids that specialize too early are really, really hurting their development. You become a well-rounded athlete by playing all these different sports. By specializing in one sport, you’re not becoming an athlete, you’re just becoming a hockey player. And to be honest, you’re not going to become as good a hockey player if that’s all you did growing up.
“I can tell you that a lot of different things I did growing up helped me in my hockey career. I think parents that force their kids to play one sport really need to take another look and let their kids be kids. Let them develop as a well-rounded athlete and not just as a baseball player or golfer or hockey player.”
Hillen is certainly a prime example of the benefits.