Breaking through the ranks: The NIHL Junior

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With Callum Queenan, Duncan Speirs, Macaulay Heywood and Connor Glossop breaking through the ranks of junior ice hockey to feature in Tom Watkins’ GB Under 20s squad, just how vital are junior players to teams in the NIHL’s Moralee and Laidler conferences?

Creativity, energy and tenacity; these are just three of the qualities which define NIHL juniors trying to make their way through the ranks of lower tier hockey and are demonstrated on a weekly basis by budding youngsters giving their everything to earn a place in their chosen team. So far this season, Queenan, Speirs, Heywood and Glossop have collectively accumulated sixty nine points for their clubs to attract the attention of GB Under 20 coach Tom Watkins.

Achieving nine goals and nine assists, Queenan has shown himself to be an asset to Whitley Warriors and, as their second highest points scorer, he has shown himself to be swift and skilful when working alongside his fellow team mates.

Similarly, Duncan Speirs has broken through the ranks to link up with his more experienced team mates and, when unable to light the lamp for his side, he turns support to create opportunities which would not have arisen otherwise.

With Telford Tigers’ NIHL line up bouncing back from the Laidler Conference to contend with Division One’s top teams, two-way player Macaulay Heywood has shone from the moment he put skate to ice, bagging his team a shorthanded goal with a little help from Adam Taylor. Having achieved six more since and eight assists, Heywood is one of the highest scoring juniors in Division One at this point of his 2015-16 campaign.

In comparison, Nottingham Lions junior Connor Glossop shares his time between the Lions’ Under 20 squad and the senior team but he has wasted no time in making his presence felt, racking up eleven goals and fourteen assists in just twelve games, a feat that would be considered impressive at any level.

As a result, these youngsters now find themselves named in Watkins’ Under 20 line up ahead of the World Championships in Megeve; Speirs, Heywood and Glossop all set to feature whilst Queenan sits on the reserve list, ready to ice should he be required. Setting a fine example to fellow youngsters, these players have fought their way out of their respective junior line ups to play ice hockey at a senior level, adding strength, power and tempo to the teams they play for; a far cry from the dormant, ineffective skaters that some might expect.

It is this fight to make it to the highest level of their game which presents NIHL juniors with such drive that not only makes a difference at the top of the table but significantly enhances teams who are performing poorly.

This is true of Sheffield Senator Jack Dransfield, who has injected a little energy into his team in support of the side’s more experienced forwards Thomas Humphries, Nathan Parkes-Britton and Alexander Harding who continue to find their names on the score sheet. Dransfield’s continued perseverance was rewarded when the youngster, showing nothing other than a defiant attitude in the face of defeat, found the back of the net twice in recent weeks. As a result, any effort made by junior players in a bid to shine subsequently enhances team performances and can be a catalyst for whole team development.

Contradicting this viewpoint, of course, is none other than Blackburn Hawks. Last season’s NIHL champions did not feature a single junior player but, with an average age of almost twenty six years, the side have integrated youngster Kyle Haslam into their squad this campaign. Overall, the Hawks have founded their success on a more experienced squad which is perhaps down to the fact that Division Two sister club Blackburn Eagles acts an alternate platform for skilled youngsters looking to break into senior ice hockey.

Whilst a lack of juniors has not affected Blackburn’s performance this season, it should be noted that they are now reaping the rewards of their junior set up, with nine of their current players having broken through the ranks of junior ice hockey to become highly influential figures in the Moralee Conference, the most notable being captain Chris Arnone, defenceman Ollie Lomax and versatile goal scorer Richard Bentham. Thus, whilst on the surface the Hawks’ sagaciousness appears to be the key to their success, it can be argued that their outstanding displays have resulted from the longevity of effective junior development, allowing the formidable force to remain unbeaten of late.

With this in mind, the NIHL junior is an immensely important figure. Able to change the pace of game play and skilfully support team mates, both on the attack and in defence, youngsters complement the knowledge and wisdom of more experienced players as they attempt to break through the ranks of junior development to ice for senior NIHL sides.

In recent years this has been true of many players, an example of which is exceptional netminder Thomas Murdy. Making his debut for Whitley Warriors in 2006 when he was just sixteen, Murdy has excelled as a shot stopper in both the English Premier League and the Elite League to excel in British Ice Hockey, evidencing that the transition from junior development teams to senior NIHL line ups is just the beginning for many young players who can move on to find further opportunities in higher divisions.

All in all, whilst impressive youngsters such as Queenan, Speirs, Heywood and Glossop continue to flourish in the NIHL, ice time should always be allocated to junior players who could easily progress to the highest level of the sport.

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