Schaeffer takes uncommon path in pursuit of his dream

If Nolan Schaeffer was from Canada, this would all be commonplace.

North of the border when a young man shows promise as a hockey player, he is traditionally shipped off as a teenager from his rural town to hone his skills in one of the nearly 80 junior hockey leagues strewn across northern North America in order to prepare himself for college, or even professional, hockey.

But in Minnesota, with its track record of developing talent in its high school league, the idea that a player would leave his or her friends and family in pursuit of hockey can be a bit confusing. Especially if that player leaves the “state of hockey” for someplace with less of an icy reputation – Illinois for example.

For Schaeffer, however, the choice to leave Marshall in order to play hockey in Illinois is already proving to be the right one, as he is one step closer to realizing his dream of college hockey.

Schaeffer spent the 2012-13 season as a member of the Team Illinois Under-16 AAA club, based out of West Dundee, Ill. The 6-foot-3, 15 year-old defenseman totaled seven points and 20 minutes in penalties, as his team took second place in Illinois.

“I was introduced to Team Illinois by my summer coach in Minnesota; he used to coach juniors in Owatonna and the person he used to coach with is actually the coach at Team Illinois right now, (Chuck Linkenheld),” Schaeffer said. “I came and skated with (Team Illinois) and (Linkenheld) said I would have a spot.”

As an eighth-grader Schaeffer played varsity hockey for Marshall High School, but knew that in order to reach the next level, he would probably have to play somewhere else. The resignation of former Marshall coach Kori Pearson in the summer of 2012 sped up Schaeffer’s timetable, and after deliberating with his parents and formers coaches, Schaeffer ultimately chose to leave Marshall.

“It wasn’t just my parents, it was previous coaches,” Schaeffer said. “Once Kori (Pearson) left, we were expecting that I would maybe have to leave Marshall after my sophomore year, but Kori left and it all ended up happening a lot faster. We made the decision, but it wasn’t all one way. It wasn’t just me wanting to get out. My parents knew it was a goal of mine to play college hockey.”

Schaeffer received a tremendous push in that direction when he was drafted by the Chicago Steel of the United State Hockey League (USHL) on May 6. The USHL is located in 16 cities across the Midwest and is the premiere amateur hockey league in the United States. Over 200 NHL players have spent time in the USHL, as have just under 300 college commits.

“It was broadcasted on (Chicago’s) website and I actually ended up getting a text from one of my friend’s dads,” said Schaeffer of how he heard about the Steel taking him in the sixth round. “I was hanging out with a friend who did the same thing that I did. He’s from South Dakota, and we were at his house watching it and that’s when I heard. Briefly after that the Steel coach called me and we talked about it.”

Players are eligible to compete in the USHL from ages 16 to 20. Schaeffer said that, although he will be attending the Steel’s tryout this fall, he is unsure of exactly when he will be joining the Steel permanently.

“It starts at 16, but I was in the futures draft so I don’t think they really expected me to play next year,” he said. “But I’m still going to the tryout and I could end up making the team from there. If not I could play up to five games without being on their roster. Next year would be awesome, but if not then for sure my junior year.”

Though things have been breaking Schaeffer’s way as of late, the move to Illinois was not without its bumps. Along with some homesickness and the difficulties associated with starting over at a new school, Schaeffer also noted that there was a transition period on the ice as well as he learned new systems and a new style of play.

“At the beginning it started out a little rough because I was still getting used to the systems; but midway through the year, I’d say about Christmas, I really got to know it well and started playing on the power play,” Schaeffer said. “Our team started to succeed. We went to a state championship and ended up losing there, but it was a lot of good experience. It’s more skill, it’s not really physical I guess. Everyone is faster and there is more skill on the teams.”

Schaeffer also missed out on a trip to the Minnesota Boys’ State Hockey Tournament when Marshall qualified for its first trip to the Xcel Energy Center in March.

“It was a little weird knowing that I had played with all of them last year and that it could have been me wearing the skates out there,” Schaeffer said. “But it was nothing that I regret just because we made it just as far, if not further. We played more games but it wasn’t anything to regret. It was great watching them. I was really happy for them.”

Team Illinois completed its 55 game schedule for 2012-13 with an overall record of 28-20-5, while playing teams from New Jersey, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and even Arizona.

Schaeffer’s parents, Rick and Michelle, still reside in Marshall.