Hockey Team Recruits Young Talent

The Western Michigan hockey team has confirmed the signing of five players to national letters of intent to attend WMU next fall during the early signing period. Broncos Illustrated takes an in depth look at one of the youngest classes to be recruited by WMU.

The five players signed are defensemen Kyle Bushee (Otsego, MI) and Ryan Mahrle (Troy, MI), and Forwards Luc Dubbin (Midland, MI), Paul Szczechura (Brantford, Ont), and Kevin Labatte (Ogden, UT). This group has an average age of 17 years and 8 months and is "very talented for its age group," said Jim Culhane.

All five of these players will be on scholarship next season for the Broncos. "We actually gave out every single scholarship we had available," said assistant coach Scott Garrow. With no more scholarships left the staff will look for maybe one more forward, if they take any more "walk-on" players for next season.

WMU's hockey team did have a bit of a fight that isn't seen in collegiate football or basketball. That fight was with the major junior level teams that had drafted Kevin Labatte (Kitchener, OHL) and Ryan Mahrle (Ottawa, OHL). Per NCAA rules if a hockey player joins a team in the major junior level they are ineligible for play at the college level. Every season college teams lose recruits to the Canadian major junior teams who are not restricted by NCAA recruiting rules that limit numbers of viewings and visits between college teams and potential recruits.

Next season will be the first season at WMU with all players having been recruited by Jim Culhane. The style of recruiting has definitely changed from former coach Wilkinson who recruited big strong players where as Culhane recruits more skill and speed oriented players. "I think what we do have is we finally have the responsibility of having every guy here that we recruited to play this style of game [next season]," said Scott Garrow.

Jim McNamara, who transferred from St. Cloud State (WCHA), will play a role along side next seasons recruits. "We got our recruiting figured out so now we will have eight defensemen which is what we wanted," said Garrow. "Right now [McNamara] is practicing to show us where he fits in for next year." McNamara has this season to work hard on his strength, but were he eligible to play this season he would be in the mix with the other players currently in the line up according to the WMU coaching staff.

According to Bronco assistant coach Scott Garrow the youth of this class is more of a coincidence than anything. Scott Garrow said, "We targeted some players we really liked and they happened to be young. We don't look as much at age as we do at if they're ready to come here and play right away."

The WMU staff has found an abundance of success in Ontario recruiting some of the marquee players from the leagues in that area. Both Scott Garrow and Chris Brooks played their junior hockey in the Ontario leagues and have contacts in the area that are very helpful in pinpointing potential recruits. In college hockey you have all kinds of leagues to recruit from and the Broncos have picked battles they can win with players that will fit into the Culhane system from Ontario.

One thing the Broncos have had going for them in recruiting is the fact that WMU has led the CCHA in rookie scoring in each of the past two seasons, and the Broncos are on track to make it a third season in a row. The past few years the team has had the opportunity to give freshmen the chance to contribute in various ways. Next season will not see as many openings in key areas for the Broncos, but all of the freshmen will be given the chance to play regularly.

Garrow was careful to not put pressure on specific players, but did admit that there is a good chance that Ryan Mahrle could replace Dave Cousineau on the power play next season. "They're all going to be asked to be regulars if they come ready to play physically and mentally," said Garrow. "I don't want to put too much pressure on any one of the kids, but I think there is the potential for a couple of them to be very impact players their first year."

Dubbin, Labatte, and Mahrle were all on the NHL Central Scouting's watch list for the NHL Draft next summer while Szczechura leads the MWJHL with 24 goals and 39 assists for 63 points in 26 games (2.42 points per game). Kyle Bushee, who has wanted to be a Bronco since he was 10 years old, is currently one of the top defenders on the Des Moines Buccaneers of the Tier 1 Junior A USHL. Culhane added, "I think at least four of these guys will be candidates for the NHL Draft next summer."

Kyle Bushee (USHL) grew up just outside Kalamazoo, MI in Otsego and has been a long time Bronco fan. Since the age of 10 Kyle has had the desire to skate on the ice at Lawson Ice Arena as a Bronco in front of the screaming fans at WMU. Although not a huge defenseman, Bushee has decent size and is very mobile around the defensive zone. In the 2001 – '02 season Bushee played for the Michigan Ice Dogs of the Midget AAA level and compiled 11 goals and 25 assists in 65 games.

"It's great especially for Kyle," said Garrow about Kyle's childhood wish to become a Bronco. "Kyle has grown up and went through the minor hockey program here in KOHA, and played some AAA [midget hockey] around here. His family lives right outside of town so it's going to be perfect for him. We're all excited to get Kyle in here, he's someone that has progressed at a greater speed then we really thought he would."

The coaching staff at WMU was a little surprised that Bushee was ready for the college level. The hope was that Bushee would spend one more year in the Midget level before looking at the junior leagues and eventually college. As it turned out Des Moines was really interested in bringing Kyle to their team, and Kyle has found some great success in Des Moines, currently the second best scoring defenseman on the team. The quick success this season in Des Moines is a big part of the reason why WMU decided to offer Bushee a scholarship for 2002 instead of waiting another year to develop.

Ryan Mahrle (WJBHL) comes to WMU with international experience under his belt. Ryan has represented the United States as a member of the U-18 National Team in tournaments in Sweden and the Czech Republic.

To some extent Ryan can be compared to current Bronco senior Dave Cousineau. Both are big factors on their team's power play and are among the team's leaders in scoring. One way that Ryan is a little different than Cousineau is that Mahrle achieves his points more with assists rather then Cousineau's high powered shooting. "He'll be a skill player to watch," said Garrow.

Mahrle is currently playing for the Leamington Flyers of the Western Ontario Junior B Hockey League. Last season Ryan was named to the All-Rookie team and was also the leagues Most Valuable Rookie Defenseman having tallied 43 points in 48 games. Ryan currently has 3 goals and 23 assists in 24 games for the Leamington Flyers Junior B team.

Luc Dubbin (OPJHL) of the Couchiching Terriers is overcoming some adversity after having had shoulder surgery this summer, and missing the first 8 games of the season. Dubbin has taken a little time returning to the form that earned him North Division Rookie of the Years honors last season. "I visited his team a few weeks ago and it was the first game that he really broke out," said Garrow. "He had 5 points that night."

Last season Dubbin scored 16 goals and 35 assists for 51 points in 41 games, but in his first 11 games back Dubbin had only 6 points. The Terriers assistant captain has since caught a hot streak and after 23 games played he now has 21 points and only 10 penalty minutes. Scott Garrow added about Dubbin, "It took him a while to get comfortable, it really opened his eyes how long it took him to get back to playing like he really can. It will be a really interesting second half to his season for Luc to really see his game come out."

Paul Szczechura (MWJHL) comes to WMU from Brantford Ontario, the hometown of current Bronco Daryl Moore, where he leads all players in the Mid-Western Ontario Junior B Hockey League with an outstanding 70 points in just 28 games. "Pauly is a special player when it comes to offence. The biggest jump for him will be, he'll be a young player when gets here," said Garrow. "His biggest adjustment will be how his maturity level holds up."

Szczechura was named Mid-Western Ontario Junior B Player of the Month for November. During that month Paul averaged 3.3 points per game with 13 goals and 20 assists. According to the league website this is the second month in a row that Szczechura has won the Player of the Month award.

Little more than halfway through the current season Paul has already equaled or topped most of his stats for last season. Paul is also on pace to eclipse the scoring totals that Brent Walton had in the same league last season. Paul is the youngest player in this recruiting class not turning 17 years old until November 30, 2002.

Kevin Labatte (MWJHL) will become the first Bronco hockey player to ever come from the state of Utah. Kevin is a former teammate of WMU freshmen Daryl Moore and Brent Walton with the Elmira Sugar Kings. Labatte is a hard hitting forward with a very strong shot that lit the lamp for 27 goals in 46 games last season.

Kevin did have a chance at representing the United States in international competition along side Ryan Mahrle, but was a late cut from the teams in each year that he was invited to try out.

Quoting Garrow, "Kevin's a very aggressive player, and that's why we are bringing him in here. He's got good hands, he's a bigger kid then a Brent Walton or a Jeff Campbell, but skates very well and throws his body around and he gets involved in the physical side of the game. He's more of a grinder type player which we thought we needed to complement some of the skill players."

Labatte does attend the lonely confines of the penalty box more then most of his teammates having 62 penalty minutes in just 28 games this season. Kevin comes from a strong hockey family with an uncle that played for the Elmira Sugar Kings and his father played professional hockey in the St. Louis Blues minor league system.

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