Leap of faith: Decision to play hockey in USHL paying off for Hayden Shaw
In order to help fulfill his dream of playing Division I hockey, Hayden Shaw made a tough decision. But the payoff came quicker than expected.
Shaw, 17, chose to leave Woodbury High School after his sophomore year in order to play in the United States Hockey League.
Just weeks into his rookie season with the Waterloo Black Hawks, Shaw committed to play college hockey at the University of North Dakota following his USHL career.
Shaw, a 5-foot, 10-inch, 180-pound defenseman, said committing to North Dakota was fun and a bit of a relief.
“It was a difficult decision to make,” said Shaw, a lefthander. “But walking into that rink, it’s hard to walk out without falling in love with it. I think I fit in really well with the coaching staff and I absolutely loved my visit there. I felt that was going to be the right spot and I can’t wait to go there.”
After scoring 12 points in 24 games for Woodbury as a sophomore, Shaw quickly took the USHL by storm.
Through his first 24 games with the Black Hawks, Shaw put up 17 points (6 goals, 11 assists) and was among the league’s leading scoring defensemen.
Shaw dished out an assist in his debut with the Hawks, then scored a goal in each of his next four games. Shaw has two game-winning goals to his credit, as well as a shootout-clinching score against the Sioux Falls Stampede. He currently has 22 points in 36 games and is a main contributor on Waterloo’s power play.
“Hayden has outstanding hockey instincts,” said Waterloo head coach P.K. O’Handley. “He has made some very timely contributions and scored some big goals for us, while being one of only a handful of high school-aged players on our roster. The future looks very bright for him as he continues to develop.”
Shaw said he spoke with one college while he was at Woodbury High School, but the prospects of playing Division I hockey started “getting real” soon after taking the ice for the Black Hawks. He said he is excited about the idea of playing for North Dakota.
“The hockey culture there is unbelievable,” Shaw said. “You’re not going to find a better place to play. I can’t wait to get with the guys and experience going to college and playing college hockey.”
The USHL is widely regarded as the top junior hockey league in the United States. The USHL has 16 member teams located in the mid-sized Midwestern cities, consisting of players who are between 16 and 20 years old.
The players live with local families, who receive a small stipend for food expenses, and either continue school or work part-time jobs. The teams provide uniforms and all equipment.
Shaw attends Waterloo West High School with six other players on the team who are of high school age. He goes to school from 7:45 to 11:45 a.m. before going to practice from 1:30 to 3 p.m. each day. He said the team has a light workout after every practice and nights are filled with “homework, playing Xbox and hanging out with the guys.”
Waterloo plays 65 total games this year, which is roughly 40 more than a high school team. The majority of the games are played on weekends, which many NHL and college scouts attend. As of 2007 average attendance for games was about 3,000.
The USHL is strictly amateur, allowing former USHL players to compete in NCAA college hockey. A total of 16 players currently on the Black Hawks’ roster are committed to NCAA Division I hockey teams.
Shaw said the level of play in the USHL is even better than he thought it would be.
“Everyone is pushing to play at the next level and it’s really serious,” Shaw said. “Everyone is bigger, faster and stronger. The games are really exciting. It’s a fun place to play.”
Shaw said the USHL is “more of a grind than high school.”
“I absolutely loved playing for Wes Bolin at Woodbury,” Shaw said. “But, making the leap to the USHL, I’m really loving it here, too. It’s a great league to play in. It gets you really worn out and the games are unbelievable. It’s a really good time.”
Shaw said it’s strange being away from family and friends, but his teammates are in the same boat, making the transition easier. Shaw said his mom, Carolyn, attends a lot of his games, so he has a chance to see her often. Shaw’s dad, Matt, is the head coach and general manager of the USHL’s Dubuque Fighting Saints.
“I really miss everybody at Woodbury,” Shaw said. “Woodbury High School is the best school there is. I miss my family, too. I’m always FaceTiming my really good buddies from home.”
Shaw said he’ll study engineering at North Dakota, but that he desires to play in the NHL someday. Though he is currently on the smaller side, Shaw fits the recent trend of quick, puck-moving defensemen who are succeeding in the NHL.
“I’m never going to be the biggest guy on the ice,” Shaw said. “If you’re not going to be the biggest guy you have to be quicker and smarter and find a way to not get hit. You’re going to get bumped, but you can’t let it affect your game. You have to keep playing.”
More than 100 USHL players have gone on to play in the NHL, including David Backes and T.J. Oshie of the St. Louis Blues, Keith Ballard of the Vancouver Canucks, Joe Pavelski of the San Jose Sharks and Thomas Vanek of the Buffalo Sabres.
“Growing up everyone wants to play in the NHL,” Shaw said. “That’s where I’d love to be.”