Growing up in Minnesota, Drew Helleson knew from the start of his hockey career that the NCAA was where he was destined to play. While some may call it “The Land of 10,000 Lakes,” many more may know it as the “State of Hockey.” Minnesota has always been a mecca for the sport and it’s validated by staking the claim of having the most NHL players of any state.
While most National Hockey League prospects will take the Canadian Major Junior route, playing in top-tier NHL path-paving leagues like the QMJHL, OHL or WHL, there’s a growing conglomerate of college-goers who are forging a new path from Division I to the pros. Count Helleson as one of those DI dwellers.
“Growing up in Minnesota, college hockey is a pretty big thing there. For me, it was always college was what I wanted to do,” Helleson told me. “I grew up watching college hockey, so for me it wasn’t too hard of a decision to choose college over major junior.”
Helleson hails from the United States National Team Development Program (USNTDP), which is a mouthful of words that describes an elite Under-18 team which states its goals as a system “to prepare student-athletes under the age of 18 for participation on the U.S. National Teams and success in their future hockey careers. Its efforts focus not only on high-caliber participation on the ice, but creating well-rounded individuals off the ice.”
Playing and training with the USNTDP has probably more than prepared Helleson for the rigors of the college game. In the NCAA, there are only 34 games during the regular season. In the NTDP, there are roughly double that. If anything, you’d think the lessened schedule would be a bit elementary — if you will — in college.
Where the NCAA is more demanding is in its level of competition. The competition Helleson was playing for and against with the development team were all teenage, under-18 skaters. In Division-I hockey, permissible players are aged 18-24. The older competition was something Helleson cited as the biggest difference from his old league to his current one with Boston College.
“I think it’s very humbling playing against some older guys — it’s more physical, they’re stronger. I think that’s big for me in getting ready for the next step,” Helleson said. “You know, in the NHL, you’re playing against much older guys — bigger, stronger, faster and everything there. So I think [the NCAA] is good for me.”
So far, however, Helleson seems to be transitioning well in his latest step of development. In just his fourth D-I game of his career, he returned back to the city that drafted him, as he, fellow 2019 Avalanche draftee Alex Newhook and the rest of the Boston College Eagles took on the top-ranked Denver Pioneers for a two-game weekend series.
Both Newhook and Helleson tallied their first career NCAA goals and points in their return to Colorado. While Boston College lost both games to Denver, it was a special moment for both of the Avalanche draft picks.
Looks like it's officially been changed to Drew Helleson's goal. So both @Avalanche prospects Alex Newhook and Helleson each notched their first career NCAA goals in Denver last night. How fitting, eh? #GoAvsGo #WeAreBC https://t.co/vZhA0T2hII— Scott MacDonald (@0ffScottFree) October 20, 2019
“It was a big weekend for us and the team. Playing the No. 1 team in the country, it wasn’t the results we wanted but I thought we played pretty good,” Helleson said. “It was nice to get that first goal out of the way, especially going back to Colorado and doing it in front of a few Avs fans was pretty cool.”
While we were on the note of the Avalanche, I asked Helleson how his first pro development camp was with Colorado this past summer.
“I was a little nervous but excited going in,” Helleson added. “I didn’t really know what to expect. I thought it was good playing against some of the older guys that had a little bit more experience that have been there a few times, listening to coaches and what they had to say, you know, get to know a few of the guys. It was a good camp, I had fun.”
While his brief time in Colorado with the Avalanche at camp came to an end following the conclusion of development camp, the development doesn’t end there. The Avs scouting team is always closely watching guys like Newhook and Helleson, regardless of what state, country or continent they are in. In fact, there were members of the Avalanche scouting team at DU that game. Helleson told me there’s always an open line of communication between the team and himself.
“It’s kind of on a weekly basis, but, yeah, we keep in touch,” he said. “They’ve been to a few games, they were at DU, they watch my games and tell me things I need to work on and stuff that they like to see. It’s been good so far.”
It’s those little conversations that tell Helleson and the rest of Colorado’s draftees what they are doing well or what they need to work on. Just because they aren’t in front of Avalanche coaching staff on a daily basis doesn’t mean there’s no coaching taking place. Quite the opposite.
I asked Helleson about what he hopes to work on and see improve in his game personally while at Boston College this season. While he’s already a pretty strong defensive defenseman — and is already built like one, too, at 6-foot-3, 190 pounds at just 18 years old — Helleson says he wants to work on his two-way game and become more of an offensive threat. And given the Avs’ affinity for two-way D-men, I’m sure they’re just fine with that.
“I want to be a little bit more offensive, you know, join the rush a little bit and contributing more in that aspect,” Helleson hopes. “I think the D-game is my strength, so if I can become a little bit more of a two-way defenseman then that will be big for me.”
While Helleson was a higher pick in the draft at 47th overall, in reality, the NHL is probably a few collegiate seasons away for the prospective Avs defenseman. Helleson, however, is in no rush. When the time comes, whenever it may be, he wants to be sure he’s ready for the jump.
“I’m in no rush to get there,” Helleson said. “When I’m there, I want to make sure I’m ready and prepared for it. So if that takes three or four years, then that’s what it is. If it’s next year, two years — it doesn’t bother me. I just want to make sure I’m ready to be there and once I get there, I want to be able to contribute — that’s the goal.”