Alec Derks received the bad news first.
After multiple tryouts in an extended look by the Amarillo Bulls, the goalie learned he would not start this season on the roster of the North American Hockey League and USA Hockey Tier II Junior A national champions.
Hidden in the disappointing message, however, was the good news of another option and a long-term plan.
Rocky Russo, then a Bulls assistant coach, was about to head to Philadelphia to become head coach of the Eastern Hockey League’s Little Flyers. Russo offered an opportunity that Derks has made the most of so far this season.
“Alec performed very well at the Amarillo main camp but unfortunately did not make the team,” Russo said. “We were able to build a relationship and hopefully create a future opportunity for him there.
“We worked it out where this is a good fit for him, and it’s been a great experience so far.”
Derks, a 17-year-old from Hawthorne Woods, Ill., has been the top goalie statistically in the Eastern League for the first month of the season. In six starts, he has allowed two goals or fewer every time, going 4-1-1 with a 1-0 loss to New York Applecore and 1-1 tie with the New York Bobcats. He leads the league in goals-against average at 1.22 and save percentage at .951 and continues to impress Russo.
“Alec is very athletic and he’s also very technically sound,” Russo said. “He’s a mature kid for his age. He doesn’t get rattled if he lets a goal in early. The biggest thing is that he’s handling his rebounds well for a young goaltender and limiting opportunities. He’s swallowing up a lot of those pucks that become second and third opportunities and goals for other goaltenders.
“That’s been a big piece of our puzzle, and certainly our defensive corps has been playing well in limiting Grade A opportunities.”
The Little Flyers added an impressive offensive outburst to the mix in a big weekend that resulted in league awards for Derks and Philadelphia defenseman Gabe Chuckran.
After defeating the Philadelphia Revolution 6-1 and the Boston Junior Rangers 4-0, the Little Flyers posted a 5-0 shutout over the Northern Cyclones. The Cyclones entered the game with the league’s best record and best goals-per-game average.
Derks was named Eastern Goalie of the Week for his play against the Revolution and Cyclones while Chuckran, a 19-year-old from nearby Aston, Pa., was named Defensive Player of the Week for going plus-9 with four assists in the three wins.
“I’m glad I chose to come out here,” said Derks, who thinks he is improving his game after playing for Team Illinois 16-and-under AAA last season. “Rocky coming from an organization like Amarillo has shown us what it means to work hard.”
That includes a defensive responsibility that any goalie can appreciate.
“We play a very aggressive forecheck,” Russo said. “We have two forwards down low, so we’re not sitting back and trapping or trying to clog the middle of the ice.
“We do make the defensive zone a focal point and do try to play it in a support type of style in layers. Our center is able to support our strong-side defenseman and our weak-side defenseman is able to support our center. It’s kind of a team defensive concept that the guys have really bought into well at this point.”
The same traits Russo has said have led to Derks’ success are the ones the goalie has been concentrating on in his first year of junior hockey.
“One thing I’m just trying to focus on is staying calm, just staying away from being jumpy,” Derks said. “As you go on to the higher levels, guys will be more skilled. You can’t be all over the place and be floppy.
“I just try to stay calm and keep my composure.”
Derks got ahead of his studies enough that he could complete his senior year with his class at home at Mundelein High School in Illinois after the season. If things continue to go well in Philadelphia, he can then have himself set up well to continue on to a higher level of junior hockey and begin boosting his hopes as a college prospect.
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.
Photo courtesy Snapshot Sports Photography