When Mikey Anderson was 16, he made a decision to explore different options to better his game. The Roseville, Minn., native left the comfort of his home within the borders of the State of Hockey to head little more than three hours south to Waterloo, Iowa, where he suited up with the Black Hawks of the United States Hockey League, the only Tier I junior hockey league in the United States.
But why leave a hockey hotbed for a junior team in Iowa?
“You’re playing against the best kids, the best players, from within that age group, every night,” he explained. “You’ll become a better player just because you have to play better against those guys in practice.”
Just about everyone noticed Anderson’s development during his two seasons in the USHL, and with that attention came opportunity. First, there was the chance to help the U.S. Under-18 Men’s Select Team to a second place finish at the 2016 Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament (now called the Hlinka Gretzky Cup). Then, he received an invitation to the 2016 USA Hockey All-American Prospects Game, which showcases the top 42 U.S. players eligible for next year’s NHL Draft. A few months later, after a strong opening to his sophomore campaign, Anderson played a key role in the U.S. Junior Select Team capturing the 2016 World Junior A Challenge for the seventh time in nine years.
That June, with his two seasons in the USHL complete, Anderson’s decision to join the USHL saw perhaps the greatest reward as the Los Angeles Kings drafted him in the fourth round, 103rd overall, of the 2017 NHL Draft. Suffice to say, Anderson credits his time playing in the USHL as a key factor in hearing his name called.
Photo Credit, including header image: USHL/Waterloo Black Hawks
“The pace is outstanding and the USHL is growing,” said Anderson. “In my case, they were all bigger, stronger than I was, so it teaches you how to use your body, how to play. More and more players are signing NHL contracts [out of the USHL], it’s a great league to play in.”
Since hearing his name called, Anderson’s development has continued at the University of Minnesota Duluth where last season he skated alongside his older brother, Joey, as they helped the Bulldogs capture the NCAA National Championship for the second time in program history. The duo were also two of five Bulldogs to help the U.S. National Junior Team earn a bronze medal last January. In addition to Joey, a New Jersey Devils prospect, serving as captain of Team USA, the duo became just the third pair of brothers to ever skate on the same U.S. National Junior Team.
As his sophomore campaign in Duluth gets underway, we caught up with Anderson to recall his experience in the USHL, title banners and much more in our latest Q&A.
USA Hockey: When did you first learn about what the USHL could provide you?
Mikey Anderson: I heard about it when I was growing up but never really thought about it until probably the time I got to high school. By then, my brother (Joey) who’s one year older than me, started going through that process with the (U.S. National Team Development Program) and I was kind of becoming more aware of what the league really is.
It wasn’t until probably two years before I was in the league that I actually had a strong idea of what the league was about and kind of how it worked. Obviously, when my brother played in the league, I was able to get a feel for what it’s like and the way things were kind of daily basis through him but I didn’t really worry too much about it until I was older and realized it was an opportunity for me to have.
USAH: What went into your decision to go play junior hockey?
Anderson: I knew it was going to help me as a player. It’s great competition every day. The hockey is outstanding, but more the big decision for me was whether or not I’d be able to be OK off the ice. You’re away from home, you’re leaving your family, you’re leaving your friends—that’s kind of the big one. I knew I’d be fine hockey-wise. I knew it’d be a challenge, but I knew I could get through it.
I had lots of talks with my parents, siblings, seeing if that would be a move I’d be OK to make and if I’d be comfortable leaving home and living with a billet family and taking care of myself a little bit more than I would have at my real house. I’d say that was the biggest decision was making sure I could do that and handle the mental challenges off the ice.
USAH: It seemed to work out—what were your biggest areas of improvement on the ice and off while in Waterloo?
Anderson: Obviously the physical aspect was a big learning curve, but I’d say the biggest thing for me was having to make plays at pace. Especially coming from high school, it’s not quite as fast as the USHL, which is a given. Going through practices and games, you learn when you have time to make certain plays and when you don’t. You learn the aligning of that. and then how to play with pace. Everything happens really quick so you have to make sure when the pucks on your stick you know where your options are to get it off without turning it over.
USAH: Things definitely moved quickly for you in Duluth—how amazing was last season for your first introduction to being a college player?
Anderson: It was a crazy year. We had a lot of ups and downs, we had a lot of new faces, me included. The whole first half was our team figuring out our culture, figuring out how we worked together and figuring out all the systems. Thankfully our coaches were patient with us because it was a process and then we came back after the second half and started going on a little run.
A couple things didn’t go our way, but we ended up getting the bounce to get into the tournament and found a little luck at the right time and it was just about winning the four games down the stretch. We came out and won the four games we needed to. A little bit of luck, but at that point it’s whoever’s playing good hockey and we got lucky we were playing really well, so it was really exciting. No one really thought it was happen and then it happened which was pretty special.
USAH: Extra special to win that with your brother?
Anderson: Yeah, I mean we’ve dreamed about that our whole life. I couldn’t tell you the amount of times we played that game in our backyard on the rink. It’s something we’ve definitely dreamed about our whole lives and to have it come true was pretty special.
USAH: You’ve represented Team USA three times (2018 World Junior Championships, 2016 World Junior A Challenge, 2016 Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament), what has that meant to you?
Anderson: It’s a huge honor anytime you get to wear a USA jersey. It’s really special and last year was even more incredible being able to do that alongside my brother. You take a lot of pride in being able to represent our country, especially when we’ve had such great success at international events. It’s truly an honor to be able to represent your country and try and carry on the legacy that’s been there for a really long time.
USAH: Hopeful to get back to World Juniors this year?
Anderson: That’s the goal. Going into the first half of this year, working hard and trying to play my best hockey and hope everything works out and hope I can be back there this year.