Former junior hockey player looking to make splash for Illinois

You probably couldn’t skate a mile in John Olen’s ice skates.

Only two years ago, Olen was living the life of a semi-pro hockey player. He no longer lived with his family. Instead, he lived with a homestay family, known as billet families in hockey, located in Janesville, WI., where he was a member of the Janesville Jets, a junior A-level hockey club. Olen, unlike most athletes his age, had forgone education just to play the game he loved.

“Hockey is a little different than sports like baseball, basketball and football,” Olen said. “Most of those guys go straight from high school to the NCAA. In hockey, the developmental process is a little more drawn out.”

Junior level hockey is the breeding ground for every college and professional prospect. High school age players who want to continue playing hockey during college or even professionally usually go through junior hockey at some point.

At the conclusion of Olen’s youth hockey career, he was drafted into the United States Hockey League. The USHL is the U.S.’s premier developmental league, being the only junior league in the country where players are drafted into the NHL. During this year’s NHL Draft, the USHL set a record for having six first-round draftees.

The USHL’s Des Moines Buccaneers selected Olen after his midget major level season in Chicago, where his team won the championship. Olen got his first taste of junior hockey at its highest level, but, unfortunately, he fell just short of making the final cut.

“The whole process started with tryouts,” he said. “About 120 other players were invited to try out. I made the initial cut down to 30, where I was then invited to the team’s training camp. The final cut down to 23 is where I got the call that I was traded to Janesville.”

Before playing for the Illini, Olen was traveling to the Midwest and Northeast, playing games weekly in the North American Hockey League. The NAHL is the U.S.’s second-tier junior league.

Olen planned to take community college classes in Des Moines, Iowa, if he made the cut in the USHL, but his unexpected move to Janesville halted his opportunity.

“Junior clubs want players to do something other than sit around and just play hockey,” he said. “Everyone either takes classes or works on the side. I did volunteer work.”

The perks of junior hockey rival those of most NCAA Division-I teams, Olen said.

“You don’t get paid to play,” he said. “But you do get just about everything else taken care of for you. Other than paying for your shelter, junior teams pay for your food, travel and equipment. You also don’t have to pay fees just to play, as you would during youth hockey.”

“Since I was off of school for two years, … I don’t think it’s too bad for me to go back to doing homework and studying,” he said. “For most people, I feel that taking two years off and coming right back into school is kind of difficult.”

After finishing up the past season in Janesville, Olen reapplied to Illinois after admission in 2010. He’s currently a 20-year-old freshman and is poised to make an immediate impact on the hockey team.

“John Olen, I think, is going to be a really good player for us,” “head coach Nick Fabbrini”: said. “We expect him to come in and contribute right away for us.”

“I feel a little bit of pressure since I’m 20 and considered a freshman,” Olen said. “I should be a junior, so yeah. I think I should be contributing immediately as if I’d been here before.”

Bl_ake can be reached at [email protected] and @BlakeP._