Living in Indiana and having aspirations of playing college or pro hockey, you’d better be willing to travel — scouts certainly aren’t coming here to find you.
Blake Lewis has been just fine with that; he hasn’t played hockey in Columbus since he was eight years old. And it wasn’t his parents pushing their son to expand his horizons.
“I was expecting that we’d play in Columbus for a while,” Blake’s father, Bob Lewis, said. “But he was the one — after he was eight years old, his last year of Mite, he wanted to go up to Indianapolis and see if he could play on that (Indy Strong) team.”
Blake made the cut in Indianapolis, and he has since moved on to the Tri-State Spartans, a team comprised of players from Indiana, Kentucky and Ohio that practices and plays in Cincinnati, Dayton, Indianapolis and Fort Wayne.
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This past season, in 47 games with the Spartans’ 2002 team, Lewis totaled 26 goals and 15 assists, ranking second on the team in goals scored and third in overall scoring.
His strong showing there with an AAA youth team has earned Blake Lewis an opportunity that his dad, who has been coaching hockey locally for two decades, is pretty sure no other Columbus player has ever gotten.
Starting today, Lewis will be taking part in the USHL Development Series Combine for players born in 2002. The combine, which runs through Friday, is being held at the Arctic Ice Arena in Orland Park, Illinois, a Chicago suburb.
The opportunity is a golden one, largely because the United States Hockey League is the lone Tier 1 junior league in the country and the fastest-growing source of NHL talent. More than 95 percent of the league’s players earn the opportunity to play Division I college hockey.
Such things are a few years off for Lewis, who is just entering eighth grade; though players can join USHL rosters at age 16, most don’t make the cut until they’re 18 years old. But just getting a chance to get on the radar screen at such a young age — every USHL team, including the National Team Development Program, will have coaches in attendance — is potentially a massive career break.
“It’s introducing the kids to the competition portion of hockey,” USHL scout Matt Grainda said. “The best of the best all over the country, they’re put up against each other, and we’ll see who’s standing at the end.”
Each player at the combine will play in five games during the week and also have the option of on-ice testing. By taking part, Lewis will be able to get a much better sense of where he stacks up against players his age from all over America.
Greg Austin, the 2002 Spartans coach, is confident that Lewis will be able to hold his own.
“Blake could go up right now to Chicago and he could play on any team in Chicago at the AAA level,” Austin said. “As a 14-year-old in the Midwest, I’d be hard pressed to find a player that was better.”
Part of what impresses Austin so much is how well Lewis has adjusted to playing at the Bantam level, where full contact comes into the equation.
Many players who excel at the younger age levels, Austin says, tend to shy away a bit once they’re getting checked, but Lewis has actually gone in the other direction. He’s not only been able to maintain a high level of play while getting hit, but he’s also not shy about initiating the contact himself.
Combine that fearlessness with his speed and puck-handling skills, and Lewis is a potential force.
“He’s a pretty complete hockey player right now,” Austin said. “He’s one of those guys that provides you scoring punch. He’s very evasive, very difficult to hit, and he just flat out wears the other team down. They have to focus a lot on him.”
This week, Lewis hopes he can continue to be the focus — particularly given the audience.
“There will definitely be college coaches at these combines,” Grainda said. “There always has been. There’s a decent number of USHL scouts, and … every team has a coach that’s represented there. So there will be people watching him for down the road.”
“I just thought it was a great opportunity,” Blake Lewis said, “and I want to make the most out of it.”
It’s an opportunity that Lewis has had to go out and chase, but his determination, coupled with a willingness to spend a lot of time sitting in a car, is paying off.
“If I stayed in Columbus,” he said, “I wouldn’t have been able to probably do any of this stuff.”