Ask rookie defenseman Nick Ebert if Waterloo, Iowa is different from his home state of New Jersey and you’ll get a wry answer.
“A lot of places are different from Jersey,” he said.
But Ebert is dead serious about making his mark in hockey and he’s doing it quickly. Playing for the United States League’s Waterloo Black Hawks, the 6-foot-2 blueliner is a rarity – a 15-year-old playing in a circuit that boasts players already drafted into the NHL and some who will be turning 20 this season. One prominent scout even proposed that had Ebert been born in Ontario, he could have applied for the same ‘exceptional player’ status that allowed John Tavares to play in the Ontario League at the same age.
“He certainly doesn’t play like he’s 15 years old,” said Waterloo coach P.K. O’Handley. “His size and ability are at such a high level, I would compare him to an 18-year-old. He can really skate, he can get up the ice.”
Of course there’s going to be some adjustment. Ebert lit up the New Jersey high school circuit with the Livingston Lancers last year, once scoring two shorthanded goals on the same penalty-kill. He was also nearly a point-a-game player for the Atlantic Youth League’s North Jersey Avalanche. The teen was discovered at a USHL tryout in Philadelphia and when the chance to play at a high level in Waterloo came up, he went for it.
“This is a great opportunity,” Ebert said. “I’ve learned so much out here in two months; it pretty much changed my game.”
And it’s a two-way game Ebert excels at, citing young Los Angeles Kings Jack Johnson and Drew Doughty as his NHL models. Right now, the rookie is still learning the USHL game, but his coach likes what he sees.
“The thinking process has to come along,” O’Handley said. “But defensively he’s sound. It’s the offense where he can grow.”
Fortunately, Ebert is all ears and has been leaning on older teammates, such as fellow defenseman Dan Sova.
“He’s one of our captains this year,” Ebert noted. “He’s leading me in the direction I need to be going.”
But the fact Ebert is already contributing in the USHL is pretty remarkable. Waterloo actually has another 15-year-old on the roster in forward Brady Vail and in both cases, the coach made sure to proceed with caution.
“We only (brought in Ebert and Vail) after many, many conversations with the players and their parents,” O’Handley said. “It’s tough enough to be 15 years old, let alone to be in an environment where winning is expected.”
Both youngsters have been put with experienced billet families and O’Handley notes their academic progress has been monitored closely. Ebert, for his part, wants to stay in Waterloo for a couple seasons, so talks about another move to, say, the OHL, aren’t even on the radar right now.
And while O’Handley notes Ebert is largely quiet and unassuming in the dressing room, even the coach knows the kid from Jersey has some mischief in him.
“He’s a bit of a joker,” O’Handley said. “But he picks his spots, so no one knows it was him.”
Of course it’s fair to say Ebert, with his combination of size and skill, won’t be able to go unnoticed for much longer.
Prep Watch, which features minor hockey players destined to become big names in major junior or the NCAA, appears every second Thursday throughout the season.
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