Many students don’t celebrate their 21st birthdays until their junior year in college. Hockey players are a different story.
Casey Bailey is a 21-year-old freshman forward on the Penn State men’s hockey team and joins nine other players that reached the American-milestone age before their third year in college.
This is only ordinary among college hockey players. The standard is for them to take off of school for a year or more to develop in a junior league before playing in college.
The United States Hockey League is a premier junior hockey league in the United States, but there are also other leagues in the nation and in Canada. Some players on the team have played for other American leagues, like the Eastern Junior Hockey League. There are others, who’ve played for Canadian leagues, like the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League and the British Colombia Junior Hockey League.
Bailey, who previously played for the Omaha Lancers of the USHL from 2011-2012, took two years off of school before coming to Penn State. He finished his season ranked ninth in the league in points and tied for 10th in goals.
He said he mostly worked while he played for juniors and only took a couple of classes.
“I think it just develops you,” Bailey said. “You get to develop your skills, you get to get bigger, more prepared for the speed and the competitive nature of college hockey.”
The 6-foot-3, 195-pound Bailey explained that high school or midget hockey isn’t the nearly the same caliber as college hockey. He said it would be tough transitioning right into the NCAA.
Connor Varley, who previously played for the Des Moines Buccaneers of the USHL in 2011-12, said junior league prepared him for college hockey because he played against older, bigger, and more physical guys. During his season in the USHL, Varley recorded two goals and 13 assists.
The freshman defenseman said playing in the USHL also gives players a chance to mature before going to college.
“There are a lot of things,” Varley said. “Like living away from home, that helps, so when you come to college you’ve been away for a few years already. Obviously you can also get stronger in those two years and adjust to the speed of the game, and that really helps you in Division I hockey.”
Teammate Kenny Brooks echoed his statements, saying it gives players those couple years of experience they need before coming to college. The freshman forward played in the USHL for the Tri-City Storm from 2009-12, where he was ranked second on the team in points and assists and third in goals during that span.
Brooks said he was in school for one year and took two years off before coming to Penn State.
“It gives you a couple more years of experience,” Brooks said. “When you’re a little bit older, you make a bit of better decisions when you come to college. You’re also bigger, faster, and stronger. It has all the benefits.”
Bailey, Varley and Brooks all said they progressed and gained something from the USHL. They said it prepared them well for Penn State and Division I hockey.
Bailey said that before juniors he had always been a shooter, a guy who only liked to put pucks in the net.
“I think juniors developed me to be able to skate better and use my vision to be a better passer and better all-around player,” Bailey said. “I’d say I was more offensive, and it helped my defensive and all-around game for sure.”
He said when he was in juniors, the main focus was hockey, which allowed him to better learn the game.
There are many junior leagues, but Bailey agreed that the USHL is top-tier compared to others. Nine players on the Nittany Lion roster last played for the USHL before coming to Penn State. All of those players could have chosen another route other than college, but Bailey said he chose college to get a degree.
“Hockey isn’t always going to be there for you if you get injured or something,” Bailey said. “It’s the path I always wanted to take.”