Former Tiger, Future Husky

If you're in the Bensenville, Illinois area and looking for something to do tonight, wing into the Chicago Edge Arena.  Inside, you'll find the Chicago Steel lacing up their skates and preparing to take the ice in hopes of defeating the Youngstown Phantoms.

Inside Chicago's locker room, you'll find a blonde haired kid, roughly 6-1, about to take the ice for his final home game in the United States Hockey League.  It's not his last game of the season, as Chicago still has two more games on the road, but failed to clinch a playoff berth.

Tyler Heinonen will pull on his Chicago Steel sweater just three more times before he'll venture farther north, where he'll join Mel Pearson and the rest of the Michigan Tech Husky hockey team.  But let's not jump ahead to far now, let's take a step back.

Heinonen grew up in my hometown, actually, in Delano, Minnesota.  It's a smaller town located about 40-minutes west of the Minneapolis.  Hockey players grow up in the Delano area playing for Crow River hockey until the varsity ranks when they earn a Tiger sweater.

If you haven't had the luxury of watching a hockey game in Delano, Minnesota, let me explain just exactly what you're missing out on.  First off, the rink is one the coldest rinks in the state, if not the nation.  I'd highly recommend bring a jacket, hat and mittens to keep warm if you don't plan on standing and getting rowdy.   The bleaches aren't exactly anything special, the ceiling drips water every now and then, and pucks can be seen stuck in the ceiling above.  But if you ask Heinonen where his home was growing up, he'll tell you it was the rink without hesitation.

Heinonen laced up for the first time as a Delano Tiger varsity player as a sophomore for the 2008-09 Minnesota high school hockey season.  I couldn't tell you how much Delano coach Steve Brown expected out of the underclassmen, but I'm sure it wasn't the 19 goals and 29 points Heinonen had racked up before the season ended.

Heinonen performed even better during his junior season as a Delano Tiger, finishing in third among the league's top goal scorers with 44.  The success of his junior season earned him a spot on Team South West, where he tallied 16 points in 23 games.

As his senior season came, Heinonen was determined improve from the previous year, no matter how many early-morning skates or dry-land workouts it took, and it paid off.  By the end of Heinonen's senior season, he led the state in scoring with 88 jaw-dropping points and came in second with 46 goals.  The success allowed him to compete with Team South West for yet another season.

As a stats guy, I just had to break down this kid's career as a high school athlete.  During his time in a Tiger sweater, Heinonen averaged 1.4 goals, 1 assist and 2.4 points per game.  Now that is one helluvan accomplishment to add that to you're resumé.

But where to next?

On May 11th, 2011 that question was answered.  Heinonen was selected in the 14th round of the 2011 USHL Entry Draft, going to the Muskegon Lumberjacks.  It was great news for him and his family, but little did he know, the greatest news he'd receive would be in a few months...

It was the middle of August when the Hienonen's phone rang; a call for Tyler from Michigan Tech.

Mel Pearson, coach of the Michigan Tech Huskies, had noticed Heinonen skate during the Muskegon Lumberjack tryout camp previously and was impressed with how talented the kid was.
“The Lumberjacks’ tryout camp gave us a great opportunity to evaluate players,” Pearson said. "The organization does an excellent job with the camp and I was very impressed with Tyler.”
It was literally a dream come true for Heinonen, who's spent plenty of time following Husky hockey.  Tyler's father is an alumni and his cousins Chad, Aaron and Blake Pietila all play hockey for Tech, although both Aaron and Chad will be graduating this year.
"Michigan Tech was the first school to offer me a scholarship," said Heinonen. "I grew up wanting to play for the Tech. That day was like a dream come true to me; I couldn't have been more excited to get to college."
A couple weeks later, Heinonen found himself in a whole new environment.  On October 8th, 2011, Heinonen played his first USHL regular season game.  He had anticipated the step from prep to juniors would be difficult, but didn't know how difficult until he stepped on the ice.

"The biggest difference from high school hockey to juniors is the amount of games and the talent on the ice," said Heinonen. "In high school we played 25 games, but now we play 64 games all over midwest, so it took awhile to get use to the length of the season."
He finished off his first year in the USHL with 21 goals and 33 points while playing in 50 games, which includes a season-ending hat trick against Dubuque.  To say the least, Muskegon was happy with his performance and ability to move the puck, as well as the progress he was making towards bettering his own game.
“He works and competes every day in practices as well as games,” said Muskegon coach Jim McKenzie. “He’s had success no matter how much I’ve played him because he’s prepared to play for each game.”
During the 2012-13 season, Heinonen remained in the USHL, but was apart of a trade that sent him from Muskegon to the Chicago Steel.

Trades aren't always the easiest thing for players to go through, though.  Players are forced to leave behind teammates, staff and coaches that they've established relationships with throughout the time they spent with the team.  Success with a new team may take awhile to come as well, given the lack of chemistry and ice time with a new club.
"The trade was tough, but it also helped me develop as a hockey player while learning to adjust to a new team," Heinonen explained. "I miss the guys from Muskegon, but Chicago has been a great fit for me.  The team is filled with a great group of guys that have helped me adjust and fit right in."
With Muskegon in the beginning of the year, Heinonen scored 15 goals and earned 31 points while playing in the Lumberjack's first 41 games.

Now 22 games deep with Chicago, he has kept his scoring pace with seven goals, earning 13 total points with the Steel, although three games remain.

As Heinonen's season comes to a close, he'll soon open a new chapter of his life at Michigan Tech University.  The relationships he's made along the way in the USHL with players and coaches won't be forgot, nor will the memories and lessons the league taught him, bettering his game along the way.
"It is really an amazing experience to play junior hockey," Heinonen said of his experience in the USHL.  "The players you meet, compete against, and become friends with are some of the best hockey players in the country.  It's definitely an experience I'll never forget."
He'll be joined by Brent Baltus of Trail (BCHL), Marcus Ericsson of Des Moines (USHL), Mike Neville of St. Mike's (OJHL), Shane Hanna of Salmon Arm (BCHL), Chris Leibinger of Muskegon (USHL) and Reid Sturos of Nanimo (BCHL) as part of the incoming freshman group next season, although Pearson hasn't released the official roster yet.
"I've played with Blake Pietila and Tanner Kero who are already rostered on the team, and Reid Sturos who will be a joining the team next year," explained Heinonen.  "I'm excited to test the chemistry with some of the news guys next year."
Heinonen will finish out the remainder of his season with Chicago before heading to Tech next fall.  Although his hockey career has ventured far from where he first laced up his skates in Delano, Minnesota, he hasn't forgot the most important lessons he learned as a tiger.
"Delano hockey taught me so much about the importance of leadership on a team. We had a great teams because of the team mentality that we were taught," said Heinonen.  "The coaching I received set the foundation for the player I am today; I'll never be able to thank them enough."


Questions?  Comments?  Ask Below! 


Anonymous said...

Great article! This kid changed hockey in Delano forever.

Anonymous said...

Good reading about a well grounded young man

Anonymous said...

The Ylitalo kid was the best to come out of Delano