COLUMBUS, Ohio – Sean Kuraly was a bit speechless when asked if he sees himself as an ambassador for amateur hockey in central Ohio.
After all, the 19-year-old native of Dublin is quite the success story and is only in his freshman season at Miami (Ohio), the fifth-ranked team in college hockey. Kuraly grew up around the game as it blossomed in Columbus in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when the days consisted of trips to and from the Chiller in Dublin and later at the Ohio Health Ice Haus.
It was a “house league hockey” kind of town, Kuraly said, and before the Blue Jackets arrived, there wasn’t much stock put into developing the next generation of NHL players. But with the NHL club came NHL dreams, and Kuraly was one of the wide-eyed youngsters who couldn’t stop thinking what it would be like to do make it a reality.
Kuraly took the next step as a teenager and played for the Ohio AAA Blue Jackets program and head coach/program coordinator Ed Gingher, where his goal of making it to the highest level became concrete.
“My dad played at Miami and I’ve been playing hockey since I was old enough to stand up on skates,” Kuraly told BlueJackets.com. “We had a rink in my backyard every winter and I’d skate on that all day long, we’d visit my grandparents in Toronto and skate on the ponds up there…so hockey has always been a part of my life.
“I remember going to the Chiller rinks around Columbus and playing games at the Fairgrounds Coliseum. Some of my first true development steps came with that program.”
Kuraly’s next development step is a big one, and one that all American-born hockey players aspire to: he was invited to USA Hockey’s training camp for the 2013 World Junior Hockey Championship, which begins next week in Tarrytown, N.Y.
It’s a unique opportunity for him to build on a mountain of momentum that began with being drafted by the San Jose Sharks in the fifth round (133rd overall) in the 2011 NHL Draft, but he doesn’t want this to be the peak.
“It’s been unreal,” he said. “I got the call from USA Hockey a couple weeks ago, and a couple of days before they released the roster, they let me know I’d be coming out to their training camp in New York and it’s such a huge honor.
“Anytime you get to represent your country, it’s pretty awesome. It’s never something that I could turn down…it’s such a privilege to be able to do this and the under-20 team is such a big deal.”
Kuraly forged his way on to USA Hockey’s radar when he was a member of the Indiana Ice (USHL), one of the top developmental leagues in the United States. His best season was the most recent, when he put up 32 goals and 70 points in 54 games (2011-12), which was the fourth-best total in the league.
The impressive campaign earned him a spot at USA Hockey’s junior team evaluation camp this past summer, and Kuraly was one of the standouts. In five games for Team USA, he scored three goals and added three assists – the highest output on the club.
Does that make him a shoe-in for the 2013 squad? Absolutely not, but Kuraly said there are no secrets when it comes to what he has to do in order to make the trip to Ufa, Russia in a few weeks.
“I learned a lot from the guys on my lines and other guys by just watching some games,” Kuraly said. “They’re the best American-born players for a reason. You have to watch everyone, take it all in and be ready to absorb the information that comes your way.
“It’s important that I be myself as a player and do what I do well, and hopefully things will turn out the way I want them to. I’ve always watched the World Juniors on TV and this has been a dream of mine for a long time. You never really think it’s going to happen, but the idea of playing in the tournament is a really cool thing.”
While Kuraly has his own aspirations to make Team USA and head to the World Junior, he’s also hoping childhood friend and Sarnia Sting defenseman Connor Murphy joins him. Murphy’s dad, Gord, was an assistant coach for the Blue Jackets and, like Kuraly, Connor grew up with the AAA Blue Jackets program before graduating to junior hockey.
Murphy, a first-round pick of the Phoenix Coyotes (2011), also received a training camp invite from USA Hockey and could be part of a very talented American blue line.
And while he and Murphy are the two lone representatives of the Buckeye State in this year’s camp, Kuraly firmly believes it’s only the tip of the iceberg for amateur hockey in Columbus.
“I think it’s something that has to happen over time and doesn’t happen with just one or two guys coming out of the program,” Kuraly said. “With the World Junior team over the years, it’s consistently been guys from places like Michigan and Minnesota and lately more states are represented, which is cool.
“I think we’re off to a good start (with prospects from Columbus) and hopefully Connor and I are just the start of it. My gut feeling is that there’s going to be a lot more to come from here on out.”
In the meantime, Kuraly is proud to have the opportunity to play for the United States at one of the greatest hockey tournaments in the world – which the only motivation required.
“That’s kind of what gets you there, just the idea of being able to do it,” he said. “I’ve been lucky enough to be able to wear the sweater a couple of times, so I know what it’s like. After you get the chance to do it once, you hope it’s never going to be the last time.”
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