Brian Taylor

Hockey Candidates Share Common Link

by Brian Taylor February 15, 2016 in Hockey

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Every season the Senior CLASS Award honors the commitment and success of those student-athletes who are on track to graduate and have exhausted all of their athletic eligibility. However, getting a glimpse of these athletes before their collegiate careers even begin does not happen often. It is even more rare to see the paths of multiple SCA candidates cross before they ever step foot on a college campus.

On the border of South Dakota and Iowa lies a town by the name of Sioux City. Home of the USHL’s Musketeers, a 20-and-under amateur hockey team, Sioux City was host to four of 2016’s Senior CLASS Award Candidates. Alexander Kuqali, Jake Hildebrand, Kyle Criscuolo and Travis Walsh all played for the Musketeers at some point between the 2009 and 2012 seasons.

Hildebrand and Walsh, who played most of the 2009-10 season together, were young when they joined the Musketeers so they did not receive much ice time. Walsh was drafted in the USHL Futures Draft and wasn’t expected to go to the team until he was 18. However, when one of the Musketeers defenseman went down Walsh was provided his opportunity, and both he and Hildebrand embraced the opportunity to develop their skills

“It was definitely a learning experience,” Walsh, a senior defenseman for Michigan State, told the Muskegon Chronicle. “I sat out a lot, but I took it in a good way. I was frustrated, but I turned it into a positive. It’s good to face some adversity. When you face adversity it makes you a better person.”

Hildebrand also benefited from the experience, as an assistant coach recruited him later in the season after watching him play. “Because we were young guys…we weren’t really playing much so we would work on extra things after practice,” said Hildebrand, now a senior goalie at Michigan State. “Travis took a lot of breakaways on me. It was nice to have such a good guy like that with you that was in a similar situation”.

The two have continued to play alongside each other for four years at Michigan State.

Kuqali and Criscuolo, who joined the Musketeers after Hildebrand and Walsh, ended up playing the final half of the 2011-12 season together when Kuqali was traded to Sioux City from another USHL team in Indiana. The two seemed to have an automatic mutual respect for each other due to their talent and character on and off of the ice. “[Criscuolo] was someone that I could tell held himself to a high standard and was respected among his teammates,” said Kuqali, a senior defenseman from RIT. “He welcomed me to the team, and his personality was uplifting.”

When the Musketeers acquired Kuqali, he quickly gained respect from the whole team, including Criscuolo, who had been drafted by the Musketeers after working out at a team camp. “He worked hard every day,” said Criscuolo, a senior forward from Harvard. “He is a high-character person and was only a positive influence on the team’s chemistry.”

The two keep up with each other through social media, and got to catch up in person last year when both of their teams made it to the NCAA Midwest Regional at Notre Dame. “We did not get to play each other, but it was nice to see a familiar face” said Kuqali.

It is not unusual in amateur or professional sports for athletes to be traded, so while all four of these athletes may not have played on the same team at the same time there were instances in which they played against each other. Kuqali, for instance, played against Hildebrand after he was traded to Cedar Rapids. “We always had a good rivalry with them so I knew who he was as a player,” said Kuqali regarding Hildebrand.

When asked their thoughts on four former Musketeers being candidates for the Senior CLASS Award in the same year the players agreed that it reflected well on the Sioux City organization. “It speaks volumes about the emphasis that the program places on ensuring that it’s players grow as people off the ice as well as players on the ice,” said Criscuolo. “Musketeers look for players that are good people and consummate humans when comprising their roster each season.”

“They not only choose quality hockey players, but they develop and instill values of being a good human being,” echoed Kuqali. “I am sure that all four of us can reflect on our time in Sioux City as being beneficial. I know I have.” While no stats are kept regarding amateur teams that have produced the most eventual Senior CLASS Award nominees, the award’s administrators acknowledge the uniqueness of four candidates being part of the same youth sports organization. Senior CLASS Award Executive Director Erik Miner has been overseeing the award since 2006 and has yet to see a situation of this nature.

“Every year we are given a pool of the most well-rounded and talented Division I seniors from across the country, and the pool of nominees is generally very diverse,” said Miner. “When we were notified that four of our hockey candidates had all competed for the same amateur team in Iowa, we definitely took notice. It’s encouraging to see an amateur sports organization take such an interest in recruiting players that are more than just good athletes, but who are quality people in all areas. We applaud the Sioux City Musketeers, and we also applaud the four young men who chose to stay on the right path and develop into such positive role models and members of society. We salute them and all of this year’s Senior CLASS Award candidates.”