J.D. DUDEK’S first experience with hockey ended in tears. This weekend, there could be tears again — this time of joy.
An 18-year-old Auburn resident, former Pinkerton Academy of Derry student, recent graduate of Kimball Union Academy in Plainfield and son of Plymouth State University football legend Joe Dudek, J.D. is a candidate for selection when the NHL conducts its annual draft today and Saturday in Philadelphia.
Committed to attend Boston College after spending the coming season in junior hockey, the 5-foot, 11- inch, 178-pound forward is ranked 157th by the NHL Central Scouting Bureau.
Not bad for someone who didn’t even begin playing hockey until age 8 and was less than impressed when he did.
“Eight is considered pretty late in the hockey world. I actually hated my first year,” Dudek said. “I’d come off the ice crying. I didn’t really enjoy it at all. My parents aren’t huge fans of quitting, so I stuck it out for the season. I eventually started scoring goals, and I enjoyed it, so at the end of the season I told my parents I wanted to try a travel team, and it took off from there.”
Joe Dudek brought national acclaim to Plymouth State as a football player, when he was featured in a 1985 Sports Illustrated cover story as the magazine’s pick for the Heisman Trophy after he broke Walter Payton’s NCAA career touchdown record, with 79.
But J.D.’s only foray into football was winning the New Hampshire and New England Punt, Pass and Kick competitions (and finishing seventh in the country) at age 11 despite never having played the sport itself.
“That was about the most of his football career,” Joe Dudek said.
J.D.’s mother, Jodi, is largely responsible for his success in hockey, Joe said.
“We wanted our kids to pick their own sports. The hockey path is a totally different path,” Joe said. “I give my wife all the credit. She’s always been able to get J.D. on the right teams with the right coaches that have challenged him and given him the coaching he needed to get to the next level. We’re very happy with the path he’s taken, and we’re looking forward to the next step.”
Committed to enter BC in 2015, J.D. first will play one season in the United States Hockey League with Dubuque. He’s coming off a hockey camp in Chicago and will be heading to Philadelphia with his parents for the draft.
“The excitement level is high, but the nerves are pretty high, as well,” he said. “There’s always that slim chance that if you don’t get drafted, it’s a bad thing. But the experience will be great.”
After playing at Pinkerton Academy and winning the 2012 NHIAA state championship with fellow Boston College-bound Auburn native Zach Sanford (who was drafted in the second round by the Washington Capitals in last year’s draft), Dudek opted to play his final two years with Kimball Union. As a senior this past season, he totaled nine goals and 35 assists in 25 games.
Former University of Maine and UMass-Lowell head coach Tim Whitehead took over at Kimball Union for Dudek’s senior season, and the pairing was a good one.
“It would have been much different if I never had Coach Whitehead at Kimball Union,” Dudek said. “He taught me some great hockey traits that will be with me forever. He’s had numerous accomplishments at the college level. It’s cool how he holds us to a professional standard and treats us like pros and prepared us for college careers and something after for the lucky ones.”
Whitehead sees Dudek as an elite player with skills that will allow him to play at the NHL level.
“I’ve coached a lot of elite players, and he’s right up there with the best,” Whitehead said. “He’s got tremendous poise with the puck and elite-level skill. He’s very calm in traffic. Those are qualities that are unusual, to be honest. I’ve coached a lot of players that went on to play in the NHL, and not all of them had poise. He has great vision and a high level of hockey sense and can make plays under pressure. That’s what separates him from a lot of other good players.”
Dudek is not a big hitter, but nor does he shy away from contact. He’ll throw a check and take a hit to make a play. He’s a smooth skater who doesn’t need to alter his stride when moving with the puck, maintaining his speed leading the rush.
Whitehead said that Dudek’s game grew during the past season, his leadership emerging as a captain while his all-around game developed with a dedication to the defensive side of his play.
Whitehead pointed to the NEPSCAC championship game against Dexter, in which Dudek shut down Ryan Donato, son of former Boston Bruin and Manchester Monarch Ted Donato and the 56th-ranked prospect heading into the draft.
“J.D. came to me before that championship game against Dexter and said, ‘I want to shut down Donato,’” Whitehead said. “And he did. Donato was pretty much eliminated, and we won 5-1.
“I’m excited for J.D. He’s got a lot of potential to grow.”
Dudek said he’s a Bruins fan, but he knows that if he gets drafted his allegiance may have to shift pretty quickly.
“It’s not in my mind at this point,” he said. “It’s an honor to be drafted by any team, so I just hope it goes the way I want it to.”
Regardless of the outcome at the draft, J.D.’s parents are proud of what he’s done to get himself to this point.
“It’s a tough time as a parent because we want to see J.D. fulfill his dreams, but we know he’s done everything he can to fulfill his dreams,” Joe Dudek said. “We’re looking forward to going down to Philadelphia and being there when, hopefully, his name is called.”
Monarchs on hold
Initial indications were that the Los Angeles Kings would name a new head coach for the Manchester Monarchs before the draft, but sources within the organization said that is unlikely to happen.
There are believed to be two finalists for the position, vacated when Los Angeles opted not to renew Mark Morris’ contract. Once the dust settles on the draft, the Kings should name Morris’ successor (and eventually an assistant, as well) in short order.
Ian Clark covers hockey for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.