It’s hard to believe someone who had never heard of Clarkson University until a few years ago could be such an ambassador and staunch advocate for the school.
Growing up in Eden Prairie, Minn., Clarkson sophomore goaltender Jake Kielly had heard of hockey powers such as Minnesota, North Dakota and Wisconsin, but not the school where he’d eventually land.
“Being a Minnesota guy, I never heard of Clarkson before,” said Kielly.
But, it didn’t take long to convince Kielly of the many benefits and offerings of the small school in western New York. He instantly knew the school and its storied hockey program were right for him after his recruiting visit.
“I just loved everything about the school and the hockey program. I always thought I’d end up at a bigger school. I thought that’s what I wanted, but when I made the visit here I absolutely loved it,” said Kielly.
“The tradition was a huge thing for me. You can see the tradition of the hockey program in the rink. You have the All-Americans, the Stanley Cup Champions, the jerseys of all the guys who’ve made it to the NHL, and the championship banners going back to the 30s and 40s,” Kielly continued.
Kielly now appreciates the small enrollment and the unique relationship student-athletes have with their fellow students at a place like Clarkson.
“I love the smaller school feel. You get to know your professors and the students in your classes. You get to know the students as people, which makes it more fun when they come to your games since you know the people in the stands,” Kielly explained.
So, how did a kid from Minnesota finally learn about Clarkson? It was a small bit of fate.
“I heard about Clarkson when my roommate now, [sophomore forward] Nico Sturm, committed here after we had played together in Austin. The year after he joined me in Tri-City and we were both roommates there,” explained Kielly of his former junior teammate turned college teammate.
Then, as luck would have it, current Clarkson assistant coach Josh Hauge knew Kielly from when he drafted the young goaltender into the USHL’s Tri-City Storm.
“The coach that drafted me in Tri-City ended up becoming the assistant coach here. The summer after his first year he started talking to me,” said Kielly. “When I made it out to Tri-City, he became pretty heavily involved in the process. They got me out for a visit and I committed the day after.”
Kielly is an integral part of a roster that head coach Casey Jones hopes can return Clarkson hockey back to prominence in college hockey. The Knights are 3-0-1, their best start since the 2006-07 season.
It’s not just the record. Kielly and his teammates have knocked off Michigan, Penn State, and Western Michigan. Up next are home games against Hockey East powers UMass Lowell and Providence. The tough stretch of games doesn’t get any easier the following weekend with a trip to Minnesota for two games.
“The three teams we’ve played so far and the three teams we have upcoming are unbelievable hockey teams. The history Providence and UMass Lowell have surrounding them and the conference they’re in, it’s just what we’re trying to prove this season,” said Kielly.
After wins over Michigan and Penn State to open the home slate at Cheel Arena, the buzz around the program and in Potsdam is evident, and should be elevated further this weekend for Parents’ Weekend.
“The whole thing is filled with energy. Everyone here is excited. We just have to make sure we don’t get too high on our horse with the rankings. We have to stick to what makes us successful,” Kielly began.
“We weren’t really sure what to expect going into this year, but I think our coaches did a really good job of preparing us in the preseason. We’ve done a good job sticking to our systems.”
The tenth-ranked Golden Knights know the importance of these early season nonconference games when it comes to the Pairwise Rankings and the possibility of making the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2008.
“Coach Jones has been preaching that these first eight games are huge for Pairwise points going down the road,” said Kielly.
After an up-and-down freshman season, Kielly has been a huge reason for the hot start. He’s allowed just five goals and has a .963 save percentage through the first four games.
Kielly, who stands at 6-feet-2, likes to think of his goaltending style as somewhat of a hybrid.
“I never want to say I’m a butterfly goalie or a stand-up goalie. I really don’t like when I see bigger goalies who just play like a big goalie – down, lazy and back in the crease,” he said.
“It’s something I’ve worked on the past couple of years. I want to have quick feet with a bigger frame. Knowing when to use my big body in certain situations. A mix of butterfly and a quick reaction goalie is what I’m trying to be,” Kielly explained.
There’s never been any doubt Kielly has the talent to be an elite goaltender at the collegiate level, but he’s worked hard over the last season to improve on tracking pucks.
“We’ve done a lot of stuff with my goalie coach, Andrew Mercer, who works up in Ottawa. Seeing through screens and making my body big in all situations when I can’t see the puck. Trying to know where to be and know where the puck is going to go,” said Kielly.
Kielly knows a thing or two about improving, working towards a goal, and playing in big games from his time in Tri-City. He started out his final season of junior hockey as the back-up goaltender before earning the starting job and ultimately leading the Storm to a USHL Clark Cup Championship.
“That year has done more for me in my career than any year. It was huge for me because every single game in that league matters. You never know who’s watching,” said Kielly, who noted the similarity to NCAA.
“Every game carries so much weight in college with the Pairwise and league points. The mindset I developed in Tri-City has been huge for me in college.”
Quick to deflect praise elsewhere, and toward his teammates, Kielly credited the leadership and an extra year of experience for many of the team’s key players.
“Last year we were a pretty young team. A lot of our scoring came from the young guys. This year the maturity they’ve brought to the rink each and every day has been huge,” Kielly said.
“Our leadership has done a really good job of making sure that everybody is in the right place. Making sure everyone is ready to go once the weekend comes. Overall, we have a really good maturity level as a team,” he continued.
The next two weekends will go a long way towards determining if maturity level and talent have what it takes to return Clarkson to the promise land.