The Wildcats of Johnson & Wales have something of an uphill battle when it comes to attracting attention from hockey fans in their hometown of Providence, Rhode Island.
After all, the “Creative Capital” is home to a thriving minor league hockey franchise(the Providence Bruins, AHL affiliate of the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins), along with two Division I hockey programs (Providence and Brown). It’s not hard to see how the Division III Wildcats, members of the ECAC Northeast, are prone to getting lost in the shuffle.
As a result, Johnson & Wales is better known for its food — alumni of the vaunted culinary arts program include celebrity chefs Tyler Florence and Aaron Sanchez — than for its hockey, which is something that opposing fans don’t hesitate to point out when the Wildcats take to the road.
“My freshman year, we’d get chirped a lot,” senior co-captain Jeremiah Ketts said. “Teams would bring grills and say, ‘Great culinary program.”
Of course, while there may not be any chefs on the Wildcats roster, Ketts and his teammates are certainly mastering the art of taking many different ingredients and developing a winning recipe…for success.
A look at the Johnson & Wales roster reveals that 15 different states are represented among the Wildcats, not to mention two different Canadian provinces (Ontario, Quebec) and two players from Sweden.
“We just try to cast a wide net,” head coach Eric Noack said of his recruiting philosophy, “and there isn’t anyone that I won’t call.”
The list includes players from such far-flung hockey outposts as Belgrade, Montana, Pembroke Pines, Florida and Huntington Beach, California, but not a single player from the state of Rhode Island.
“I think it’s awesome having guys from different countries and throughout the United States,” said junior forward Jason Pietrasiak. “Everyone has a different background, everyone has their own characteristics. I think it’s great for our program.”
As messy as it may seem, however, it all comes together on the ice just fine, as the Wildcats head into the second half of the season in second place in the ECAC Northeast. At 3-0-1 in conference play, Johnson & Wales sits just three points back of first-place Curry with a game in hand. What’s more, in Ketts, Pietrasiak and junior forward Danny Kaufman, the Wildcats have three of the top ten scorers in the country, leading a J&W offense that sits second in the country in scoring offense at five goals per game.
“They’re all veteran guys,” Eric Noack said of his big guns, “and they all put up big numbers last year. On our power play right now, we don’t have anyone that’s younger than a junior, so they’ve been together a couple of years. A lot of it is just figuring the league out, and a lot of it is the work we’ve got on the power play.”
Indeed, a good chunk of the Wildcats’ offensive productivity has come on the power play, which is among the top five in the nation in efficiency, and averaged two goals per game over the first 13 games of the season. Kaufman has scored nine of those goals to lead the nation in extra-man tallies, while Pietrasiak and Ketts have combined for another nine.
“We’re all skilled players,” Kaufman said, “and we’ve all been playing together for a while now. No matter what the other team throws at us, we can adjust. If they come at us in a box, we’re going to move to the umbrella, and vice versa. We just play it as they come and figure out a way to beat it.”
The experience Johnson & Wales has on the power play doesn’t afford much opportunity to newcomers, but freshman Lukas Samuelsson is rounding into shape as a valuable member of the Wildcats’ defensive corps. In 10 games this season, the Stockholm native has seven assists, making a fast adjustment in his first season of college hockey.
“It’s been really good,” Samuelsson said. “I have great teammates, so it wasn’t hard to adjust.”
Along with sophomore blueliner Christopher Bjork, Samuelsson is continuing something of a legacy at Johnson & Wales. While it might be odd for a Division III school to regularly bring in international players, Sweden has been very well represented on the Wildcat roster during Noack’s tenure.
|JOHNSON & WALES ROSTER|
|Players from Canada||2|
|Players from Sweeden||2|
|Players from Rhode Island||0|
“We’ve always had Swedish kids here,” Noack said, “even as far back as 2005. A lot of times, Swedish kids will contact us, to be honest. We don’t go over there to recruit. We’re starting to watch video. We used to have a campus there in Goteborg. My theory is, maybe we still have a presence over there, as far as people remembering the name Johnson & Wales. We’ll get e-mails from some Swedish kids, and we return them and see where it goes. If we think we can fit them, we do.”
Between two players from Sweden and the school’s noted culinary program (which also helped give rise to the Food Network), it might be natural to expect a few jokes about the “Swedish Chef” character from the Muppets here and there. The fact remains, however, that the majority of the Wildcats are business majors, and they have shown that they know how to get down to business when they’re on the ice … and off of it, where they make sure not to let the school’s excellent food keep them from eating properly in season.
“My freshman year,” Ketts said, “we had 16 freshmen, and now we’re down to five. College hockey isn’t for everybody, and Johnson and Wales isn’t for everyone, and that’s fine. We’ve got to respect that. You’ve just got to make sure that when you’re here in the city, you’re here for the right things. We didn’t come to school to be a cook. We came here to play college hockey.”
Still, in the weeks to come, Ketts and his teammates are eager to prove that there’s one thing that they know just as well as their culinary-inclined classmates.
How to handle Curry.