DENVER -- Kevin Conley is methodically making his way up the hockey ladder.
Although one would think the University of Denver freshman was playing at a higher standard last year when he played in Ohio for the Youngstown Phantoms in the United States Hockey League, this is not the case. Denver is the third-ranked hockey school in the country, which means Coach Jim Montgomery gets the cream of the crop of superstars. Denver has made the NCAA tournament for 10 straight years, which is the longest streak in the country, and has won seven national titles -- third-most in NCAA history.
Meanwhile, the USHL is the country's top junior hockey league, classifed as Tier 1, and the only league for players age 16 to 20 in the country. It had players from Russia, Sweden and Canada on its roster last year.
The 6-0, 190-pound forward graduated last year from Wausau West High School in Wausau, Wisc., after spending the hockey season at Youngstown as an online student from Austintown Fitch High School. He never wavered on his college choice. Although it certainly helped that he was recruited by Montgomery, himself.
He has not declared his major yet but it is believed he will follow in his father's footsteps and make business his major.
"Kevin has all the tools and that includes the work ethic, attitude and compete level," Montgomery stated this past week. "He is what we expected. He has been very good for us. The wait is on, however, for his offensive confdence to show through. He has gotten a lot of chances, but he has not been able to bury those chances. When he starts to click at that level, he will reach another level. He then will definitely be a player to be reckoned with."
Conley has appeared in 19 of Denver's first 20 games and has one goal.
Montgomery believed that most freshmen go through a period in trying to reach that next level.
"I do have a couple of them this year who came in with that kind of confidence, but that generally is not the case. Most have their up's and down's, but usually by the end of January, they become confident players. Kevin is close to being there. What he needs more than anything is getting more rewards (goals and or assists) for his hard work. The physicality he brings to our team, even now, is important to our success," Montgomery assured.
Montgomery realizes that he is coaching any number of National Hockey League players. His hope, however, is they will stay with the Denver program all four years.
"We lost two last year to NHL signings," he admitted. "Most realize that a college degree is important and stay with us. The bottom line is how successful they are as members of the Denver program. That being said, I expect to lose two forwards early from this team. We have 26 on our roster, and on average, 22 or 23 stay the four years and earn their degree."
"Leaving early is not in the cards for me," Conley assured. "A degree in business, and that probably will be my choice, seems to be far more important than an extra year in the NHL if I even get that opportunity. Plus, schooling is a big part of life."
The left-handed leftwinger believes he has everything going for him. He is getting a lot of playing time as a freshman, and that is huge because ice time against this caliber of competition only makes for a better product at year's end.
"More playing time, unfortunately, has come at the expense of injuries to people in front of me," he admitted. "But, that's the way it is in this sport. Sooner or later everyone gets dinged. That's the way it is when you have to play a sport full out. The bottom line is I made the right choice as far as school. I am on a great team that has won 12 of the first 16 games against some of the best opponents in the country. My teammates are fantastic, be they the ones from Finland, Austria, Canada or the states. And I am getting more confidence as far as puck handling with much of that improvement because of coaching."
Ranked No. 3 for the last six weeks until the most recent poll, Montgomery feels his team still has a lot of room to improve.
He said, "we are not national champion-caliber, yet, but if we improve in the areas I believe we can, we will be there in the end."