SIOUX FALLS, S.D. -- Midway through his first season in the United States Hockey League, former Luverne High School standout Jaxon Nelson is still adjusting to life in junior hockey, but the 16-year old has plenty of time to develop into the same kind of force on that level as he was in high school.
After 32 games in the USHL, Nelson realizes that goals aren’t going to come quite so easily as they did last season in high school, when he led the state of Minnesota with 70 goals. This is a whole new league with a whole new class of players and competition. He understands it is going to take some work to replicate his prep success at the junior level.
“It’s a lot different,” said Nelson, who has four goals and six assists so far this season. “You always have to be moving your feet and have your head up. Everyone is a whole lot better. The goalies are a lot better, they know where you’re going to shoot the puck and they dictate where you’re going to shoot it. There’s a lot more competition and a lot more skill involved.”
Playing right wing on Sioux Falls’ second or third line each game, Nelson is working to improve his game on the defensive side of the ice. He has had prolific success as a goal-scorer at different levels, but he understands that he needs to become a more complete player if he is going to succeed in the USHL.
“I’m just trying not to focus on the points aspect of it,” Nelson said. “I’m just trying to work on the defensive zone and become a better player there and it can translate better into the offensive zone. The points will come with hard work and determination. You always have to work for everything in the league and nothing is given to you anymore.”
One of only eight players in the league born in the year 2000, Nelson finds himself on the ice with players two, three or four years older than him on a nightly basis.
“Jaxon has done very well for us,” Stampede head coach Scott Owens said. “As one of the youngest players in the league, playing night in and night out with 18, 19, 20 year olds, he’s done well to be consistent and contribute to the team.”
As a young player, and a player with such a dominant history at the high school level, Nelson has something of a target on his back.
“Sometimes the opposing team tries to get into the young guys’ head and get you involved in stuff you don’t need to be involved in,” Nelson said. “You have to just ignore them and say something back to them but don’t go off on it. My teammates do a great job of backing me up, as well. They help me out.”
Nelson says his teammates have been supportive and accepting of him and have helped him fit into his new surroundings.
“There’s a lot of new friendships that have been made,” Nelson said. “Most of the guys are from Minnesota, so I’ve played against them and now I get to play with them. We have the Minnesota bond.”A hard worker
Coach Owens says Nelson has earned the respect of his teammates with his hard work.
“He has handled everything very, very well,” Owens said. “He’s got a very down to earth, sincere and honest approach. He has taken everything in stride. He is respected by his teammates. He fits right in.”
Nelson says he misses playing with his old Cardinals teammates. But he still gets to see them in school as he still attends Luverne High School and lives at home in Magnolia.
“I somewhat miss it because I miss being with my friends and my buddies at home,” Nelson said. “Now that I’m playing hockey it’s hard to see them lose once in awhile. I’ve been able to keep in contact with them. There isn’t much regret with it now that the season is up and running.”
Staying busy with hockey keeps him distracted from high school sports, but before the hockey season started, it was hard for him to sit in the stands and watch during football season while his old teammates were on the field.
“It was hard because they were playing football and I felt like I was missing out,” Nelson said. “I played quarterback, and I feel like I could have helped out there. I’ll still be able to play baseball though, so that is cool.”
Not many players in junior hockey get to live at home and stay in their own high school. Most have to travel long distances to join their teams, and they live with host families while attending local schools. The Stampede roster features players from New York, Massachusetts, Alaska, and even as far away as Finland, Germany and Russia. But Nelson was fortunate to be tendered by his local USHL team, only about a 30-minute drive from his home to Sioux Falls.
“He drives in from Magnolia and goes to school in Luverne and he doesn’t miss a beat,” Owens said. “From a logistical standpoint it has been much smoother and easier than I had thought. I attribute that to Jaxon and the support of his family.”
Family is important to Nelson. The ability for him to continue living at home and stay near his family was a major factor in his choosing to join the Stampede, though he had offers to play for other teams in other leagues, including the Western Hockey League in Canada.
“It means a lot to be able to be at home and have the family support,” Nelson said. “I have good support from the family all around. All of my family is within 20 miles of me. It’s good to be able to sleep at home and have family bonding time, as well.”
The family factor, he says, also played into his decision to commit to play college hockey for the Minnesota Golden Gophers.
“It’s a way for my family to come watch me play in college,” he said. “It’s not very far away, so if I’m feeling homesick, it’s not like I’m out in Michigan and it’s a 20-hour drive back. And just being the hometown state and the hometown school, they have a lot of Minnesota kids that they recruit. We have that Minnesota bond.”