Monday, January 4, 2016

The Forgotten Skater

The Forgotten 19 Year Old Mason Appleton
Michigan State opened the college hockey season versus Maine up in Portland at the Ice Breaker tourney. With the Spartans season barely an hour old, an NHL scout and a TV producer huddled in the corner of the Cross Insurance Arena, pointing at the MSU line chart. #27, a 6’2” freshman forward, was running the power play for the Spartans like a game of shinny, keeping the puck on his blade for swaths of several seconds as he skated loops across the top of the zone, head up before firing passes onto teammates' tape. A teenager in his first NCAA game, playing against amped up undergrads several years older, had found a way to slow down the game and masterfully distribute the disc. The two men circled their sheets, and the producer waited for the post game to ask MSU mentor Tom Anastos if he had the kid running his power play since Day 1. “Sure,” said Anastos with a laugh. “All four days we’ve been able to work on it.”

And thus began the Mason Appleton era at Michigan State. It has not been a winning era to date, but one in which he has played in every zone and in every situation. He came into the annual Great Lakes Invitational as the Spartans leading scorer with three goals and 12 helpers, and was also leading in shots on goal, despite being a pass-first quarterback on the power play. The Green Bay native has played all three forward positions, kills penalties and takes big faceoffs. With the World Juniors going on simultaneously, it begs the question, how has this NCAA power play stud been ignored by USA Hockey? “I think he’s an awfully talented player, but he’s still emerging,” said Anastos from the Joe Louis Arena podium. “Some kids emerge earlier and some kids emerge later.”

It seems counterintuitive that a 6’2” guy who skates that well, who is a natural playmaker, all ideal elements for the international game, could be off the World Junior radar. But back on November 8, USA Hockey’s personnel man Ben Smith was queried about Appleton while up in the stands scouting a Boston College-Maine game at Conte Forum. Smith claimed to have never heard of Appleton. Five days later Appleton had the best game of his young career in that same building. The Spartans battled back from a three-goal deficit in the third period to tie the highly ranked Eagles before falling 6-4; Appleton had a goal and an assist in the comeback. “We found ourselves down,” said Appleton. "But there was no give up in our team and we came back and battled back.” Smith, who scouted 35 games this fall, was in another rink that night and missed Appleton’s gutty performance. Smith is a kind of safety net for Team USA, having advocated and found roster spots for WJC longshots Miles Wood (2015) and Ryan Donato (2016). But he is based in New England, and he missed seeing Michigan State by five days, Appleton's last best chance at an audition. Having a supremely skilled 19-year-old asset go unnoticed by our national governing body is incomprehensible in this era of instant information. Appleton has a theory.

“I started high school at five foot three," said Appleton, minutes after the Spartans fell out of the GLI with yet another frustrating loss. “I grew almost a foot in high school. I still had the skill and the brain and that stuff when I was 14, 15, 16, but I guess I wasn’t physically there. Growing up I didn’t make those development camps the first three years and I remember being in tears on my porch, talking to my high school coach ‘Look, what do I gotta do?’ And then I just bit the bullet and said ‘Whatever, I’m going to outwork all these kids.’” Being ignored by USA Hockey did not keep him from reaching his potential as a player.  He transferred to Green Bay’s Notre Dame Prep for his sophomore year and that same season scored the Wisconsin State Championship goal in double overtime. He gained weight, moved to center and became a dominant prep player. And then in 2014-15 Appleton had the kind of whirlwind year you read about in hockey star biographies: being drafted third overall by USHL’s Tri-City Storm and scoring 40 points; earning a scholarship to Michigan State; and then heading down to Florida with his family and coach to the NHL draft, where he was selected by the Winnipeg Jets in the 6th round.
Appleton's Sweet Consolation
“I didn’t know when my name was going to get called,” Appleton told the Green Bay Press-Gazette on that magic day. “Now that if finally did, it’s almost breathtaking, you really can’t even put it into words how awesome it feels.”

This teenager now just goes about the manly business of Big 10 hockey, playing through injuries while sharing the burden of righting a Spartan ship that is taking on water. He has embraced the challenge of mastering Division I hockey as he tries to ignore the emotional slights from USA Hockey. Sometimes, however, the pain is unavoidable. In mid-December his Spartans were playing at Northeastern while USA's final World Junior camp was being staged two miles away at Agganis Arena. They played games simultaneously that Saturday night: Team USA out at UMass and Michigan State at Northeastern. While the USA game was on an Internet stream, Appleton dazzled nationally on NBC Sports Network, making plays every time he touched the puck with his wheels, hands and head. He has finally accepted that he will never play in the World Junior Championship, a tournament he is ideally suited for. “I watch them on TV and think maybe I could be there, and maybe I couldn’t, but I don’t let it get to me. I can’t call USA Hockey and say ‘I should be on that team,’ you know what I mean?”

He is now back in East Lansing, watching fellow 19-year-old Zach Werenski of the dreaded Wolverines run the Team USA power play. He will get his shot at Werenski and Michigan back at Joe Louis Arena on February 5. Until then, he soldiers on for a struggling Spartan squad. “I’m just going to stay focused, finish this season strong, turn it around and have the best year I can.”