For Minnesotan Jake Youso, home is where the heart is. And after his seasoning this year with the Owatonna Express, that’s exactly where he’s going to stay.
Youso, a University of Minnesota (WCHA) recruit, is one of 22 players skating in the NAHL this season to already have a college scholarship in hand, lending more credibility to the league’s knack for developing elite Division I prospects.
“I like this league a lot,” said Youso, from International Falls, Minn. “I think that there’s a lot of talent and that it’s spread out all over the place which makes it a competitive league. On any given night any team can win, that’s what I like most about it.”
After a heralded career in the Minnesota high school ranks in which Youso, a forward, helped lead International Falls to a 23-4 record and a conference championship his senior season along with being named a finalist for the prestigious Mr. Hockey Award as the state’s top high school player, Youso struggled to find the right fit during his first season of junior hockey.
“It was a hard year for myself and the team, but I learned a lot about dealing with adversity and even playing defense, which I did for the last third of the year,” he said.
A change of scenery was in order.
“I decided that playing somewhere else might benefit me more,” said Youso. “I got a call from (Express head coach Pat Cullen) in early May and he said that Owatonna would be a good fit for me and I’d get a chance to play. After that, they drafted me and I tried out for the team and that’s how I ended up here.”
“Jake is a lot of fun to coach,” said Cullen. “He’s a team player who works hard and wants to get better, and he comes to the rink everyday with a very good attitude. He wants to go to college and be an impact player.”
It comes as little surprise that the Golden Gophers coaching staff endorsed Youso’s move to Owatonna and the NAHL. After all, it’s the same place where senior defenseman Brian Schack and former defenseman Stu Bickel, who is now in the Anaheim Ducks organization, polished their skills before becoming mainstays in Minnesota’s lineup.
Cullen sees some distinct similarities between Schack, Bickel and Youso.
“All three of those guys want to win and are fierce competitors,” he said.
“I talked with the coaches at the U of M of few times after my season (in the USHL) and they stressed that it was very important to me that I find a place to play where I can be a top-two line guy and have the puck on my stick a lot,” said the 19-year-old Youso, who expects to begin his freshman year next season.
“They weren’t concerned where that was, whether it would be the NA, USHL or even in the BCHL, but they just said I should go where I was going to play and I felt that I’d have my best chance by playing here in Owatonna.
And it wasn’t a tough sell for Youso, who had plenty of familiarity of the NAHL even before Cullen’s phone call.
“I actually knew quite a bit (about the league),” he said. “I’ve followed it pretty close the last few years because I’ve had buddies that have played in the league, so I always kept myself up to date on how things were going.”
And how are things going for Youso? Through his first seven games with the Express, he has two goals and five assists to go along with a plus-5 rating.
A good start, and Youso is hoping it’s just the beginning.
“I’ve set a few specific goals for myself, but my main concern is getting better everyday and competing hard everyday,” he said. “I want to be a contributor every game and set a good example for the younger guys on the team.”