By Mike Dougherty
The idea of a long winter in Wisconsin did not go over well.
Joe Wegwerth already had two years of USHL experience when Notre Dame suggested a season in Green Bay would serve the former Brewster standout well. It’s a bit of a detour, but the rugged power forward quickly warmed to the plan and is playing it more like a pit stop.
A steady diet of hockey is preparing him for his upcoming role as big man on campus.
“The coaches at Notre Dame weren’t sure I would be able to have a huge impact, so we decided it would be good to work on my offensive skills,” Wegwerth said this week by phone. “We started looking for a team and Green Bay has developed a lot of good players. … I was uneasy about this at first, but it’s been a good thing for me.”
He was selected by the Gamblers in Phase 2 of the USHL draft.
Wegwerth, 18, had five goals and 15 assists in 33 games coming into the weekend. The 6-foot-3 winger is a solid 230 pounds. The goal is to make him a player who’s able to control the puck below the dots and create scoring chances in a crowd.
He is getting plenty of ice time.
“Joe has improved his overall game,” Green Bay head coach Pat Mikesch said. “He is such a big, strong kid. He is learning a lot about protecting the puck using that big frame. He plays in every situation and can really punish a team.”
Notre Dame checks in weekly for a progress report.
So do the Florida Panthers, who selected Wegwerth in the fourth round of the 2014 NHL entry draft with the 92nd overall pick.
“My parents are in Barrington, Illinois, now so they’ve been able to come up for the home games,” said Wegwerth, who left Brewster following his sophomore year to play in the National Team Development Program in Michigan. “When I was in Ann Arbor, I wasn’t able to be home as much as I would’ve liked, so this is nice.”
Wegwerth lives with a host family.
“I’ve been really fortunate living with the Traskos family in Michigan and the Zimmer family in Green Bay,” he said. “I don’t think people realize how much they do for hockey players. They make it so much easier to be comfortable away from home.”
A typical week includes up to four practices. Off the ice, there is conditioning work and yoga.
“The goal this year is to get more offense out of me and get more time on special teams, so the points are nice to see,” Wegwerth said.
Not long after winning gold with Team USA at the 2014 IIHF U18 World Championship in Finland and getting drafted by the Panthers, he was back in Brewster working out alongside Stephen Santini, a former Kennedy Catholic standout who is now at Boston College.
“We spent all of July together and then I went back to Chicago to work out the rest of the summer,” Wegwerth said. “He’s my best friend. We have the same mentality and really push each other. It was a lot of fun, but a lot of hard work.”
There was a taste of the NHL, too, when he spent a week at Florida’s development camp.
“You quickly realize where you are and what you have to improve on,” Wegwerth said. “I have the size to play in the NHL, but I have to show them I know how to use it.”
The season in Green Bay runs through April.
Wegwerth is taking summer classes at Notre Dame and hopes to spend another week in Florida with the Panthers.
“I’m already excited,” he said.
There is more to be done in the meantime. Green Bay has been in a funk lately and is hosting Sioux City this weekend. The goals won’t score themselves.
“It’s never easy for an elite player to be told an extra year in juniors is the right thing,” Mikesch said. “Joe took right to it and has been a leader for us. He understands. If you ask Joe what kind of player he’s going to be in the NHL, the answer is not Sidney Crosby. This is going to help as he goes along in his career.”