Next stop: Juniors or college?
Tyler Hancock, a four-year starter for the Bishop Eustace ice hockey team, is considered one of the best players in New Jersey and certainly is in South Jersey.
If you haven't noticed, South Jersey has already produced first-round NHL draft picks the last two years in Bobby Ryan of Cherry Hill and Bobby Sanguinetti of Lumberton, and could have another one this year in T.J. Brennan of Moorestown.
Hancock, a 5-foot-10 forward, is not of that pedigree. However, he is of the level where the senior could've went to a prestigious prep school in New England or some hockey hotbed in Michigan. Instead, he stayed to play for coach Mike Green.
"I think it's both ways now. I think a lot of people realize hockey in southern New Jersey has grown and gotten better, but there are kids who want to make their career better and get a head start and go to Michigan or Minnesota," Hancock said. "We still can't compare to teams in Michigan or Minnesota."
However, Hancock is still getting exposure, which shows how far hockey has come in South Jersey high schools.
"He could've gone anywhere, but he chose to stay here in New Jersey and take the next step after playing at Bishop Eustace, which is commendable," Green said. "It raises the level of play in South Jersey."
The next level for someone of Hancock's skills is junior hockey.
"Tyler has the speed, skill and talent to play in the Canadian junior leagues next season," Green said.
After this season, Hancock has to choose between juniors -- possibly in Canada or the United States Hockey League or Eastern Junior Hockey League -- and college next year.
"There is no doubt I can play," Hancock said about Juniors, "it is just if I want to take time off and see how far I can go with my career and put off college for maybe a year or two."
Although he does dream of the NHL, Hancock would choose the juniors to try and play against the best in college.
"There is always a possibility, most likely not," Hancock said about the NHL. "If I played juniors, I would do that to try and play Division I and to be able to say I played at highest college level."
Green said that the big-time Division I hockey schools generally pick from the junior level and not from high schools.
"It is almost like they have to do one extra year," Green said. "It's a tough decision for kids. Education-wise, you want to go right from high school to college, but the college coaches want to know who is playing juniors, they want the 19- and 20-year old freshman."
If Hancock doesn't go to the juniors and chooses college for next year, he will probably go to Delaware.
"That would be a good club team," he said, "but it wouldn't be anywhere near a Division I team."
Hancock also plays AAA 18-under for the Mercer Chiefs out of Central Jersey. Combined with playing at Eustace, he felt it was good exposure to junior hockey.
"I decided to stay here," Hancock said. "I thought I could get looked at better and another reason was I wanted to play my senior year. That was important to me."
The past two seasons, Hancock was a Southern Conference Red Division first-team pick.
Hancock went into Friday's game against Red Bank Catholic leading the Southern Red with 13 goals. He also has three assists playing on the first line with Brad Schuler and Vinnie Mariani.
Hancock, a right-handed shooter, has close to 70 career goals.
"He is such a prolific goal scorer," Green said. "He's a sniper."
Hancock is still enjoying the high school experience. In the season opener against rival St. Augustine, he played in front of a packed frozen house at the Flyers Skate Zone in Pennsauken.
"It was really cool," he said about the 4-2 loss. "You have people to play for, the crowd pumps you up and it makes the game that more intense."
Last year, the Crusaders lost 5-2 to St. Augustine in the playoffs to hand over the Handchen Cup, which Eustace had won the last three years as champions of the Southern Conference Red Division.
St. Augustine finished No. 5 in the state last year and Bishop Eustace ended up sixth.
Prior to that postseason win, St. Augustine hadn't beaten Bishop Eustace in two years, including a pair of regular-season losses to the Crusaders last season. But now, it's two losses in a row against the Hermits.
"Now that we lost to them the past two games, we need to win and get back on track," Hancock said. "It is weird losing to them because we normally won, but they have gotten better over the years."
Hancock will meet up again with the improved Hermits on Jan. 30 at the Vineland Ice Arena. And then, there is the possibility of another playoff matchup.
"Definitely, we want to get back at them for losing the first game," Hancock said, "but the playoffs are really all that matters."
Hancock, who moved to Haddonfield in the fifth grade from Voorhees, first learned to skate and shoot at the Coliseum in Voorhees and Hollydell in Washington Township.
"My parents put me in hockey real young at three," Hancock said about his mother, Barbara, and father, Raymond. "I started skating around at two getting lessons. I always loved playing, it was always fun for me -- except when I was 12-years-old, I went through a two-year stage where I just wanted to skate board. But I came to Eustace and worked real hard and got better and better."
Reach Kevin Callahan at (856) 486-2424 or firstname.lastname@example.org