Two former UA hockey stars recently traveled to Europe to play for a North American all-star team, and at least one has earned a professional tryout.
Jonathan Watanabe and Brady Lefferts competed for the North America United squad at the Rudi Hiti SummerCup in Bled, Slovenia. Their team finished sixth in the tournament.
“The tournament was a great experience,” Watanabe said. “As you know we went over to Europe, a lot of traveling, a lot of miles in a few days — a lot of games in five days. It was just an overall great experience to see the competition that is over there in Europe and really get a chance to understand and grasp what professional hockey is all about.”
The North America United team was a collection of players from the ranks of professional leagues, the NCAA and the American Collegiate Hockey Association, in which the UA’s club hockey team plays.
Watanabe and Lefferts combined to score four goals and tallied an assist against European professional teams in a tournament held from Aug. 16 to Aug. 19 and one exhibition game before the tournament.
“It was a great experience,” Lefferts said. “It was really cool to see the difference between the next level and to get to experience that stuff, and also travel the world to play hockey.”
After the tournament, Watanabe signed a tryout agreement with the Evansville IceMen of the East Coast Hockey League, the AA affiliate of the St. Louis Blues.
“There are going to be NHL players, guys who played in the NHL there,” UA head coach Sean Hogan said. “It’s good for him, because he’ll be able to see that level of play, what it takes to play at that level. And John, the thing about him, is that he is a very good skater, and that’s what you need to be able to have. You need to be a great skater to play professional hockey.”
Hogan said they are in talks to get Lefferts a tryout too, but it may be very difficult to make a team this year because of the looming NHL lockout. The work stoppage would leave 600 NHL players out of work, forcing them to play in Europe, bumping players there to the American minors.
“That’s a great opportunity,” Hogan said. “I’ve been researching a bit, trying to find the last time that’s happened at Arizona. We talked a little bit about one of the first things I was going to do here was change the culture in a way, we’re going to make sure these kids get opportunities after college. I couldn’t find one here in recent memory that went from here to the East Coast League for training camp, so it is definitely a positive reflection on us.”
The duo finished playing for the Wildcats, but are still UA students. Lefferts is a pre-physiology major and Watanabe is studying marketing.
“It’s a great opportunity, both for me and for the program,” Lefferts said. “Wildcat hockey, being in its first year and already getting this kind of recognition is great, but it is definitely an elite group of guys that will be at the camp, and it’s going to take a lot more work to earn a roster sport.”
Last year, Lefferts scored 25 goals and had 25 assists and four game winning goals, and Watanabe had seven goals and 17 assists. Watanabe transferred from NCAA Division III Skidmore College before his junior year.
“I think a lot of it had to come with our first year under coach (Hogan) last year,” Lefferts said. “I think that one thing that was really cool about Coach was that was that he not only prepared us for that one season but he also prepared us to go on to the next level. So I think that’s something that helps us out a lot.”
Lefferts said the North America United team had one practice together before the games.
“It was definitely an awesome experience going up there with (a teammate),” Wantanabe said. “Brady and I spent some time in Munich before the tournament started and we got to sight-see.
“It’s always great going on a hockey trip and even better going with a teammate.”