Brief tours in Iowa typically signal a budding run for president, but all Kenai River Brown Bears defenseman Jake Bushey is trying to do is get a Division I hockey scholarship.
From Oct. 19 to Nov. 2, Bushey played four games with the Dubuque (Iowa) Fighting Saints of the United States Hockey League.
The 16-team USHL is a Tier I Junior A league, while the 24-team North American Hockey League is a Tier II Junior A league.
Bushey, the son of Bryan and Nancy Bushey and billet son of Eric Trevino and Natalie Villegas, was called up to the USHL on Oct. 16 when the Saints lost defenseman Dylan Chanter to a head injury.
The obvious connection between the Saints and Brown Bears is Oliver David, the Bears head coach for four seasons before becoming a Saints assistant this season.
David said he still follows and roots for the Bears, but that Bushey’s call-up had little to do with David and everything to do with Bushey.
David said three Saints scouts were impressed by Bushey, listed at 6-foot-0, 190 pounds, at the early season NAHL Showcase.
Also, Bushey had two goals and seven assists in just 12 games for Kenai River at the time of the call-up, and the Bears were tied for first in the Midwest Division.
“The biggest thing was his start to the year with them,” David said. “He was making a case for himself that he deserved to come up here and see what it is all about.”
Bushey said he was somewhat surprised by the call-up. He is 20 years old, and USHL teams can only have four 20-year-olds on the roster.
The Duluth, Minn., native had to get ready to play in a game Oct. 19, so when he got to Iowa he was immediately watching video with Saints head coach and general manager Matt Shaw.
Shaw spent the last six seasons coaching in the NHL before taking over Dubuque this season, but Bushey said working with him was not intimidating.
“It was pretty cool knowing he was an assistant in the NHL,” Bushey said. “He doesn’t act better than anybody else.
“He’s down to earth and calm, so that makes it pretty easy. You can tell why he’s a pro coach.”
Bushey played in four games, finishing minus-2 with no points and four penalty minutes. With the return of Chanter, Bushey was sent back to Alaska.
“He did well,” David said. “To be honest, he still could be here.”
David said the biggest thing counting against Bushey is his age. There is the four-player restriction on 20-year-olds. Plus, the Saints would have to invest time getting Bushey up to speed with the guarantee that he would age out at the end of the season.
“We were happy to support him and we’re happy to have him back now,” Bears head coach Geoff Beauparlant said. “He’s a big-time player for us and re-solidifies our back end.
“It was great for the young guys to get experience while he was out of the lineup. This made our team stronger all around.”
David said the most impressive thing about Bushey’s brief time was how rapidly he absorbed the system. The coach said there is no way Bushey could have done that last season.
“He found himself absorbing endless amounts of information and playing constant catchup,” David said. “The thing that really shows his capability is that he was able to step in and grasp what we wanted to do.”
The NAHL vs. USHL debate is a hot one amongst junior hockey aficionados.
“The NAHL is more physical because there are older guys,” Bushey said. “The USHL has a lot more puck movement and is a little faster.
“Our league is pretty close. It’s not too big of a step.”
Bushey returned to Kenai River for two games at Fairbanks last weekend. He said in the battle between two of the league’s stronger teams with more than 2,000 fans packed around the small ice at Fairbanks, the USHL-NAHL difference was barely noticeable.
Bushey said the biggest eye-opener in the USHL is the young talent.
“We played against some good young talent, and Dubuque has four or five guys that are extremely talented with a chance to get drafted this year,” Bushey said. “These guys are juniors in high school.”
Bushey’s immediate goal is to land a Division I scholarship and help the Bears get wins. He said the Dubuque experience was helpful on both fronts.
“He’s absolutely going to get a Division I opportunity,” David said. “While he was here, we discussed where he was at with that.
“Prior to his coming here, three or four schools had contacted him as a result of the Showcase and the start to his season. While he was here, another couple of schools showed interest in him.”
Even with Bushey gone, David said the Saints have continued to field calls of interest.
Bushey, who had a goal in his first game back, said the experience helped him mature.
“It was a lot of fun,” he said. “I’d like to thank the organization and coaches in Dubuque and thank our coaches here for letting me get the experience.”