When John Draeger moved to Morristown, Minn., in the third grade, he was well aware of the hockey powerhouse just a few miles down the road in Faribault.
The hallowed hockey ground of Shattuck-St. Mary’s School (SSM) is a beacon for talented players, not only from Minnesota but from around the globe. The Minnesota Wild prospect wanted to be a part of that tradition, but he’d have to wait.
Draeger enrolled at Shattuck in seventh grade. However, he didn’t play for the team because he ‘wasn’t good enough to even try out.’ Again, when eighth grade rolled around, the young defenseman wasn’t offered to tryout for the team. Instead, he skated for the local Faribault Hockey Association during his seventh and eight grade years.
During those two seasons, Faribault met SSM twice. Both times, Shattuck won in close games. Losing to his schoolmates while he played for the local association was tough for the youngster.
“They gave me a little bit of crap for it,” Draeger recalled. “But I think both times we lost were in shootouts so the games were close.”
Between his eight and ninth grade years, the blueliner was determined to make the team, and did. For the next two years, he’d play for the Under-16 Team at Shattuck before moving up to the Boys Prep team. With the Prep team, Draeger flourished under the guidance of Head Coach Tom Ward.
“(Ward’s) core values trickled down to us as players and as people,” Draeger said. “Playing for Shattuck was special to me.”
Playing at SSM was special for at least two reasons. Draeger helped lead the team to two USA Hockey Youth Tier I National Championships in 2011 and 2012. During his senior season, he led all Shattuck blueliners in scoring.
If it took some time for the defenseman to finally make the SSM squad, it also took some time for him to make his decision about the next step of his career, but for a different reason. When it was time for the 6-foot-2, 186-pound defenseman to choose a college, he took several visits. However, after a visited Michigan State University, he knew he found the right fit.
“I loved it almost instantly,” Draeger said. “The tradition of ‘Once you’re a Spartan, you’re always a Spartan’ really sunk in.”
The Spartan pipeline from Shattuck also helped. Current teammate Tanner Sorenson was a senior at SSM while Draeger was a junior, and Adam Nightingale, MSU director of hockey operations, coached the defenseman at the prep school.
This season at MSU, the 18-year-old is part of a convoy of Michigan State freshman that are depended on to contribute. MSU has 12 freshmen including two red-shirt freshmen, on its roster. It’s common for at least eight first-year players to suit up for the Spartans.
Draeger has been relied upon heavily in his first four games, skating in nearly 30 minutes per game and on the team’s top defensive pair, according to Jamie Weir Baldwin, MSU director of athletic communications. He is also the leading freshman scorer on the team with four points (1-3=4), picking up his first-career goal against Lake-Superior State on Saturday.
“It came on the power play,” Draeger said. “I slid into the slot and fired a little wrister into the top left corner.
“It was something special to get it against a rival that we won’t be playing that much anymore.”
Next season, State of Hockey fans will get a chance to see the Wild’s third-round pick in the 2012 NHL Draft with a little more regularity, as the Spartans will join the Big Ten Hockey Conference, along with the University of Minnesota. With Draeger patrolling the blue line, MSU looks be a force in the new conference.
“We’re a young team,” Draeger said. “But it’s a great opportunity to rebuild the program into a great hockey school.”
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