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By Chris Bayee, 07/17/18, 9:30AM PDT


After a few years in park, Jonathan Panisa has gone into overdrive during the past year of his young hockey career. Why should this summer be any different?

The 2001 birth year, who was a key component on the Anaheim Jr. Ducks Midget 16U AAA team that won a bronze medal at April’s USA Hockey Youth Nationals, committed to play college hockey at UMass-Amherst on July 13.

Panisa, who played AA hockey during the 2016-17 season, became the 14th player with ties to the Jr. Ducks to make a Division I commitment in the past four seasons.

“What’s neat about this is Jonathan went and played AA hockey and it still worked out for him,” said Jr. Ducks Director of Coaches Craig Johnson, who coached Panisa as a Mite, Squirt and Pee Wee and again this past season with co-coach Alex Kim. “He was able to progress to this point.”

What makes Panisa’s story more unique is the route he is taking.

He was part of the 2001 powerhouse teams coached by Johnson and Scott Niedermayer, a group that included Boston College commit Cam York, Quinnipiac commit Nicholas Kent, as well as Ryan Johnson, who became the highest-drafted Californian by a USHL team in 2017 when he went third overall in the futures draft.

“He was one of the originals,” Johnson recalled.

Panisa then took two years off after sixth grade, ostensibly to play more sports (which ended up being soccer and water polo) and further develop his athletic ability. He returned to hockey two seasons ago by playing for Beckman High in the Anaheim Ducks High School Hockey League. He then played the season of AA hockey before making the Jr. Ducks’ 16U AAA team last spring.

“My family and I joke about taking two years off, but I questioned doing it at the time,” Panisa said.

Panisa said the early part of this past season was a big adjustment.

“I was basically told you’re going to have to survive the start of the season,” he said. “The first couple of months were hard, but as time went on I got adjusted. The off-ice workouts and the extra work I did with a personal trainer helped me a lot.”

He didn’t have to look very far for inspiration. Johnson and Kim lauded the team’s collective work ethic and have said it was a major contributor to its success.

“We had a really good culture where guys worked hard,” Johnson said. “If you’re lagging it became pretty obvious.”

As the season progressed, Panisa said he began to get overtures from colleges but nothing concrete. That changed last month when he was at camp with the Central Illinois Flyers of the United States Hockey League. The Flyers had selected him in the 15th round (229th overall) in the USHL Phase II draft in May. He was one of a club-record eight current and former Jr. Ducks selected by USHL teams this spring.  

And it’s no wonder after his 16U season. Panisa put up 26 points in 36 Tier 1 Elite Hockey League games and added 23 points in 13 CAHA games. He finished third in CAHA in scoring behind teammates Jackson Niedermayer and Josh Groll, who committed to the University of Michigan during the season.

“As the season got on, he was better and possessed the puck more and made more plays,” Johnson said. “It’s not easy to go from one level where he probably had to keep the puck to learning when to carry it and when to distribute it.

“For Jonathan, a lot of it was raising his level and getting confidence at this level. Gaining strength also helped.”

UMass-Amherst coach Greg Carvel attended the Central Illinois camp to watch a player who had already committed to the Minutemen, but Panisa made enough of an impression that the coach invited him to take a campus visit.

“It was a very quick process,” Panisa said. “I had my visit on July 6 and received an offer on the spot. The situation felt so right I didn’t feel the need to go shopping.”

Next up Panisa will attend Central Illinois’ 30-man camp starting Sept. 4. Should he make the top 23 he will have gone from not playing to playing in the top junior league in the United States in just over three years. If he doesn’t make the Flyers, he will play for the Springfield Jr. Blues, who made him the highest-drafted 2001 birth year in the NAHL draft in early June. Panisa was a first-round pick (10th overall).

“He is very talented and has a lot of upside,” said Kim, who doubles as the Jr. Ducks’ director of player personnel and is also the USHL’s head Pacific scout. “He has great separation speed and a good head for the game. This is great for him and his family.”

When Panisa considers his journey through youth hockey, he said he always goes back to the foundation that was laid playing for Johnson and Niedermayer, and his ’01 teammates.

“That was a great group of guys on that team, and when you think about the names – Cam York, Nick Kent, Ryan Johnson, Jackson Niedermayer – they’re impact players and will be in the future,” Panisa said. “I learned a lot from the coaches (Craig Johnson and Scott Niedermayer, and later Kim). I’m very grateful for my time with all of them.”

In addition to Panisa and Groll, who recently was selected to the U.S. Select 18 Team that will participate in the Hlinka Gretzky Cup in August, the Jr. Ducks’ college commit list also includes defenseman Slava Demin.

Demin was a fourth-round pick (99th overall) by the Vegas Golden Knights in last month’s NHL Entry Draft. The first NHL draft pick for the club since it added AAA hockey five years ago, Demin will be a freshman at Denver.

Craig Johnson was reflective when asked about the club’s progress in light of the recent news about Groll, Demin and now Panisa.

“It’s really neat is to see all the opportunities these kids are getting to continue to play the game and get an education,” he said.

And Panisa is just the latest in what’s becoming a long list.