JANESVILLE – Kyle Patava became the latest Janesville Jet to advance to the United States Hockey League (USHL) when he was acquired by the Des Moines Buccaneers on Wednesday. The USHL is the top junior hockey league in the United States, and while each Jets player has his sights set on an NCAA D-I commitment, the USHL can sometimes provide a greater stage for college scouts.
Allowing Jets players to take the proverbial next step in their junior career by “graduating” them to the USHL is just one of Jets head coach Joe Dibble’s responsibilities. Patava is the third player this season to go from Janesville directly to a USHL team, but he would be surprised if he’s the last.
“I would say the whole team could be in the USHL,” Patava said on the drive to his hometown Des Moines. “If you switched sweaters with (the Jets) and, say, the Omaha Lancers, or any USHL team, you couldn’t tell the difference.”
After a shootout win in Austin on Tuesday, coach Dibble’s Jets extended their division lead to four points. Their 42 goals allowed are the second fewest in the NAHL.
“We have what it takes to beat, I’d say, 50% of the USHL teams,” Patava said. “We’re skilled and we have the work ethic.”
Ask any player who has spent time in Janesville about Dibble or assistant coach Erik Largen, and you’ll get the same portrait of two smart, dedicated hockey men who care about nothing more than their players.
“Coach Dibble and Largen were both great,” said goaltender Gavin Nieto of his time in Janesville. “I could go to them with any question about my game, colleges, or anything outside of hockey. They really cared about me as a player and a person and did whatever they could to help me be the best player I could be.”
In four appearances for the Jets, Nieto won two games and posted a .916 save percentage. He now plays for the USHL’s Dubuque Fighting Saints.
About four hours northeast of Dubuque, goaltender Kevin Reich has maintained a .955 save percentage over three games for the USHL’s Green Bay Gamblers. Reich’s stay with the Jets was only one game long, but he, too, benefited from the Janesville coaching staff.
“I learned to not put a lot a pressure on myself and to just have fun and play the game I love,” said Reich, who won his only game as a Jet, a 3-1 decision in Coulee. “Dibble and Largen showed me that they trusted me, and they didn’t put me under a lot of pressure. They told me to have fun.”
Unlike Reich’s or Nieto’s, Patava’s advancement to the USHL comes after more than a full season spent in the NAHL. The future Air Force Falcon played in 74 games with the Jets, tallying 19 goals and 54 points, while skating to a mark of +17. Patava, who committed to Air Force partly because he admired their work ethic, sees the same determination in his former coaches.
“(Dibble and Largen) are the backbone of this whole squad,” Patava said. “They know what they’re doing. They put in the work, they’re there at 7:00 in the morning, working. There’s no big equation or big formula (to success), it’s more how they do it. It’s just simply that they work.”
To allow players like Patava, Reich, and Nieto to leave Janesville might seem counterintuitive to piling up wins, but Dibble’s first priority is preparing his players to move on to college and pro hockey. He knows the USHL, a league whose alumni include Patrick Sharp, Paul Stastny, and Johnny Gaudreau, can help raise the profile of players like Patava. Like the heads of any good family, Dibble and Largen have in mind only the best interests of their young men.
“It’s more than a hockey team to them,” Patava said. “It’s a big family, and it’s a brotherhood.”