CUMBERLAND – On the surface, Bentley Field would seem an unusual spot to rendezvous to meet a local lad who’s ticketed to hear his name called when the puck is dropped on the NHL’s annual two-day draft beginning Friday night.
There was Jayden Struble earlier this week, flashing a big smile while standing on the same Little League playing surface that served as the backdrop for so many unforgettable memories. Holding a hockey stick, Struble is the picture of calm and collected. In less than 24 hours, he and his family would board a plane to Vancouver, site of the 2019 NHL Draft and where this fascinating journey will add its next chapter.
As Struble obliges a photographer’s request to pose in different positions with the stick, you can’t help but recall the past. Specifically, the summer of 2014.
Initially, baseball was the sport that brought Struble great notoriety. In 2014, he was a middle-of-the-order slugger and sure-handed first baseman for a Cumberland American Little League team that epitomized sportsmanship thanks in large part to ESPN’s cameras rolling while coach Dave Belisle delivered a heartfelt speech to Struble and his CALL teammates after their final game at the Little League World Series.
“A lot of (NHL) teams will ask about that. When was it? A couple of years ago?” said Struble as he stood near the metal bleachers outside Bentley Field. “It’s crazy to think that was five years ago. It was a really good experience to be that young and play in front of that many people. It’s something that I’ll always remember.
“Very good memories here,” he added while looking back out at a baseball field that in retrospect served as the perfect training ground. “People around here know me for baseball, but there’s definitely another side to me and another passion that I have. I’ve found success (with hockey) so it’s more about showing that.”
For Struble, the spotlight has only intensified since the 2014 Cumberland American squad stole the hearts of locals and made waves nationally. Every move he’s made on the ice as a six-foot defenseman who’s right around 200 pounds … it’s been documented and recorded by NHL types. We’re talking about a coveted prospect, judging by the high volume of NHL clubs that Struble interviewed with during the annual draft combine held earlier this month in Buffalo – 24 of a possible 31 to be exact.
“It’s more of a mindset thing. If was playing against top-notch competition when I was 12 years old, I should be able to do it now that I’m 17,” said Struble, who’ll turn 18 in September. “I don’t think I’m a nervous kid in general, but the ( ’14 Little League experience) definitely helped me.”
Hockey has always been Struble’s passion. Baseball was something of a side hustle that he did with his Cumberland friends. He was three when he started to skate for the Cranston-based Edgewood Hawks.
“My papa (father Paul) taught me how to play and was my coach growing up,” said Struble.
For so many of the players on the 2014 Cumberland American roster, it’s been easy to keep tabs on them during their post-Little League careers, mainly because they continued to enjoy success while remaining nearby. Just last week, notable CALL alum Trey Bourque helped Mount St. Charles capture the R.I. Division II baseball title. A few months back, another Cumberland American product (Sean Meers) guided Cumberland High to the D-II boys hockey championship.
Struble proved to be the exception, electing to chase pucks in rinks that weren’t exactly right around the corner from his Cumberland address. After spending his freshman year at Noble & Greenough School, located in Dedham, Mass., Struble packed up his hockey gear and moved on to St. Sebastian’s School in Needham, Mass.
“He played a ton for us, sometimes more than half the game,” noted St. Sebastian’s head coach Sean McCann. “Whether it was asking him to be good in our own zone and defend really well, or jump up in the rush and contribute offensively, or run the power-play, Jayden was asked to do everything. With his talent level, he was able to do everything and do it well.”
Asked what it’s been like to play games knowing full well that NHL scouts are sitting in the stands, Struble said, “You’re in the midst of your high school season so you’re playing for your teammates. You don’t think about projections. I just want to win, which I think makes it that much easier.”
“He’s gotten a lot of attention dating back to his Little League days, but Jayden has always kept his composure and realizes this is a great opportunity for him to be in,” said McCann. “Along those lines, he’s going to soak it up and see it where it goes from here. He’s an outgoing kid and has a great personality, which comes across whenever you talk to him. If you pretend to be someone you’re not, it doesn’t come across as authentic. He’s handled everything well.”
Following two very productive seasons at St. Sebastian’s – specifically, his sophomore and junior years – Struble is once again on the move. Next season, he’ll further develop his game in Canada with the Victoria Grizzlies of the British Columbia Hockey League. There, Struble will be matched up against fellow NHL hopefuls, the next frontier for him to explore in a career where the trajectory keeps moving upward.
“You got to move on at some point,” said Struble about making one careful calculation after another with an eye towards putting himself in a promising position that awaits him this weekend, where he’s on-site for the draft and able to enjoy the thrill of hearing his name called.
“A lot of hard work has gone into this, but it’s also crazy to think that you’re talking to NHL teams. You’re almost blinded by it if you really think about it ,but if you take a step back, it’s a cool experience.”
Added McCann, “He’s earned what he’s gotten and it’s great to see him recognized. His testing at the (NHL Combine) was amazing and hopefully that will benefit him. More importantly, he’s heading to an organization that’s excited about him.”
To the casual outsider looking in, Struble’s hockey future is pretty well mapped out. In the fall of 2020, he’ll head to Northeastern University to skate for the Huskies; he supplied the Hockey East school with a verbal commitment in 2016 when he was a ninth grader. A soon-to-be-determined NHL team will retain his draft rights in the first-ever draft in which he’s eligible to be picked.
There are kids his age who are undoubtedly fretting about what the future potentially holds, yet Struble on the surface appears pretty well set. For him, it’s just a matter of continuing to elevate his game as the degree of competition continues to ratchet upward.
“It’s definitely comforting, knowing where you’re going to be,” said Struble, “but there’s still a lot of stress because you’ve got to get there. Nothing is given. You have these places in front of you. It’s just whether you’re going to work hard in order to get to them.”
Struble has plenty of reasons to be confident. He’s heard positive reaction from NHL teams scheduled to pick late in the first round, which will be the only round that’s completed Friday. Rounds 2-7 are set for Saturday. Just to give you a rough estimate, noted NHL insider Bob McKenzie tabbed Struble as the 63rd-overall best prospect in his final pre-draft rankings that were released this past Monday.
“There’s projections out there, but it all depends. Maybe the second round or slip into the first, but nothing is set in stone,” said Struble. “It’s more about going there and getting to work right after that.”
What Struble is referring to is attending rookie camp that NHL teams traditionally stage in early September.
“To have NHL eyes on you … it’s going to be huge to be seen and receive feedback,” he said.
The nice part about this draft endeavor is that Struble doesn’t have to turn pro tomorrow. The NHL structure allows draftees to play in college while holding their rights for up to four years following his selection.
“There’s only a select few on a yearly basis that can drafted into the NHL and go play right away. It’s so difficult to do that,” said McCann. “It’s more understanding that when you get to a higher level, what is my game to be? Am I going to be a well-rounded defenseman? Am I going to be a defensive or offensive guy? As you move up each step, you develop your identity as a player and see what your strengths are. It’s a good situation.”
Another reward that awaits Struble this weekend in Vancouver stems from the presence of his biggest cheering section. Joining him for this once-in-a-lifetime moment is his father, his mother Tara, and brothers Cameron and Dylan.
“The goal is to play in the NHL, but this is definitely a special moment that I can’t wait to share with my family,” said Struble. “There’s also nerves, but it’s definitely going to be a fulfilling moment.”
The interview with Struble at Bentley Field was drawing to a close when he was asked to put on his memory cap. Specifically, go back to a Monday night in July 2014 at Burrillville’s Sherman Park. With hard rain falling, Struble belted a walk-off, three-run home run that lifted Cumberland American to the District IV Major Division title.
Struble nodded his head in the affirmative. At the time, the aforementioned game-winning blast was the young athlete’s great accomplishment. Fast forward five years and the face of all this wholesomeness has definitely changed. Jayden Struble stands before you with his hockey stock never higher.
“It’s certainly flown by,” he said, a nod to a great past with the hope of an even brighter future.
Follow Brendan McGair on Twitter @BWMcGair03