ORONO — The words are what you expect from any incoming freshman trying to prove himself as a Division I hockey player.
“I’m just going to do my best on the ice and in the gym,” Jack Musil is saying about his upcoming debut, seated outside the University of Maine team offices at Alfond Arena.
“It’s hard to say where I’ll fit in because I’ve never played at this level.”
What’s jarring is the English accent, which has hardly been tamed by five years of living in North America.
A hockey-playing Brit? Blimey, does Musil have a story to tell.
It started at age 5, when his father, a doctor in Hull, England, introduced him to the coach of the professional hockey team in town, the Hull Stingrays. It wasn’t long before hockey surpassed soccer and golf as Musil’s sport of choice, a decision made much easier after he allowed eight goals while playing keeper for his soccer team one day.
Hockey, by contrast, exists in the shadows in Great Britain. Musil said there were only about 20 teams per age group in England.
Undeterred, he developed his game to the point where he had to make a decision at 16 – remain in England and play against poor competition on the U18 circuit, or trek across the pond to see how far this exotic sport could take him.
A couple of his older friends had preceded him to North America. Hull produced a role model of sorts for Musil in Dave Phillips, a defenseman who played two seasons in the American Hockey League.
But most of Musil’s mates still didn’t know what to make of hockey.
“Even now they don’t really understand anything about the sport,” Musil said. “I kind of just give up trying to explain it.”
Musil took the plunge, landing at a Canadian prep school for two seasons. He was 5-foot-7 and scrawny, and his first winter revealed how ill-prepared he was to compete with more experienced players.
Still, he said he never thought about returning to England. Instead, the experience showed him just what he needed to do to hold his own.
Musil latched on with a low-level junior hockey team in Florida for two seasons and then caught the eye of Steve Jacobs, coach of the New England Wolves, a New Hampshire-based team in the Academy East Hockey League.
Musil, a right-handed center, put up 101 points in 51 games for the Wolves last winter. That was enough to spark conversations with Division I programs Merrimack, Miami of Ohio and Maine.
He visited Orono on Jan. 25, witnessed a 4-2 victory over New Hampshire, and committed to play for the Black Bears a week later.
He is now 6-1, 185 pounds and will turn 21 next week.
Musil is part of a seven-player recruiting class in Red Gendron’s second year as coach. Expectations are high.
“They have to do something to help us win,” Gendron said. “Some guys are nifty and they score goals. There are other people that are a pain … to play against. You try to create a team that has a whole group of little things bunched together that make you resilient and able to play in all sorts of situations and all types of games.”
Musil fits the “nifty” part of that equation. Gendron said his ability to read and react quickly, to be poised and patient while the chaos swirls around him, give him a chance to be a very special player. Or not.
The 101 points he scored, in a league that isn’t known for producing Division I talent?
“That doesn’t necessarily mean anything,” Gendron said. “But by the same token, it could.”
In other words, Musil is just a highly touted freshman until the players take to the ice Sept. 15 and the coaches can get a look at him.
After taking such an unusual path to major college hockey in the U.S., Musil understands what he has yet to prove.
“It’s misleading,” he quickly pointed out about his gaudy statistics for the Wolves. “We played, not weak opposition, but some prep teams, maybe a third to a half of our games were against weaker competition.
“Until you’re actually on the ice, it’s hard to understand where you are in comparison to the other Division I players. We’ll find out. But I’m not nervous. I’m working on getting stronger on the puck, a quicker release. I’m going to give it my all and see where it takes me.”