By Steve Gunn
Local Sports Journal

MUSKEGON – There was certainly nothing wrong with the way Brandon Young played hockey last season.

He was a standout defenseman who had a lot of assists for a Reeths-Puffer team that advanced all the way to the state semifinals.

But then Young spent his offseason playing in the Michigan Developmental Hockey League, which includes talented young players from throughout the state, and then Team Michigan, a select squad of the best players from that league.

Reeths-Puffer's Brandon Young. Photo/Jason Goorman

Reeths-Puffer defenseman Brandon Young. Photo/Jason Goorman

He played roughly 30 games against top competition from all over the nation, then competed in two international tournaments in Minnesota.

After that type of experience, varsity hockey suddenly seemed a bit easier for Young. This year, as the Rockets’ senior captain, he’s doing things on the ice he never knew he was capable of.

He’s stilll playing great defense, but he’s also turned into a serious threat to embarrass opposing goalies at any given moment.

After scoring three goals last season, Young already has five goals just seven games into the 25-game regular season.

There’s no telling how many goals he might score, or how far he can help the Rockets go, before his varsity career comes to an end.

“He’s a very talented player,” said Reeths-Puffer Coach Eric Sikkenga. “He has a very high skill set. His ability to impact and dominate a game is amazing, and it’s something we haven’t seen in previous years to the level that we’re seeing it this year.”

Sikkenga is not surprised at Young’s sudden development into an offensive threat. The coach always knew Young had size, speed, “(Pavel) Datsyuk-like moves” and a quick, accurate shot.

But now he has the confidence to complement those skills, and the goals are starting to pile up.

“He’s been playing on teams with the best 20 to 25 high school players in the state,” Sikkenga said. “When you get used to playing at that type of speed, that skill set starts to be even more dominant.

“His shot is probably the best part of his game. He has the quickest and most accurate release we’ve ever seen at Reeths-Puffer.

“Most players have to load (their shots) and the goalie sees it coming, everyone sees it coming. But you don’t see his shot coming. He can be standing straight up at the red line and go top corner with a shot that they never see coming.”

Players like Young are typically forwards, who play closer to the opposing goal and are more likely to get scoring chances. But Sikkenga said Young has remained a defenseman because it allows him to contribute on both ends of the rink.

He has the speed and hockey sense to jump into the play on the offensive end, and still get back and do his job on defense without getting burned, according to his coach.

And now that he’s used to scoring more, there’s no holding him back.

“He’s a lot like a Labrador Retriever,” Sikkenga said. “If you throw (the dog) a tennis ball he’s going to go after it. It doesn’t matter how big the shock collar is or how tight the leash is. Brandon’s kind of that way with the puck.”

Young admits his experience playing at the elite level gave him new skills and confidence.

“It was really fast-paced hockey,” Young said. “It was a really cool experience. Being able to play against different countries like the Czech Republic and Austrian national team made it sort of seem like the little Olympics.

“It really boosted my confidence. It made it seem like when I came back to varsity, I knew what I had to do. I could bring back the new skills I learned and help my teammates. And last year I was more of a defensive player. Team Michigan helped me realize I could skate it up and help with the scoring a bit more.”

Young has gained the attention of numerous college and elite junior hockey programs, and he’s currently weighing his options. But at the moment he’s also focused on his most immediate goal – helping the Rockets complete their push for a state title.

In 2013, when Young was a sophomore and a first-year varsity player, Reeths-Puffer won regionals and advanced to the Division 2 state quarterfinals. Last season they made it a step further, advancing to the semifinals before losing a 2-1 decision to Hartland.

That loss was particularly painful for the Rockets, because they outshot their opponents 38-18 and felt like they should have won.

“Their goalie was really standing on his head (making great saves),” Young said. “We played a really good game and outskated them, but they got a few lucky bounces and it didn’t go our way.”

This year the Rockets returned a solid core of experienced players from the semifinal team, and added some skilled younger players who have blended in nicely.

They started the season ranked seventh in the state in one preaseason poll, and are off to a good start with a 5-2 record. But Young believes they have just scratched the surface of their potential.

“(The semifinal loss) was a very big disappointment, because we felt like we had a chance to maybe win state, but this year we’re using that as motivation to get back and finish what we started,” he said.