One is from Texas, the son of a former pro basketball player. A second was ready to quit hockey a year ago. A third chose to bypass his senior year of high school hockey and has seen the decision pay off.
All three used the Granite City Lumberjacks as a springboard to the North American Hockey League, where this fall they’re likely to be teammates and key players for the Austin Bruins.
Suffice it to say Michael Piehler, Robbie Goor and Travis Kothenbeutel have jumped from the Jacks into status as Division I college prospects, and that’s more than many people might’ve thought even a short time ago.
“All three of them are great players,” Granite City coach and general manager Brad Willner said, talking about some of his most promising alumni heading into the 2016-17 season. “Travis is a real competitor and he works so hard that you knew good things were going to happen for him. Robbie was almost too good to be at our level. And Michael came to us as a raw talent and he really found his groove.”
They’re excellent examples, Willner says, of how the Lumberjacks can take a player who might feel his career is on the fringes of playing in college or beyond and give them the opportunity to target the teams that will help get them there.
The three Lumberjacks-turned-Bruins all took a different path to the same destination.
Piehler is from Plano, Texas, about 20 miles northeast of downtown Dallas. When he was born in 1996, the area didn’t resonate much when it came to producing hockey players. But Piehler is an example, perhaps, of the impact of the Minnesota North Stars’ relocation to Texas and how it has sparked interest in playing the game despite the Lone Star State’s history of producing football and baseball talent, especially.
And, for Piehler, whose father, David, played basketball at Southern Methodist and had a preseason stint with the Dallas Mavericks, choosing hockey went against family history. Not only is Michael’s father the boys basketball coach at Highland Park (Texas) High School, but Michael’s older brother played for him. Yet, when it was time to decide what he wanted to do, Michael chose hockey.
“I guess I went to so many basketball games that I got tired of the sport,” said Piehler, a 6-foot-2, 215-pound forward who will turn 20 in October. “I still play a little basketball sometimes, and I help out at my dad’s basketball camp during the summer. But hockey is what I want to play.”
Piehler played three seasons (2012-15) in the North American Prospects Hockey League, totaling 10 goals and 4 assists and 90 penalty minutes in 49 games for three different Dallas-area midget-level teams. He went to several NAHL camps last year, expecting to advance, and his confidence took a hit when he didn’t make a team right away.
“We’d seen him play in midget showcases and we liked him, so we tendered him,” Willner said of Piehler. “He didn’t light it up in midget, though, and I know it was hard for him when he didn’t make the team in Minot. I knew he was flying out of the Twin Cities on a Sunday and I got the chance to meet with him and his mom. Then, when I was in Dallas for our league meetings, I had lunch with his dad. I told them we’d move him up if we could and to give us a chance.”
They did, and that was all Piehler needed to impress Bruins coach/GM Kyle Grabowski and his staff. Piehler scored 25 points (14 goals/11 assists) in 21 games with the Lumberjacks before moving up. He scored 13 points (7 g/6 a) in 30 games the rest of the way for Austin. He also added an assist in a playoff win over Bismarck.
“He was our top scorer when he went up,” Willner said. “But it’s about more than wins and losses for us. Michael’s got a blistering shot and can beat goalies clean with his snap shot. He’s a big body and can lay people out. He’s the type of player we’re looking for, someone we can move up.”
And Piehler says it wouldn’t have happened if he hadn’t come to Granite City.
“It’s a whole different experience from what I was used to and it’s a great place to play,” Piehler said. “In junior hockey, it’s like you’re a pro. You go to the rink every day and practice and then get ready for games. They put an emphasis on me shooting the puck and (Willner) and his staff did a great job teaching me and perfecting the skills I already had. I built a lot of confidence with them and my teammates, and the fact that I was able to stay with Austin is something I owe to Granite City.”
Goor can probably say he owes his career to the Lumberjacks. A 6-3, 200-pound goalie from Anoka, he had a decent year in 2014-15 with the Twin City Steel, going 15-8-2 with a 3.07 goals-against average and a .908 save percentage. However, he wanted a change the following season and initially went to camp with the NAHL’s Janesville (Wisconsin) Jets before landing with the Minnesota Iron Rangers of the Superior International Junior Hockey League.
“I was living at home and I wanted to move out and be on my own,” Goor said. “I was in the SIJHL for a week or two and I realized the living arrangements weren’t going to be up to par, so I basically quit for about a week. I told my dad I was going to go to college.”
He probably would have enrolled at Anoka-Ramsey Community College if not for a call from the Lumberjacks.
“They tried talking me out of it but I wasn’t budging,” Goor said. “They told me I’d regret it. Then someone called my dad and he came to me and said ‘I know hockey is your dream. Go chase it.’ ”
It didn’t take long in Granite City for Goor to show someone had missed on identifying his talent. He went 6-0-0 in 6 games with a 1.50 GAA and .936 save percentage before the Bruins called him up.
“Robbie was really too good to be at our level,” Willner said. “He came to us and was lights-out. He got called up and we never saw him again. But that’s OK. He’s a great kid and he’s still in contact with a lot of our boys and remains friends with players he was with for just a short time.”
During an off weekend with Austin, Goor even came back to Granite City and traveled on the team bus for a playoff trip.
“I’ve never been part of a team like that,” Goor said. “It was like a great big family. Brad’s one of the best coaches I’ve had and I had a blast there. It turned my game around.”
Goor was 5-5-0 with a 2.73 GAA and a .901 save percentage with the Bruins last year, primarily in a backup role to Kristofer Carlson, who has moved on to play college hockey at Providence. Goor feels his career is back on track, thanks to the short time he spent in Granite City.
“I knew I could play at the NAHL level, I just needed someone to give me a chance,” Goor said. “The Lumberjacks changed the way I look at the game. I tell people, ‘Don’t dog the NA3.’ I’m a perfect example. There are people in that league who can play. My ultimate goal is to play Division I or pro hockey or even Division III – just to play as long as I can.”
Willner believes Kothenbeutel, who played with the Lumberjacks from 2013-15, also has become a D-I prospect. He played before and after his junior season at Sauk Rapids-Rice High School, posting 20 points (10 g/10 a) in 24 games in 2013-14. In 2014-15, he chose to stay with the Jacks all season and scored 43 points (15 g/28 a) in 40 games. Kothenbeutel, who is 5-10, 165, was plus-28 in Granite City.
“He’s got Division I potential,” Willner said. “All Travis needs is to mature and get stronger and more developed.”
Kothenbeutel got a taste of the NAHL with the Bruins in 2014-15, scoring 5 points (3 g/2 a) in 8 games. Last season, he had 17 points (7 g/10 a) in 44 games.
“I learned a lot with the Lumberjacks that was important,” he said. “It’s a harder game when you move up. There are little things you might get away with in high school that won’t fly at the next level. In juniors, a lot of times a third line is as good as a team’s first. You don’t see that in high school and it was really important for me to get a chance to play with some of the guys I did for Granite City.”
Kothenbeutel was one of the top five scorers for the Jacks in 2014-15. Two of the others were David Kenney and Tanner Skaja, both of whom went to St. Cloud Technical High School and grew up in a different youth program.
“You never think you’re going to get to play with some of those good players you know from other schools, and that helped me a lot as a player, too,” Kothenbeutel said. “The situation wasn’t right for me to stay in high school my senior year and I became a stronger player with the Lumberjacks.”
While he didn’t play with them at Granite City, Kothenbeutel recognizes similar ability in Piehler and Goor.
“Michael is a great offensive player and Robbie always gives you the chance to win,” Kothenbeutel said. “Those guys are going to make a name for themselves, just watch.”