First, he was a California kid making tracks in the deep snow of a little hockey-crazed mountain town in British Columbia.
Now, he’s a West Coast kid taking his laid-back, easy-going approach all the way to the East Coast.
After two successful seasons with the Kimberley Dynamiters, forward Keenan Haase, a native of Mission Viejo, Calif., has committed to the New England College Pilgrims for the 2016-17 NCAA Div. III campaign.
Dynamiters general manager Mike Reid confirmed Haase’s commitment April 3.
“Before playing junior, it was always the plan at the end of the road,” Haase said this past Wednesday night, standing on the Dynamiters bench for one last time. “Especially being in Kimberley here and having that dream come true, I can’t ask for much more. I’m really excited.
“Jerry and the coaching staff really believed in me. I had some confidence issues in my first year and they sat me down and we talked through it. I got that confidence back and they gave me that motivation, they gave me ice time, they gave me all the opportunities I could’ve ever asked for. I just had to put in the work.”
Haase, oft-characterized as a new breed of “power centre” by head coach Jerry Bancks, produced 52 goals and 106 points in 95 games spanning across two seasons, 2014-15 to 2015-16, with the Kimberley Dynamiters.
“The biggest thing for Keenan when he arrived here, he needed to learn to be consistent,” Bancks said. “It’s the No. 1 thing a coach will hope for, is to know what you’re going to get from [a player] every game, every shift, every practice. That’s what Keenan had to learn.
“He started at it last year, but there were games he just wasn’t internally motivated and you had to help him out a little bit. This year, he grew. His last game against 100 Mile House [in the KIJHL championship] was a definite statement.
“He grew every little bit. He has phenomenal hands, a tremendous shot and a great release. He’s just a wonderful kid from a wonderful family.
“It might have been that little bit of California laid-back that he needed to get rid of. It was nice to see him become much, much more consistent this year.”
The 6-foot-2, 195-pound pivot added nine goals and 24 points in 35 KIJHL post-season games the past two seasons, playing a vital role in the Dynamiters run to the 2015 KIJHL championship and a runner-up finish at the 2015 Cyclone Taylor Cup for B.C. Junior B supremacy.
Having just turned 20 years old on March 10, Haase was eligible for one more year with the Dynamiters, but instead, he graduates from the junior ranks and on to the next chapter in his life, which will take him across the continent and back south across the 49th parallel.
“There are a lot of emotions,” Haase said of playing his last game as a Dynamiter. “A lot of these guys I’ve been with these last few years, it’s insane to think these two years have just gone by. We’ve been pretty good these last two years, but saying goodbye and knowing that I probably won’t be back for a while…I don’t know. I started tearing up the other day about it.”
New England College is located in Henniker, N.H., a town of approximately 2,000 people, situated roughly 50 km northwest of Manchester, N.H.
The Pilgrims men’s ice hockey program, an NCAA Div. III outfit, finished the 2015-16 athletic campaign with a record of 11-9-6.
There’s a pre-existing Kimberley connection to the program, as former Nitro Bryce Nielsen just completed his second season in Henniker. Nielsen, a native of Laguna Hills, Calif., spent two campaigns in the KIJHL, finishing his junior career by playing eight regular-season games with the Dynamiters at the conclusion of the 2013-14 season.
“It’s a big hockey central town [along the East Coast] and it’s kind of in the heart of everything,” Haase said. “I couldn’t ask much more of that. I know Bryce Nielsen, he played here [in Kimberley] before I came. He had nothing bad to say about it. The coaching staff was really good and the coach sounded like he wanted me pretty bad.”
Apart from the Kimberley connection, there’s also a widespread California flavour to the Pilgrims program, meaning Haase will be right at home, despite being nearly 5,000 km from his hometown in sunny southern California.
There were six California natives populating the Pilgrims roster in 2015-16.
So while there will be plenty of familiarity in faces and backgrounds to help ease Haase’s transition, making the jump from junior hockey to college hockey is never an easy task.
So what does the big Haase expect the biggest challenge to be?
“I hear there’s more snow,” Haase said with a hearty laugh. “Even more than here [in Kimberley]. I think being in Kimberley helped being away [from home] but I think the biggest thing will be getting back into the school route and routine. Juggling that, hockey and lifestyle and whatnot will be the most difficult part.”
Though he hasn’t settled on it completely, Haase believes he is going to enrol in business studies at New England College as he starts his post-secondary education.
“I just want to thank all the fans,” Haase said. “Through thick and thin, I think they’ve always been there for us. They’ve all stuck with us, especially through the playoffs. We got some welcoming thoughts from them after we lost a couple games there. To see that, it gives you the extra bit of confidence, that extra bit of motivation to go into the next game.
“You really want to do it for the fans and win it for them. Everybody in the town, it’s just been so welcoming and such a great feeling to play here.”