(photo courtesy: Glenn Smith/ Idaho Steelheads)
“I realize my time in this game is limited. I just want to give back at this point. If I can help one person or one kid move up to the American League and play for a long time, that is what I would like to do now, set an example and be someone that these younger guys can look up to.”
Idaho Steelheads Captain Justin Mercier is a player who brings his intensity and hard work to every game. He has played at the highest level in the NHL with the Colorado Avalanche and has many AHL games behind him. He plays with emotion but has learned how to use it as an advantage rather than a distraction. He leads by example out on the ice.
Justin grew up in Erie, Pennsylvania and started skating when he was about one and a half years old. His father was the first one in his family to play hockey and it was really his Dad who motivated him and inspired him to play the game. He took two years of figure skating before he finally put the pads on and brought the stick to the ice to play hockey at the age of 5. He really feels that his early foundation in figure skating has given him an edge up and helped him make it as far as he has in his career.
“One of my strengths and one of the reasons I think I was able to play at the highest level was because skating was a strength for me. You see it so much with kids these days, their foundation is so important. If you don’t have a strong foundation how are you supposed to build off it, right? I really do feel that the figure skating helped me, absolutely.”
As a diehard Pittsburgh Penguins fan growing up, he looked up to players like Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr, but it was his father who shaped his youth hockey career. He pushed his early development and was a no-nonsense, straight-shooting kind of guy. He was the type of dad who would acknowledge his son’s three goals in a game but be the first to say that he had a bad game. It would be Rick Zombo, the Head coach of the USHL St. Louis Heartland Eagles and former NHL defenceman who pushed Justin to the next level. He made Mercier believe that he could make a career out of playing hockey. Coach Zombo took to the young guys on the team, developed them and gave them a lot of opportunities.
“I played in the USHL as a sixteen year old and I think at the time there were only two other people in the entire league that were 16. Being that young, I was able to power play and penalty kill and he was there every step of the way. When I struggled, he helped me improve and I owe him so much thanks for the opportunity.”
Mercier was drafted by the Colorado Avalanche in 2005 and it came as a bit of a surprise to him. He was humbled and thrilled about being drafted but it was unexpected for him. He had played with several guys, Jack Johnson and Nathan Gerbe to name a few who were first rounders, who had garnered all the media attention during the year. He remembers the moment his agent called him.
“I was down in Florida and playing in a roller hockey tournament. I was flying home and I was by myself just sitting in a Pittsburgh airport and all of a sudden my agent calls me and says ‘Hey Justin you got drafted’. It was obviously so awesome, but it did take me by surprise, I had never been contacted by Colorado but it was definitely exciting.”
After the Draft, Justin went to play with Miami University in Ohio where he really developed as an offensive player. Redhawks Coach Enrico Blasi gave him such a great opportunity, particularly pairing him with skilled guys that cultivated his natural talents. His linemates were 2011 Hobey Baker award winner Andy Miele, San Jose Sharks forward Tommy Wingels and Providence Bruins forward Carter Camper.
“A lot of the time I played with Camper, he was my centerman. He was such a skilled player and he taught me, you know don’t pass up a shot, find the open ice. When you play with guys who have such great vision, it really allowed me to grow and develop my offensive skill, my scoring abilities.”
As a senior, Mercier was named the West Regional MVP and led the Redhawks to the Frozen Four in 2008-09. They ended up losing in overtime 4-3 to Boston University, a tough one to lose but he is happy with the success that he had at Miami University and helping get his team to the Frozen Four, a feat not many can say they’ve experienced.
Eventually, after logging time with the AHL Lake Erie Monsters, Mercier finally got the call-up to the NHL to play with the team who drafted him, the Colorado Avalanche. His first game was against the Minnesota Wild in December of 2009. His next opportunity came in February of 2010 against the Nashville Predators. Playing in his first NHL game gave him a great sense of accomplishment but it was the moment when he scored his first NHL goal against Predators goalie Pekka Rinne, that was when everything clicked for him.
“When I scored my first goal no one could ever take it away from me. It was like in that one moment everything that I had ever worked for, it kind of all made sense. It made me feel like it was all worth it, all the driving and travelling that my parents did.”
Obviously he has the puck from the game against the Nashville Predators where he scored his first goal. It’s hanging on a wall in his parent’s home next to the framed picture and game sheet that the NHL puts together. It’s something his family can be proud of and enjoy while he moves from town to town with his playing career.
This past season brought Mercier to the Idaho Steelheads and he was soon named Captain of the team. It was an honor for him to take the Captaincy, and it really was the first time he’s had the opportunity to take on a leadership role, as he’s always been the young guy on the team. When he went to college, he didn’t wear a letter, which at the time disappointed him, but in retrospect it made sense.
“I think in college I was still trying to grow into myself and become a more mature player. I was one of those guys who wore my emotions on my sleeve and I think it got the better of me sometimes. I think now though it made me who I am.”
He’s been in the game for a long time and he knows that as young as he is, at 26 years old, his time playing is limited. He’s been able to play at the highest level and although he still has aspirations to be there again, what hockey player doesn’t, he wants to give back to the young guys at this point in his career. He feels that if he can help one kid move up to the American League and play for a long time then it was worth it. He wants to set an example and be someone that the younger guys can look up to. When he played with the US Team, Mercier had guys like Phil Kessel and Eric Johnson and then when he went to college he looked up to his senior captain at the time Andy Greene.
“Along the way I’ve had a lot of captains who have really led by example and showed me. Now that I’m in their position I have a lot to look back on to teach me how to act now that I’m in their shoes.”
He has played with so many players and seen guys with a lot of talent who don’t make it and Mercier thinks much of it comes down to work ethic. He says stickhandling is something that you can practice everyday and get better at but work ethic is something ingrained.
“The one thing that I pride myself on, I try to bring the same intensity every day. As the Captain of the Steelheads, I try to get my players to play the same way. I guess that would be my best advice for young guys that have the ability. You are not going to get to the NHL on ability alone. That is something you can’t teach is effort and work ethic. I think if guys can figure that out, I think they can have a lot of success in this game. “
During his playing career, Mercier learned early on that you are not going to score a goal every game and you aren’t going to get points every time you are out on the ice. You have to find ways to contribute to your team even when you aren’t racking up points or goals.
“I’ve really tried to use that as my motto, what am I doing to help my team if I’m not scoring? My skating is one of those things I try to use as one of my strengths. I really try to play a physical style of game where I am constantly trying to put pressure on the other team and bring that kind of intensity to the lineup. I find that that in turn creates a lot of opportunities for myself. I like to play that grinder/ power forward type role.”
His work ethic and intense play has gotten him some goals and attention beyond the ECHL. In early January, Mercier got called back up to the AHL to play with the Iowa Wild. So far he’s played five games with the club and registered 1 assist and 8 penalty minutes. He may not be scoring goals but it’s clear Mercier is making an impact by showing that hard work does pay off. It can get you to the next level, every hockey player’s dream.