MASON CITY, Iowa – North Iowa Bulls defenseman Sean Vlasich knows what it means to lead the way.
He knew he’d be a leader on this season’s Bulls roster, after landing a spot in last season’s North American Hockey League Top Prospects showcase. He wound up being the leader for the Bulls, earning a captaincy role on the team in November and earning a commitment to the United States Military Academy at West Point just weeks later.
After an outstanding high school career at Northern Highlands High School in his native New Jersey that saw him post 119 points in four years, and a brief stint in the junior ranks in New Jersey, Vlasich jumped right to the North American Hockey League with the Amarillo Bulls in the 2020-21 campaign. He made a solid impression in his first full season of junior hockey, with 18 points and a spot on the South Division’s All-Rookie team at the end of the year.
2021-22 brought some transitions for the Upper Saddle River, New Jersey product – as the news broke in early March of the Amarillo Bulls’ relocation to Mason City, that meant a change to a new town in a new state, and a new division of the NAHL with an all-new look to the on-ice action.
“In the South Division last year, it was very heavy,” said Vlasich. “There was a lot of hitting going on, and I wouldn’t say there was as much space to move around with the puck. Here, it’s a lot more offensive, a lot faster-paced game. It’s back-and-forth odd-man rushes and just going up and down the ice, a lot quicker. There’s not a lot of playing in one zone and then playing in the other – the change in style was probably the biggest change for me.”
The middle of November saw a change in leadership in the North Iowa locker room – as Ryan Coughlin and Chris Carroll moved east to join the New Jersey Titans, Vlasich took over the leadership role and the very visible captain’s “C” on the jersey.
“Obviously, I had to take a bigger leadership role for the team, but it didn’t change much,” said Vlasich. “I was already wearing an ‘A’ (as an alternate captain). It was taking on a little bit more, and a little stronger, leadership role and a mentorship role for some of the younger guys, to help them come up, helping Coach (Todd Sanden) run practices and games and off-ice things the way he wanted it to be done. I can pump up guys before games and get them going, but my strongest leadership quality is leading by example with hard work on and off the ice, and you can back everything up there. If you’re not doing what you’re asking of your teammates, it’s hard to lead anything.”
Over the New Year’s break, Vlasich announced his commitment to Army, North Iowa’s third NCAA Division I commitment in its NAHL era. It’s a commitment that goes well beyond the average college commitment – upon graduation, Vlasich will be commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the United States Army and must serve five years of active service and three more in Reserve Component Service. He’s the second North Iowa Bull to put on the Army black-and-gold, but the first to do so at the NCAA level – Forest City native Jaxon Jones recently wrapped up his senior season as a defenseman on West Point’s ACHA Division II roster.
Vlasich will also become the first North Iowa alumnus to play for head coach Brian Riley, who led the Black Knights to 14 wins this past season. The Riley family is one of college hockey’s most storied legacies in and of itself, with a Riley at the helm of the Army hockey program every season since 1950. Brian Riley’s father, Jack Riley, led the United States Olympic team to its first-ever gold medal in hockey at the 1960 Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley, California.
Moving on to a United States service academy means there are a few details that must be tended to first.
“It’s a lot of paperwork, getting everything filed through with background checks, fingerprints, getting my birth certificate in, and I finished the application a couple of months ago, which was some essays and some other school stuff,” said Vlasich. “There’s not as much packing, because they provide everything in that sense. It’s a lot of off-ice training for boot camp and everything they put you through there, on-ice training for the hockey season, and getting back into the school mindset, since I’ve been out of school for three years now, re-learning some of the things I learned over the years from high school and making sure I’ve got everything filed the right way so I don’t have any issues when I get there.”
His summer break ends significantly earlier than most, as he heads to Cadet Basic Training at the end of June.
“I’m really excited for it. It’s going to be a lot of new experiences, and I’m a little nervous about it, but I’m excited to get there.”