MASON CITY, Iowa – When Greg Japchen came to the North Iowa Bulls at the start of this past season, he came in with a certain amount of weight already off of his shoulders.
As a second-year North American Hockey League defenseman – and a strong two-way blueliner at that – he would no doubt have plenty of responsibility on his shoulders in his final season of junior hockey.
The college commitment, though? That was already taken care of with a decision in February of last year to attend NCAA Division I Union College. In just a few months, he’ll begin his freshman season at the campus of 2,200 students in Schenectady, New York.
His story in the sport begins just a 25-mile jaunt north of Philadelphia, in his hometown of Doylestown – after coming up through the Philly Little Flyers program, he enjoyed a few early cups of coffee around the junior hockey world during the 2017-18 and 2018-19 seasons. There were a couple of NAHL stints with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Knights, and a couple of brief USHL looks with the Omaha Lancers and Madison Capitols. There was even a short stretch with a junior team on Long Island.
In 2019-20, though, Japchen caught on with a team in Brooks, Alberta. His stay with the Bandits was a productive one, posting 11 points in the Alberta Junior Hockey League in his first full year of junior hockey.
“It’s a softer league, just a lot more skill and speed,” said Japchen. “There are a lot fewer systems – in the NAHL, there are a lot of systems, trying to play really smart and conservative.”
As COVID struck, teams across the junior hockey landscape saw the remainder of their seasons evaporate, but opportunities in Canada were limited going into the next season as well. By the start of the new season, Japchen had found a new home with the Amarillo Bulls. He remained in the Texas Panhandle for the 2020-21 campaign, notching 13 goals and 13 assists in his first full season back in the States.
“It’s really nice when you have that sense of comfort, that you know you’re in a place where you’re going to stay for a little bit,” said Japchen. “In junior hockey, you can bounce around with a suitcase a lot of the time, depending on if you can find a good place where you can stick in the lineup.”
Just weeks after the news broke of Japchen’s commitment to Union, more news broke of the Amarillo Bulls’ relocation to Mason City. For Japchen, this move meant staying in the organization, but it also meant new surroundings and a new coaching staff.
“The biggest feeling for me was shell-shock, because it doesn’t happen very often,” said Japchen. “It was cool, though – I liked the chance to be in a smaller town where I could have more interaction with the fans. You’re in the environment a lot more – you’re in town helping with community service, stuff like that, so it’s nice to have that change.”
Moving out of the physical South Division into a more wide-open Central circuit, Japchen was able to tack on 27 more points this past season, including 11 goals. He got off to a red-hot start, notching three goals at the NAHL Showcase in Blaine, Minnesota, including two against the new Amarillo Wranglers franchise. Another goal followed the next week, in a high-scoring win over the Aberdeen Wings. He even notched a goal in his 100th NAHL game, a February road victory against the Springfield Jr. Blues in February.
So what’s next now that the junior career is over and Schenectady is the next stop?
“There’s going to be a lot of time in the gym, a lot of time on the ice, making sure I get back into the swing of things doing schoolwork,” said Japchen. “Union is in the ECAC, and we play all of the Ivy League schools, so it’s a really good conference. Honestly, I think it’s one of the more underrated conferences out of all of college hockey. It’s great competition.”