McKeen's correspondent Kevin Wey interviews USA U-18 left-winger Blake Pietila, who exploded for 5 goals and 2 assists in 4 games at the Five Nations Cup in February and could follow it up with a strong performance at the World Under-18 Championships.
McKeen's: You guys are almost done with your USHL season, just one more game, and the college aspect of your schedule was finished again UAH (University of Alabama-Huntsville) last month. So, how would you say the team has done in USHL play and also in NCAA play this season?
Pietila: USHL? At the beginning of the year we were up and down. We weren't really consistent. Toward the end of the year, up until this weekend, we had a 12-game winning streak going, so we were playing much better. The winning steak and us playing better has come with the adversity of the year and the ups and downs and playing together as a group. So, I think that's helped us a lot, including losing against all of the college teams.
McKeen's: In February you guys fared pretty well at the Five Nations Cup and won all four of your games and the team exploded offensively, and you particularly put up some pretty good numbers there. What were the keys to your personal success there?
Pietila: It's just a whole different game over there. The teams play a lot different style. It's on Olympic ice. I don't want to say the teams weren't as good, but it's a different kind of game. We haven't lost but one game against our own age group internationally, so, as a group, we've been doing really well.
McKeen's: Back in January, Central Scouting released their mid-term rankings and they had you as 112th overall amongst North American skaters. What was your reaction to that?
Pietila: It is what it is. I certainly didn't get down over it. Obviously, everyone wants to be as high as they can be. Mid-term ranking, that left me half a year to raise it up. I took it in stride. I wasn't satisfied with it, but it is what it is.
McKeen's: For those who have not seen you play, what would you say is the style you play and also the strengths of your game?
Pietila: Style of play? I'd say power forward. I like to get in and forecheck and hits guys and keep my feet moving. I think I'm playing at my best when I'm doing that and playing a physical game.
McKeen's: In my personal opinion, of the 1993s as a group, from the beginning of last year and the course of this year, you're probably the most improved player over that course of time. So, in what areas do you feel you've developed the most in your time at The Program and what's helped you pick it up?
Pietila: I think it all started in the summer. I worked out with a guy named Chris Ramberg, where I live in Brighton, Michigan. He helped me a lot with my speed and conditioning. I think that was a weakness last year, my conditioning. I would get tired toward the end of the games. This year, I think that's been a lot better. From Cedar Rapids until now? I guess that comes down to it getting down to the end of the year and trying to make the team for the World Under-18 Championships. That's been a huge motivation to step my game up and play a lot better.
McKeen's: As you mentioned, you've gotten faster with your top speed, you're more explosive, and you have more quickness. Going into college hockey, what areas of your game do you feel you need to focus on improving to help find success at the next level?
Pietila: I think it's still my speed and quickness, getting that extra half step to beat d-men wide and keep my feet moving in the offensive zone. I think my strength is there, it's just the speed and quickness.
McKeen's: At first, it looked like you'd be going to Northern Michigan, where your brother [Chad Pietila] was playing at the time. He has since left the team and now you're committed to Michigan Tech, where your cousin [Aaron Pietila] plays, if I remember right.
Pietila: Yep. Actually, my brother has transferred up there. That was a huge motivation to transfer up there. I always wanted to play with him. With him transferring, I'll still play a year and a half with him. And, my cousin Aaron, he's a sophomore. Well, he'll be a junior next year. So, that should be fun to play with those two.
McKeen's: Besides the family ties, what other things drew you to Michigan Tech?
Pietila: I've always, with my family, always gone on vacation up there. I love it up there. The snow's not too big of a factor for me. We're always up there for two weeks on vacation every year. I actually have a lot of family up there, too. I guess I just love being up there.
McKeen's: With Michigan Tech, they had a bit of a rough year this year, but they had a team full of underclassmen, especially a lot of freshman. With that, what do you foresee your role being with the Huskies next year?
Pietila: I'm not sure at this point. I'd like to step in and do as much as I can. Whatever role they put me in, I'm going to do my best to fulfill that. We'll see how it goes.
McKeen's: Any chance you play in the USHL or is that pretty much off the table?
Pietila: Well, actually, the coach, Jamie Russell, just stepped down. They don't have a coach at this point. But, as of right now, I'm hoping to step in and play next year.
McKeen's: I'd say you have a decent chance of that. You were selected by Windsor of the OHL Priority Selection. Do they still hold your rights?
McKeen's: Do you foresee any potential pressure from an NHL team to go the major junior route and would you consider it?
Pietila: I guess if an NHL team that drafts me wants me to go there, I guess that's a possibility. But, if that doesn't happen (pauses)? I was looking at it before I made this national team, but at this point I don't see that as an option unless an NHL team would want me to do it.
McKeen's: Last year, the team struggled against USHL competition. What was it like adjusting to USHL competition last season and, similarly, what was it like this year adjusting to the collegiate competition?
Pietila: It was basically doing the same thing over. The college teams are just another step up. I think at the end of last year we were playing better, as far as the speed of the game. This year, we knew what to expect with another step up with the college teams. It was just the whole thing over again.
McKeen's: Now, for the 1995s, their Evaluation Camp is upon us. Looking back two years ago, what was it like for you being recruited to The Program and skating at the Evaluation Camp?
Pietila: Even making the camp is a big accomplishment. Going in, I guess everyone is a little nervous to impress the coaches and try to make the team. It was a long camp, a lot of hard work, but in the end, everyone who makes it should be happy with their game.
McKeen's: Going back to the beginning of your hockey career, when did you first start playing and how did you get that start?
Pietila: I want to say I was three or four. My dad got me playing in the backyard. He used to make a rink every winter with just some homemade boards. So, that's how he got me going and I've been going ever since.
McKeen's: Prior to playing for The Program, you played a number of years with Compuware. Some guys in the Detroit area, or the Chicago area, bounce from organizations a lot. So, what was it that made you stick with one program?
Pietila: Compuware, we always had a good team. Every year, we were only losing a handful of games. We always had a good team, and Derek Szajner, our head coach, was fantastic. I loved playing for him. The group of guys we had, especially my minor midget year, was awesome. These two years have been pretty fun, but those years with Compuware were a lot of fun and I really enjoyed them.
McKeen's: What organizations did you skate for prior to playing for Compuware?
Pietila: I played with the Kensington Valley Rebels when I was real little, and then Derek Szajner recruited me to play on the Battalion. It was a team that played out of Compuware. I played for them for a year and then we eventually moved up to be a team for Compuware.
McKeen's: What age group was your time with the Battalion?
Pietila: That was squirts and the first year of pee wee.
McKeen's: Looking forward to the World Under-18s, what would you say are the strengths of this team but then also the areas that the team needs to improve upon or really focus on to ensure you guys have success?
Pietila: Coach [Ron] Ralston gets on us all the time about playing to our strengths and using our ingredients and playing the way we can play. Getting pucks deep, not playing a fancy style game, and playing physical. That's when we're playing our best. If we stick to that, we should have a good tournament.
McKeen's: Of all your teammates at The Program over the course of the past two years, who has impressed you the most and why?
Pietila: I would have to say Rocco Grimaldi or Tyler Biggs. Rocco's highly skilled, a very, very good skater, and he can change a game by himself. He's a (pauses)? I don't even know how to explain it. He's fun to watch? Then, Tyler Biggs, he's a power forward, and when he gets going, he's also fun to watch. He can run guys over and get to the net. He certainly plays a power forward style game.
McKeen's: I was able to talk to Mario Lucia up in Minnesota during his high school season, and those were the two guys he mentioned. He was like, "Biggs, he's just a beast."
Pietila: Yeah. He's scary to play against, even in practice.
McKeen's: To round things out, on a softball question, who were some of your favorite players growing up and why and who are some players today who you feel you're similar to or that you'd like to equate to?
Pietila: Growing up, I always watched the Wings. I loved Darren McCarty. He had a little bit of skill I guess, but he had his physical play and his fighting, and then the rivalries with Colorado were always fun. Then, today, Johan Franzen. He's one of my favorite players on the Wings. I think I play very similar to him. He's got skill and he's a power forward and I think that's what I am.