High Schools Hockey Junior Leagues

HIGH ACHIEVERS: COVID forced Sean James on long road to Mercyhurst U, but led him to discover he wants to be a teacher

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By Martin Cleary

Sean James graduated from Almonte District High School in the class of 2020.

In two months, he’ll make the journey to Erie, Pennsylvania to begin his post-secondary education as an athletic scholarship student at Mercyhurst University. He’s enrolled in the education program and will play for the Lakers men’s hockey team.

But what about those three years between the end of high school and the start of university?

Well, that was a remarkable and productive period for James, now 20, who used that time to build his future as an athlete and find the right direction for himself academically.

In his Grade 12 graduating year, his 2019-20 Eastern Ontario Junior Hockey League (CCHL2) season ended abruptly early in the playoffs as the COVID-19 pandemic scrapped everything. But James made a definite impression in the regular season.

In his only full season with the Westport Rideaus, he was the rookie of the year, leading all first-year skaters with 30 goals, 43 assists and 73 points and placing among the top-10 scorers overall. He also was a second-team all-star on the Richardson Division pennant winners (30-11-1-2).

A member of the Smiths Falls Bears organization, James was promoted to the Central Canada Hockey League team for the 2020-21 season, but it was a year without any games. COVID-19 blew the whistle on that, too, as players were forced to test their patience and motivation.

“My first year in the CCHL was affected by the pandemic so I knew I had to make the most of my 19-year-old season,” he said in a league press release. “I started off the year a little slow because I wasn’t used to the fast-paced play yet and being around the high skill of the talented players around me.”

But his two full seasons in the CCHL with the Bears were filled with numerous outstanding achievements.

In 110 regular-season games, he scored 75 goals and added 104 assists for 179 points, which included a career-best 42 goals along with 44 assists and 86 points in his graduating 2022-23 season. He was the CCHL’s top point scorer for the second consecutive year.

Those statistics along with his relentless work ethic earned him the CCHL’s award as the league’s MVP in 2022 and 2023 as well as a berth on the first all-star team for both seasons. When it came to scoring game-winning goals, he led the league with eight and added 11 power-play markers.

The Bears reached the CCHL championship final, but lost to the Ottawa Jr. Senators in the seventh and decisive game. James counted eight goals and 14 assists in 17 playoff games.

The CCHL also named James its top graduating player and winner of the 3-Star Award for his 21 post-game selections (nine times as first star, eight as second and four as third).

Although he was selected in the third round and 41st overall by the Kingston Frontenacs in the OHL’s 2019 U18 Priority Draft, he determined the university route was best for him. He went to the Frontenacs’ camp for the 2019-20 season, but didn’t make the team.

During his stellar 2021-22 season with the Bears, he attracted plenty of attention from NCAA Division 1 universities. He estimated he talked to about 20 universities and had four or five scholarship offers.

Last year, he committed to attend Mercyhurst University and play for head coach Rick Gotkin, who is entering his 36th consecutive season with the Lakers and is the only coach in NCAA history to lead a team to the NCAA tournament at all three levels (Division 1, 2, and 3).

“Right off the bat, I fell in love with the university,” James said in a phone interview. “They wanted me to play there. During my visit, it’s a small campus and I’m from a small town, Almonte. It felt like home.

“I liked the coaches and it was a nice campus. I’m thankful they offered me a scholarship. It’s a hard decision, when you’re deciding how to spend the next four years of your life. I’m happy with my decision.”

During that three-year gap period, James kept his academic skills sharp by taking some online courses through Athabasca University. But what sold him on studying education at Mercyhurst and chasing the dream of becoming a teacher was the time he spent working with special needs students at Perth District Collegiate Institute.

Whether he was a fill-in or a full-time teacher assistant, he was finding a potential career path by helping others.

“I really enjoyed it. It made me think I’d like to be a teacher,” James continued. “My job was to work in a classroom with special needs kids, who needed support. I started as a sub, if someone was sick. Once the hockey season was over, I worked full-time.

“If they needed help reading or writing, I was there to support them academically. I was in different classes.”

James, who was once cut from an age-group AAA team as well as his first year in U18, admits he’s not the fastest skater on the ice. But he more than makes up for that with his knowledge of the game and where to be at the right moment.

“My best asset is how smart I am out there, my knowledge,” said James, who also has an effective shot, good hockey hands and an improving defensive game. “I’ve put up big numbers, but I’ve made my linemates better. I’m smart enough to make the right play.

“Skating isn’t one of my strengths, but I’ve improved a lot. What I lack in speed I use my brain so I don’t lose a step.”

James, who was thrilled to play with his brother/defenceman Kyle for 20 games last season with the Bears, will head to Mercyhurst with the ultimate goal of becoming a qualified teacher and chase a goal of signing with a professional hockey team.

“Since entering the Bears’ organization in 2018, Sean has continued to develop, grow and mature his game in becoming one of the best players in both the CCHL2 and the CJHL,” Smiths Falls head coach Pat Malloy said in a press release.

“He has succeeded at each level from U18 to junior B (and) finishing with the junior A Bears, where he has represented the organization with his elite on-ice play and off-ice excellence. Sean earned an NCAA D1 scholarship through his dedication and continued development in the CCHL.”

Read More in our 2023 High School Best Series, presented by Louis-Riel Sports-Études, as we tip our caps to top local student-athletes at: OttawaSportsPages.ca/Ottawa-High-School-Best-2023

Martin Cleary has written about amateur sports for 50 years. A past Canadian sportswriter of the year and Ottawa Sports Awards Lifetime Achievement in Sport Media honouree, Martin retired from full-time work at the Ottawa Citizen in 2012, but continued to write a bi-weekly “High Achievers” column for the Citizen/Sun.

When the pandemic struck, Martin created the High Achievers “Stay-Safe Edition” to provide some positive news during tough times, via his Twitter account at first and now here at OttawaSportsPages.ca.

Martin can be reached by e-mail at martincleary51@gmail.com and on Twitter @martincleary.

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