By Matt Williams
---- — Seeing the way Jake Kulevich skates, it’s hard to imagine that there was a time when he could hardly walk.
About 16 months before he made his debut on the ice at Colgate University, Kulevich suffered a broken femur from a leg check while playing prep school hockey for the Berkshire School in western Massachusetts. The Marblehead native spent the next three months in a hard cast — running all the way from the hip to the ankle — that basically stopped him from moving around much.
“It was two days before my birthday. I think we had six games left in the season,” Kulevich recalled. “I felt it right above my knee and couldn’t move the leg at all. At first they thought maybe I’d torn the ligaments, but the X-ray shows a big crack in the femur.”
After the bone healed, Kulevich had to rebuild the strength in his hips and legs, the power base for any hockey player. He hooked up with the South Shore Kings of the Eastern Junior Hockey League in part because of trainer Brian McDonough’s help in the rehab process, and he wound up an all-star for the EJHL’s 2012-13 season.
“It was a tough recovery, but when I face adversity now I feel like I’ve been through worse,” Kulevich said. “The off-ice stuff was just as important as on the ice, and that’s what helped with South Shore. I got the muscles back to prepare me for college.”
A few months before the injury, Kulevich had committed to play Division 1 college hockey at Colgate beginning in the 2013-14 season. Though he knew that time was at least a year away, the support of the Raiders’ coaching staff through his injury raised Kulevich’s spirits in a big way.
“At a time with a lot of negatives, that was a big positive,” he said. “You know you’re out for a year and you start thinking beyond that, but I heard from the coaches and they were reassuring. To know they’re by your side 100 percent was great to hear.”
That faith has been rewarded for both Kulevich and the Raiders. The freshman has appeared in 15 of 16 games on defense for Colgate (7-7-2 overall), which is 5-3-1 in ECAC play, good four fourth place and just two games behind first-place Quinnipiac.
Enjoying the hostility
Kulevich has been paired with Colgate captain Spiro Goulakos for the most part and has made the jump to Division 1 college hockey with relative ease. After playing four years of high school hockey (helping Marblehead win the Division 3 state title as a senior in 2011), the year at Berkshire and the season in the EJHL (where he led South Shore defensemen with 21 points) helped tremendously.
“It’s been great. It’s going as well as I could’ve asked for, and I think Berkshire and juniors were big in preparation. It’s a whole other world here in terms of speed and it was good to come in prepared,” said Kulevich.
Kulevich has six assists (tied with Goulakos for the Raider lead among defensemen) and is still looking for his first collegiate goal. He got his first point against Bowling Green back in October, and fondly remembers his collegiate debut against Ferris State.
“I remember when Ferris played BC in the national championship, I was at home watching that game with my buddies. It’s crazy to think now you’re here, playing, finally,” said Kulevich. “You reflect on all the work you put in to get here and you know you have to cherish all the moments and opportunities.”
Even when the opposing fans can’t stand you. In one of his first games at rival Cornell’s famed Lynah Rink (easily one of the best atmospheres in college hockey), fans were throwing toothpaste at the Colgate players. “They’re ruthless, but it’s so much fun,” Kulevich said of the playfully hostile environment. “Those are the kinds of places you want to play — and there’s a lot of them in this league. The crowds are great.”
A 6-foot-3, Kulevich has been working on keeping his stick active and using his reach to take passing lanes away from opposing attackers. He’s also blocked a team-high 25 shots.
“Blocks are huge at this level. I notice that with the puck on my stick at the blue line ... it’s so hard to get shots through, so you want to make it tough on the other guys,” Kulevich said. “Gap control is also huge. You can’t give these players time and space, and you want to get the puck and move it up to our forwards.”
Keeping it simple
Colgate is a relatively young team with only two seniors; the top eight scorers all underclassmen. After a rough start, they’ve come away with points in six of their last eight games, with the lone loss coming to defending national champion Yale.
“It’s a really good group of guys,” said Kulevich. “The whole year will be a learning process. The biggest thing is the margin for error. You have to make hard passes and make sure you’re putting it on the stick. One mistake and the other team’s flying the other way.”
Life in Hamilton, N.Y. has been good for Kulevich so far, though they’ve had snow on the ground for a few weeks and it’s quite cold. Starr Rink is right on campus, which is great for getting students at the games. Kulevich’s dad attends most of the games, and his mom and sisters make it whenever they can, too. He’s looking forward to a trip to Minnesota’s Mariucci Classic in a few weeks, one of the best Christmas tournaments in the country.
“I feel good,” he said. “Classes have been good and as a team we kind of hit our stride in conference play. We want to keep that going, and we’ll do that by working hard every night and controlling what we can control.
“I just have to play a simple game. It’s something they stress at every level — and it’s true.”