Few players enter this year’s WJC with as much scrutiny as American defenceman Jon Merrill. Seldom do we hear of a player making the WJC without having played a competitive hockey game in the past six months; and yet Merrill accomplished that feat. He tallied 25 points in 42 games as a freshman at Michigan University, the fourth highest point total for a freshman in the prestigious school’s history. He was drafted in the 2nd round by the New Jersey Devils. He clearly can play the game of hockey. Unfortunately for Merrill though, it’s off-ice issues that have led to the scrutiny that surrounds him as he enters the biggest hockey tournament of his life. It was those off-ice issues that were the difference between him going in the first round and him getting drafted 38th overall in 2010 by the New Jersey Devils.
For Merrill the problems started during arguably the biggest year of his life: his draft year. Coming off a solid season in the USHL and a part of the prominent US National Development Team, he was all but guaranteed to be summoned on the first day of the draft in Los Angeles. During that year however, Merrill was suspended with three other hockey players, including San Jose Sharks draft pick Matt Nieto, for a hazing incident that took place at Pioneer High School involving female students attending school. The incident, which was never disclosed to the public, reportedly disgusted scouts not only in its nature but how nonchalantly he addressed it during predraft interviews.
His obvious playing ability convinced the New Jersey Devils he was worth the risk, who selected him in the 2nd round. Merrill, who is still a part of the organization, rewarded their faith with his great freshman season at Michigan. Unfortunately that season was the last he’s played of competitive ice hockey. Merrill was suspended again at the start of this season and remains unable to play NCAA games with the team; although he still participates in practices and attends team functions.
Merrill’s Own Words
His hockey story begins at a young age. At 14 years old I was focused on remaining in the corner at school dances. When Jon Merrill was 14 years old, he decided to commit to Michigan. “Ever since I was a kid I’d always been a Michigan Wolverine fan. It was an easy decision for me, and when the opportunity arose for me to play hockey there it was exciting,” said Merrill. Four years later he was drafted by the New Jersey Devils with the 38th overall selection at the 2010 NHL Entry Draft in Los Angeles, and the organization has stuck by him through thick and thin.
“It’s a great honour [getting drafted by the Devils]. They’ve shown me unbelievable support through everything, and [I] couldn’t ask for a better organization.”
His first year at Michigan where he scored at a pace seldom seen by US college hockey defencemen? “We had a lot of veteran leadership that helped out a lot. I was able to step into an already good, established team,” he said.
And perhaps the biggest question, about what Merrill’s learned and internally ingested after the trials and tribulations of the past few months.
“Just not to take anything for granted,” admitted Merrill. “I definitely think I’ve grown up a lot. I’m just looking forward to these next 10 days and hopefully winning a gold medal.”
“With great power comes great responsibility” is a phrase that, truth be told, I saw on a friend’s Facebook status while writing this article. That sentiment applies to Merrill oddly enough. His power is his undeniable ability on the ice, where he has proven himself. His responsibility comes in the form of avoiding mistakes and scandals, something easier said than done. Lou Lamoriello has shown faith in him more than once, but his patience will wear thin should the miscues continue. Merrill says he’s grown up. I hope he’s right. I hope he now understands the way he needs to conduct himself as a professional and as a person. One thing’s certain though, he will be a treat to watch on the ice.
The 2012 WJC are coming to THW. Myself and Chris Ralph have been granted full media access for the duration of the tournament, including all round robin and medal games. Together we will bring breaking news, game analysis, player interviews and stories to THW.
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Salim Valji is based in Edmonton AB, writing about all topics hockey for THW. His work has appeared in the Edmonton Journal, Fox Sports and NHL.com. He is credentialled by the WHL and Hockey Canada and attended the 2011 NHL Entry Draft. He will be covering the 2012 IHHF World Junior Hockey Championship for THW.