By Joshua Boyd / NCDCHockey.com
When Jake Stella arrived in North America in 2017-18 to begin a new chapter in his hockey career, he knew little of what he was getting into.
After all, not only was he new to the way the game is played outside of Europe, but he was joining the United States’ newest Tier II Tuition-Free junior league. The National Collegiate Development Conference (NCDC) was founded in 2017 and enjoyed its inaugural season in 2017-18, and Stella was one of the founding member South Shore Kings’ leading lights that first year.
Fast forward six years, and Stella continues to be a leader. Heading into his second season at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell, an NCAA Division I program playing in the Hockey East Association, Stella has been named a Co-Captain for the 2023-24 season as a Graduate Student.
“It’s obviously an honor, and it’s a new thing for me too,” said Stella, a 1998-born native of Karlstad, Sweden. “I’m learning, but so far it’s been awesome and obviously tried to take what I’ve learned from captains I’ve had in my previous years during college. It’s a learning experience for me too, and I’m just open to learning new things and getting to know my teammates a little bit better. It’s definitely an honor being Captain here at UMass-Lowell, it’s very special.”
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Head Coach Norm Bazin, in a UMass-Lowell release at the time of the announcement in April, commented on the decision to give the “C” to both Stella and teammate Ben Meehan, coincidentally a former South Shore Kings youth hockey player.
“Based on player and coaching staff feedback, we are pleased to announce the captains for the 2023-24 season. Ben Meehan and Jake Stella will share responsibilities,” said Bazin. “We feel both of these guys will have a tremendous season leading this team to fulfill their potential and saw no need to wait to make an announcement. These guys will be instrumental in welcoming a new group of freshmen to the team this summer.”
Stella wore an “A” as alternate captain in 2022-23, his first year with the Riverhawks, during which he put up a 4-9-13 line in 39 games.
“It’s honestly not much of a difference, but wearing an ‘A’ or a ‘C’, having both is an honor,” added Stella, who had also worn an “A” with his previous college team at American International College. With AIC, Stella had won the Atlantic Hockey Association’s Defensive Forward Of the Year Award and helped the Yellow Jackets win the AHA regular season title all three seasons he was there, and also the playoff championship leading to AIC’s first-ever NCAA tournament berth in 2022.
“Jake arrived here later in his career. Despite his short tenure, he has gained instant respect from his teammates,” remarked Bazin, in the April team release. “His aggressive approach on the ice reinforces what it means to be hard to play against while making valuable on-ice contributions.”
Stella has quickly taken to Lowell and its team culture, putting himself in front of shots (25 blocks this past season) while also winning 257 faceoffs (52.3 percent). He couldn’t be happier in his new surroundings, while certainly also having enjoyed his time at AIC.
“First of all, I like everything about Lowell, the hockey, the facilities, the fans, the community itself, the academic part, too,” said Stella. “It’s a tight community, stuff to do around here, too. Location-wise, it’s close to Boston. It’s been great. I just wanted to try something new. It was something I needed to do for my development as a player, and it worked out well. It’s been awesome the first year here, and obviously [2023-24 is] going to be a good year, too.”
Coming from a country where crowns hold a special significance (everyone familiar with Sweden knows the Tre Kronor, or Three Crowns, the national emblem), it really comes as no surprise that Stella would be attracted to an organization with a royal theme in the Kings. Of course, it’s been six years since he made his first trip over the Atlantic to play in Foxboro, but he has fond memories of that first NCDC season.
“It’s been a while now, but as I remember, it was a good experience for sure. It was my first year in North America, moving from Sweden, so it was a little bit of an adjustment at first,” said Stella. “I had a great billet who took care of me, couldn’t thank them enough for taking me in. Coaching staff was great, too, teammates were awesome. Of course I didn’t have too many expectations coming into it. It was really fun, had a great time and cerated some really good memories and friendships along the way so I’m grateful for that time.”
As aforementioned, everything was new – Stella to North American, and the NCDC to the hockey world at large. It all worked out fantastically, as he put up a 10-20-30 line in 43 regular season games and was on fire in the inaugural league playoffs, with five points in three games. South Shore fell to the Connecticut Jr. Rangers in three contests that year, the last being decided in overtime.
“I didn’t really know much about the NCDC going into it. It was a path I thought was good to get into college and continue that journey, and it worked out at the end of the day,” said Stella. “I had some people who helped me do some research on it, but I didn’t know much. I just wanted to play hockey at the time and earn a scholarship, and it felt good to go there. It was the right decision at the end of the day.
“It was a smaller rink than back home in Sweden, so you had to make quicker decisions with the puck,” added Stella, about the transition to North American hockey. “It was more physical, so I had to adjust to that too. Some parts of the game I had to adjust to, but I handled it pretty well. There were some areas I had to learn along the way, and I did, so it was good.”
After another season of Tier II hockey played outside the NCDC, he was into the NCAA where once again, he had to make transitions. They have obviously worked out well, given his teammates and coaches have now given him a letter on his chest for a third straight college hockey season.
“I think I’ve grown in most areas of the game, maturing as a player, that’s probably been the biggest thing,” he said. “I came in as a young freshman who didn’t’ know much about college hockey, so player four years so far, I’ve learned a lot and always tried to get better in each area.”
The journey is intense, especially when NCAA student-athletes obviously have to keep up their grades and focus on academics first, but Stella can’t think of any other way he would have had it since 2019.
“There is nothing better than college hockey. It’s an experience of a lifetime,” said Stella. “I’ve created friendships and connections for life. It’s not just hockey, but you get the academic part done, too. You get an education, which is crucial, so you have two of the best things in the world. I’d recommend college hockey to any players in the NCDC, whether it’s Division I or Division III, it is a great experience.”
It may just be summer, but Stella said he and his teammates have just come off a four-week summer program at UML. After visiting family in Pennsylvania for a couple weeks, he will be back on campus shortly and the team will have its first preseason meeting as early as Sept. 4. UMass-Lowell’s first regular season games are Oct. 7-8 against the host University of Alaska at Anchorage. It is one of college hockey’s longest “road trips” (obviously mostly done in the air), but Stella will instill in his teammates the joy of the journey.
The NCDC congratulates Jake Stella on being named as Co-Captain of the 2023-24 Riverhawks!