Like a Pro
Northern Michigan D-man Doubles in National Lacrosse League
by Jen Dobias/CHN Reporter
Like any athlete set to make his professional debut, Mitch Jones was a little nervous.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” Jones said. “But it was really fun. The Xcel Center was awesome. I got my feet wet and had a lot of fun.”
Jones didn’t just get his feet wet. Also a standout in lacrosse, he became a rare collegiate hockey player to gain professional experience while still in school when he made his first National Lacrosse League appearance for the Washington Stealth after Northern Michigan closed its 2012-13 season. He played three games for the Stealth, which selected him in the third round (21st overall) of the 2012 NLL Draft, tallying a goal and three assists.
“Getting to play professionally while still in college, it’s something I didn’t expect when I first came to college,” Jones said. “But, after I got drafted, I kind of knew it would happen, and I was really excited to be able to do both.”
The NCAA’s rules are sport specific, meaning that an athlete can play professionally in one sport while still being considered an amateur in another. For Jones, this means that he can suit up for an NLL team in Northern Michigan’s offseason without losing his eligibility.
“I told him if he came here to play college hockey, we’d allow him to play lacrosse at whatever level he could play at when the season is over and in the summer,” Wildcat head coach Walt Kyle said. “I think it’s great. I love when I recruit a kid here and the kid’s a shortstop in baseball or a scratch golfer. When we heard that Mitch was an elite lacrosse player, it excited me. It’s great that he’s getting a chance to pursue both of those things.”
In lacrosse, Jones is a dynamic forward capable of putting up big numbers. He helped the Orangeville Northmen capture the 2012 Minto Cup, given annually to the Canadian Junior ‘A’ champion, posting 67 points (26 goals, 41 assists) in 11 regular season games and scoring 13 points in Orangeville’s first game of the Minto Cup finals alone.
“He’s a big, left-handed offensive shooter,” said Buffalo Bandits General Manager Steve Dietrich. “He sees the game at a different speed than a lot of guys do. He has a lot of natural instincts that aren’t taught.”
Jones is not unusual in being strong at both hockey and lacrosse. Many of the skills translate between the respective sports.
But few continue on at Jones' level.
“A lot of the hand skills, a lot of the thinking parts of the game are similar,” Kyle said. “[Lacrosse is] a similar game in regards to using people around you and supporting the puck or supporting the ball mover. Those things really help Mitch on the ice.”
On the ice, Jones is a puck-moving defenseman who generates plenty of offensive chances for the Wildcats. He’s currently second on his team and third among WCHA defensemen with 20 points (three goals, 17 assists) in 29 games. He has been on the power play since his freshman year but has been particularly effective this season, helping Northern Michigan hover around the 20 percent mark. With 13 (two goals, 11 assists), he’s sixth in the WCHA in power-play points.
But the 6-foot-2 junior has made even bigger strides in his defensive game. Last year, he played up front for most of the season because the Wildcats needed a forward and he had played the position at times during his midget and junior career. This year, he’s back to the blueline, where he’s been more responsible in his own end and stronger on the puck.
“He’s always been a guy who’s a puck-carrying, offensive guy at defense, and a guy that, at times, has not been as efficient defensively as he needs to be,” Kyle said. “He’s made a real effort this year to get better at it, and it shows in his play.”
Over the summer, the Vancouver (formerly Washington) Stealth traded Jones’ rights to the Buffalo Bandits for the 20th pick in the 2013 Entry Draft and a fifth round selection in the 2015 Draft. Buffalo is currently in first place in the Eastern Division, and Jones is excited about joining the organization and watches their games online whenever he has the chance.
And the Bandits are thrilled to have him. The team’s top two left-handed offensive players are in their late-30s and early-40s, and Jones may be their heir apparent. Management considers him a steal and is happy to let him finish his collegiate hockey career.
“We wouldn’t have been able to acquire Mitch for what we did if he was able to play lacrosse full time,” Dietrich said. “When he became available to us, we felt we’d jump on it because, with his pedigree, his background and his skill set, on top of being 22 years old, we felt that he is going to be one of the cornerstone pieces that this franchise is going to build around moving forward.”
But Jones isn’t going to suit up for Buffalo just yet. Northern Michigan is jockeying for position in the WCHA, sitting in eighth place with 21 points. Only six points separate fourth from ninth, and the Wildcats have two games at hand on six of the teams ahead of them, so they know that one big weekend could cause them to rise dramatically in the standings.
As for the future, Jones isn’t sure if he’ll end up playing professional hockey or lacrosse. Right now, he gets the best of both worlds, being able to compete in both sports at a high level. Having played hockey and lacrosse since he was six years old, he paused when asked which he would pick if he was forced to choose between the sports.
“Aw, that’s a question I’ve always been asked, and I don’t know the answer,” Jones said. “During hockey season, I think about hockey 100 percent of the time. In lacrosse season, I think about lacrosse 100 percent of the time. I like them both.”