Former Buckeye Relishes Opportunity at North Dakota
In October 2015, the Ohio State Buckeyes — still over a year away, at the time, from their first NCAA tournament appearance in eight years — started their season with seven consecutive losses.
Nick Jones was a sophomore at the time, and he played in the first three games of the season, registering no points. A year earlier, as a rookie, he had scored only one goal in 26 games.
Things weren't going well personally, or with the team, and Jones decided to make a change.
"I started my sophomore year there, played a couple of games, and just didn't feel like it was the right fit," said Jones. "I just realized one day that I didn't feel like I was in the right situation, and I was still young enough to be able to go back to juniors, and try to make the most out of going somewhere else."
The Edmonton, Alb., native, who had started his college career at 18, younger than many of his classmates at the time, decided to return closer to home — playing for the Penticton Vees in the BCHL. In the 2015-16 season, Jones scored 21 goals and 63 points in 42 games. That proved to be a preview of what was to come in 2016-17.
As team captain, Jones led the team with 62 points as the Vees — a team featuring many future UND players — won the BCHL championship.
Along the way, an opportunity to return to college hockey came along — this time, at North Dakota, with the chance to join a team that won the national title in 2016, just months after Jones left Ohio State.
"I came into college, and wasn't quite fast enough for the game," Jones said. "I thought the game went real fast. Now, the game's slowed down a little bit, and I'm more comfortable playing center, and I didn't play center much at Ohio State. The opportunity has allowed me to gain more confidence and play the game that I know I can play. I've gotten a lot of opportunity [at North Dakota], and I'm grateful for that."
Through 16 games, Jones is tied for the team lead with five goals, and is second in points (11) for the No. 11 team in the early Pairwise. The breakthrough, for Jones, came a five-game scoreless streak to begin the season.
"I felt I was still playing well, I just wasn't burying my chances," said Jones. "It's been nice. It's a great place to play, and I've really enjoyed my first couple of months. I've been playing with different players. We've kind of been bouncing around different lines. We have such a deep group that you can really play with anyone at any given time and be successful."
The Fighting Hawks host Western Michigan this weekend, looking to snap out of a recent skid. UND has won just once in its last five games and enters the weekend with a three-game winless streak following its loss and tie against Union last weekend.
Jones, despite being a rookie at North Dakota, is a junior. And with experience has come maturity and leadership ability that may prove useful for this young North Dakota team.
"I know we are playing great teams, but to be able to put our game together for 60 minutes, two nights in a row, is something that we need to do," Jones said. "We have spurts where we are really good, and we have to be able to sustain that throughout 60 minutes. When you're playing great teams, when you have any lapses, you're not going to be able to get out of those holes every night. You've got to come ready to play every night.
"I have that experience in that regard. I think it was a little bit of an adjustment for me as well, coming into a new group. Lately I've got my feet under me a little bit, and I've tried to do my role, helping other guys on the team as well."
Clearly, for Jones, there's no lack of commitment — to helping his teammates and his program. He's played in every game this season for North Dakota, quickly up to speed for his second opportunity to play college hockey.
The first time? There didn't seem to be a lack of commitment, either. Just the wrong fit, for a player who committed to play in Columbus not long after he learned to drive.
Still, for Jones, all's well that ends well.
"It probably would have been smarter to take another year to develop," said Jones. "But then I'd probably still be at Ohio State. In that case, I wouldn't be here [at North Dakota], and I'm happy to be here.
"I think everything worked out for the best."