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Something no one can take away

By Peter Odney , 04/17/24, 12:30PM CDT


Originally from Grand Rapids, Justin Kerr found his confidence - and Division I interest - first on the outskirts of St. Louis and then in the North American Hockey League.

Justin Kerr's hockey career has taken him from Minnesota, to Missouri, and now to Texas. He's verbally committed to play for Bowling Green when he makes the jump from junior hockey to Division I. Photo credit: Candice Bryan/Clicks by Candice.

At least on paper, the geographic springboard for Justin Kerr's hockey career should have been his hometown of Grand Rapids, Minnesota.

The Thunderhawks have been a state hockey prep power for nearly as long as high schoolers have played organized games, winning three state championships in seven years from 1975-1980 and another in 2017. The Thunderhawks have also finished as state runner-up five times. The program has produced a dozen Mr. Hockey finalists, including 2014 winner Avery Peterson and 2021 winner Jack Peart. At least five former Thunderhawks have played in the National Hockey League, and numerous players have suited up in the collegiate ranks.

So the fact that it took a move 447 miles due south for Kerr to realize his dreams of college hockey - and to blossom into a late riser in the 2024 NHL Draft process - is a journey worth charting.

This story illustrates how a 6-foot-4, 210-pound workhorse forward with a scoring touch found his game, his confidence, and his opportunity in the Show-Me State. 

Before he turned into a Division I prospect in Missouri, Kerr was a three-year varsity player for the storied Grand Rapids program. Photo courtesy of Justin Kerr.

It took Kyle O'Kane thirty minutes to decide Justin Kerr could play Division I hockey.

The former Director of Player Personnel and current coach for CarShield AAA Hockey's Under-18 team first saw Kerr flash across his laptop screen as he watched a nimble giant carve through defenses. 

"He played a pretty physical game in the videos that I saw when he was playing," O'Kane said in a recent phone conversation. "I thought that our staff, with what we can do in his development year with us, we can help get him there," O'Kane said. "But when you see a kid that size that can handle the puck and skate, there's no doubt I thought he was a Division I prospect."

That's where O'Kane's opinion of Kerr differed from the rest of the hockey world.

Despite a solid performance of eight goals and 11 points during the fall of 2021 in the loaded Upper Midwest High School Elite League, including a hat trick in one game, Kerr's iPhone XR didn't buzz with any calls or texts from college or junior coaches. 

"I talked to one junior team maybe twice in my high school career," Kerr said of his recruitment during his senior season, his third tour of duty with the Grand Rapids varsity. "I really didn't talk to anyone until maybe the summer after my senior year, and it was more of just, like, 'hey, come out to this predraft (camp),'" Kerr said. "You'd get a few main camp invites through the mail, but that was pretty much it. That's all I kind of heard."

After a senior season that included 12 goals and 22 points for a Grand Rapids team that bowed out during the Class AA, Section 8 playoffs, the most interest Kerr got came from a team in the National Collegiate Development Conference. The NCDC has grown in recent years to include teams from the Atlantic coast, New England, and a Mountain Division with teams from Wyoming, Colorado, Idaho, and Utah. 

The NA3HL's Granite City Lumberjacks also had mild interest, but the offer to play for CarShield's 18U team proved to be Kerr's best chance to develop towards the next level. 

There's a lot of people in AAA that can get advanced (to college hockey)," Kerr explained. (In the) NA3, you're fighting for a lineup spot every night. It's a junior experience, whereas at CarShield, I can go there and get a lot of games in. I can kind of work on my play style and develop more, in my opinion," Kerr continued, adding that while junior hockey can develop players, it comes with an expectation of production, sometimes at the expense of individual development. 

With CarShield, Kerr was able to refine pieces of his game that needed work, such as his skating, which he says required improvement. But part of Kerr's development after moving to Missouri involved the mental side of the game - namely, his confidence. 

"Confidence was the thing I struggled with throughout high school just because I wasn't always producing," Kerr explained. "It's hard when you're not producing to keep that confidence level up. I felt like I should have done more with the opportunities I was given. I worked hard, worked hard for everything, so I should have produced more, in my opinion."

O'Kane says that CarShield's daily practices and workouts played a crucial role in helping Kerr's trust in himself. 

"I think he needed to learn the daily habits of what it takes, and I think he just needed a little bit of belief in himself," O'Kane said. "I think we did a really good job of instilling some confidence in him, and he just kind of took off after the first couple of months," O'Kane added. "After the first couple of months of the season, I was calling Division I teams. And now, we're going to watch him blossom."

Before becoming a 20-goal scorer for the Lone Star Brahmas, Justin Kerr was a standout forward for the CarShield AAA 18U team. Photo courtesy of Justin Kerr.

O'Kane describes a single play from that showcase as the bellwether moment for Kerr, where he bullied his way past a defender, turned on the jets, and deposited the puck around a sprawling netminder. 

"I was like, that was a Division I goal," O'Kane says, chuckling at the memory. "Those are things they teach NHLers and Division I guys that size to be able to skate, protect the puck, drive it to the far post. And not only that, to tuck it in? I bet you after that game, I had 15 NA teams lined up, ready to talk to him and offer him."  

A rapidly improving set of hockey tools and a coach willing to beat the bushes to find a place for his players were the building blocks of what would become Kerr's new normal. After a standout performance during a 2022 September showcase, the cell phone that might as well have been a nightlight during his senior year started to explode, with coaches showing interest. 

"I mean, it's a great feeling," Kerr said of the avalanche of attention that followed the showcase game. "It's a big confidence booster too when you have people always wanting to talk to you, and it keeps pushing you forward, makes you work even harder too."

Kerr also mentions a set of games played against Northstar Christian Academy in Alexandria, Minn., that solidified his belief that he could compete - and thrive - at the next level. 

"(Northstar) is obviously a really good team, and I ended up having four points against them," Kerr said. "After that game, I'm thinking, okay, I can play after (this level). I'm betting on myself."

Justin Kerr scores for the Lone Star Brahmas. Photo credit: Candice Bryan/Clicks by Candice.

The bet has paid off this season, as Kerr has currently totaled 22 goals and 44 points in 58 games for the North American Hockey League's Lone Star Brahmas, with his 22 tallies tied for the team lead. When his junior career is over, a Division I scholarship to Bowling Green awaits. 

Everything Kerr dreamed about on the ride from Grand Rapids to Chesterfield and then to the Dallas suburbs is coming to fruition. 

And for Kerr, the numerous bumps in the road will only make the destination sweeter. 

"I'm going to go into every season, everything, just not caring what other people think of me, what other people are going to think of me," Kerr said.

"I'm just going to play hard and make sure no one can take that away from me."

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