GRAND RAPIDS, Minn. — Jack Peart was in a unique position, particularly with the hockey season being played during the coronavirus pandemic.
Because of the pandemic, roster spots for high school age players on junior teams have been harder to come by.
At 17, Peart was playing on the top defensive pairing for the Fargo Force and is tied for the the United States Hockey League lead in assists by a rookie with 11 in 16 games. Fargo is 11-3-2-0 and tied for the most points in the league.
Peart, who has signed a National Letter of Intent to play for St. Cloud State next season, has decided to leave the Force for a few months. He took part in his first practice for the Grand Rapids High School boys hockey team when the Thunderhawks practiced for the first time on Monday.
"I drove back on Sunday afternoon," Peart said. "I've kind of always wanted to finish what I started in Grand Rapids. It's my senior year and my thought is that I'll never really get it back. I've never gone to a state tournament with this team and I'd love to get one more shot at it.
"It was a really tough decision. I'm just fortunate that there was a (high school) season and will get one more chance to go back to the state tournament."
In the preseason NHL Central Scouting ratings, Peart received a "C" rating among North American skaters. A "C" rating for skaters typically projects them to be taken between the fourth and sixth rounds of the draft. Cary Eades is the Fargo Force President of Hockey Operations and general manager and coached at the high school (Warroad), college (University of North Dakota assistant) and in the USHL for 35 years.
Eades says that early rating of Peart may be much lower than the 5-foot-11, 181-pound defenseman may be taken in the NHL Entry Draft.
"He plays beyond his years," Eades said. "He has a savvy about him, a hockey sense. For not being a huge guy, he's very good at protecting pucks. With his leverage, it's really hard to get the puck away from him. He uses the same leverage and angle of attack when pursing the puck.
"He has tremendous vision, makes great passes. In our minds, he has a first round NHL Draft pick capabilities. He was on track for that and I don't want to put words in anyone's mouth, but we'll see what this move back to high school does. There's been plenty of high school players taken in the first round and others that have dropped. Time will tell."
- Jack Peart was 1 of 3 players to sign an NLI with SCSU in the fall. Another was Force teammate Mason Salquist
With the Force
Peart, who turns 18 on May 15, played for the Force on Saturday, Jan. 2, a 4-1 Fargo home win over Sioux Falls and had two shots on goal, a minor penalty and was a plus-1. On Sunday afternoon, he drove back home to Grand Rapids.
"He's a phenomenal player, has a great future ahead of him," Eades said. "He's soaked up all the coaching, video review and practice sessions. He's been a real dominant player at our level.
"We're disappointed with it," Eades said of Peart's decision. "But having coached at Warroad a lot of years, I understand the high school hockey experience and the pressures there are on a young man to play through high school. There's a lot of pieces to it. In the end, Jack can only play at one place right now and that's what he decided."
Peart said that he had regular conversations with Fargo coach Pierre-Paul Lamoureux about what he was planning to do. He also said that he picked up a lot from the coaching staff.
"I feel like I'm so much better than when I first got there," said Peart, who played five games with the Force after the high school season ended in 2019-20. "That's what that league is there to do. I'm really happy with my experience there. Getting to play with so many great guys and great hockey players, it was unbelievable.
"I feel like I've gotten a lot stronger. As the game gets faster, you've got to move the puck faster and you learn that side of the game. There's a lot of good forwards, so you have to learn a new defensive side of the game, too. My defensive game has gotten a lot better."
Eades estimated that Peart was playing an average of 24-26 minutes-per-game for the Force, which included time on the penalty kill and power play.
"If he could breathe, he was back out there," Eades said.
But Eades also said that he spoke with Lamoureaux and his coaching staff after one game about not playing Peart too much.
"One game, we lost a defenseman (to an injury) mid-game and he played 30 minutes," Eades said. "I actually talked to the staff ... 30 (minutes) out of 60 may have been pushing it. But it was strange circumstances. We tried to monitor it from there."
Peart said that he appreciated all the trust that Lamoureaux and his staff have in him.
"He's a great coach, very knowledgeable and he taught me so many things," Peart said. "I thank him for every opportunity I was given there. Hopefully, I will be back there to help them take a run at the Clark Cup."
The Clark Cup is the playoff title in the USHL. Grand Rapids has 17 games on its schedule with the season-opener on Jan. 14 at Cloquet-Esko-Carlton and the last regular season game is on March 16 at Duluth Denfeld. Fargo is scheduled to play its last regular season game on April 24 at Sioux City.
Thunderhawks have 10 seniors
Peart rejoins a Grand Rapids team that was 18-8-1 last season and reached the Section 7AA semifinals, losing 3-1 to Elk River. Peart will be one of 10 seniors on the Thunderhawks roster after leading the team in goals (13), points (31), power-play goals (5), power-play assists (5) and blocked shots (45).
"It was good to see everyone back on the ice," Peart said of his high school teammates on Monday. "We have a lot of kids returning from last year and we're a pretty experienced team. "We have a really strong forward and defense crew. We had something like 10 guys play in the (fall Upper Midwest) Elite League and we should have a really strong team."
Peart, not surprisingly, is the team's captain.
"I try to be a leader, but we have a good group and there are a lot of leaders on our team," he said. "With my presence being back there — I don't know if a lot of guys knew I was coming back. I think it was a sigh of relief for them. I'm happy to be back with them."
Grand Rapids coach Wade Chiodo said that he did not find out about Peart's decision until last weekend.
"Obviously, as a community and as a program, we were real excited to have our captain back," he said. It's great news.
"These guys playing together since they were 4 years old and it's a really close-knit team. They had that smirk on their face that they're extremely excited. Kids don't show much emotion. But that smirk on their face, said, 'We've got our captain back.'"
Whenever Peart becomes available, Eades said there is "no question" he will be welcomed back to Fargo.
"We have three players on our team who played college hockey last year," Eades said. "It was like a freshman class of hockey and he seemed to thrive on that and he adjusted to that. He just kept getting better and better.
"Having Jack Peart on your team makes you a better team. He's a great teammate, a great young man, very coachable and pleasant to have around."