Last Frontier beckons Freeport hockey standout

| Saturday, April 19, 2014, 5:07 p.m.

Firing blistering slap shots and wicked wrist shots that often found the back of the net was a common practice for senior Cole Hepler while he was playing hockey at Freeport.

While his days of scoring on goaltenders in the PIHL are over, he will look to make life tough on goalies over 4,000 miles away. Hepler has signed a tender with the Kenai River Brown Bears of the North American Hockey League in Kenai, Alaska.

Scouts from Kenai noticed Hepler while he was playing with the Esmark Stars 18-under team of the North American Prospects Hockey League.

“They were the only team that took interest in me,” Hepler said. “I was excited I got the opportunity.”

Becoming bigger, stronger and faster is the goal for Hepler until he arrives in camp in mid-August. Once he arrives, all he wants is a chance to showcase his skill set, which was good enough for third place in the PIHL Class A scoring race with 54 points (32 goals and 22 assists).

“I'm just looking to get some playing time and develop myself as a player,” he said. “Also, to show that a small kid from a small school can work hard and make it to the next level.”

Life in Alaska will take some getting used to for Hepler. He will be living with a host family who will provide food and transportation to and from practice. Luckily for Hepler, he isn't the first in his family to go through such an experience. Brothers Zach and Jeremy Hepler competed in the Ontario Junior Hockey League, providing valuable knowledge and advice for Cole.

“They told me just to work hard and prove myself as a player,” Hepler said. “Working hard is the main thing. That's how we were taught to do things, and that's our motto.”

The path to glory doesn't end with playing at the NAHL. Hepler's talents will again be on display for college teams that venture to watch games. Playing at the collegiate level is the main goal for Hepler after finishing junior hockey. Hepler will maintain his amateur eligibility while playing in the NAHL.

Freeport coach Dave Hepler was pleased and excited for his son's opportunity.

“I think he will do fine,” Dave Hepler said. “He's always been able to score. He's a good player. He got noticed. He did it out on the ice. People noticed what he can do and how he plays.”

D.J. Vasil is a freelance writer.

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