AROUND THE LEAGUE: Captain Air Force

by Manny Brizuela, WSHL

(Headshot of Erich Jaeger courtesy of Dave Toller)

Nikita Sheptytskyy drove the puck down the wing and back-handed a pass across the slot that met Erich Jaeger’s tape and then found the back of the net.  

That’s how Jaeger recalls sinking his first overtime game-winner to seal the deal against the Ogden Mustangs in 2013. The Missoula Maulers were staring down the barrel of overtime after losing the night before and Jaeger made sure of a different result the following November night.

It was his fondest memory of playing in the WSHL, one that the Maulers helped flourish, even after so many years.

“The Missoula Maulers was an awesome organization,” Jaeger said. “The support that the community gave was phenomenal. The games were crazy it was so much fun to play there.”

The connection between Jaeger and the Maulers was first made in Mass. His father was a good friend of Paul Baxter who attended the same church and whose son, Marcus Baxter, coached the Maulers. Well it was right around the same time that Jaeger was looking for a team the summer before his senior year of high school. 

During those years, if the Idaho Jr. Steelheads were recruiting a player with interest in the WSHL, the prospect’s answer would be a resounding ‘Yes.’ Jaeger didn’t see it that way when the Steelheads showed interest in him. Instead, he decided to play under Marcus Baxter and go to the same city his father attended college in—Missoula.

“I had a lot of confidence going into that year,” Jaeger said. “I was driven and I really wanted to move on and play college hockey so I wanted to do well that year [in the WSHL].”

What happened next resulted in life-long friendships, opportunity, and of course, an overtime game winner. 

(Photo of Missoula Maulers, white, by Mark Mauno, WSHL)

“It was really fun especially as a senior in high school,” Jaeger said. “A lot of teams will do online school, but for some reason, everyone on our team went to the local high school in town. School my senior year was a blast with all the guys on my team.”

Saturdays were always for the boys and so were the weekdays but in an educational environment. The Maulers had several things going for them but it definitely was a unique touch to have the team study together.         

“Having Marcus as a coach was really helpful,” Jaeger said. “He was really good for my development, more as a person than a player, and I think that was the most important part for me as a senior in high school.”  

Jaeger had a stellar single season in Missoula putting up 16G-22A-38Pts. in 45 games. You can bet that the more heated games were against the Steelheads who wound up sweeping the season series. Although the Maulers couldn’t decipher the Steelheads for a winning formula, it was the pure rivalry that kept it enjoyable. He had points in 11 of his last 13 games for the Maulers, with the final one being against the Seattle Totems in 2014.

Jaeger started his junior career in the WSHL and is a prime example of an individual who doesn’t let stigmas blur his line of sight. His dad’s good friend, Paul, coached the Wichita Falls Wildcats of the NAHL and felt Jaeger could be a role player on his squad.

But he was the only player from the WSHL. 

“There’s always something about that where each league has its own subjectivity,” Jaeger laughingly said. “You see the USHL guys and they think they are really something. You see the NAHLers and they are down to earth guys. People heard that I came from the WSHL but at the end of the day it doesn’t matter where you come from.”

“If you’re a Western States guy and that brings you down in confidence, you’re just proving the stigmas correct. A lot of people didn’t realize I came from the WSHL and after the season some guys started finding out, and if anything, a lot of them were surprised. If you’re getting it done on the ice no one will care.”    

Jaeger is going into his senior season as captain of Air Force Academy’s D-I hockey team. He has shared many successful moments in three seasons with the academy, most memorably, defeating St. Cloud State in the West Regional in 2018. The two-time AHA Champion has 4G-14A-18Pts. in three years and his first goal was against Bentley.

Photo of Jaeger courtesy of Dave Toller)

People will always tell you the cliché response when asked about what it’s like to play Division-I hockey—it’s much faster. Jaeger noticed how meticulous the game is as far as maintaining your health.

“It took me a while to find out what my playing weight was,” Jaeger said. “Growing up I was a small guy so I never really worried about it. I ate whatever I wanted, worked out and skated. I got to the NAHL and I started putting on more weight, maturing wise. By the time I got to college I had to watch what I ate a lot more. It took me a while to figure out what weight I was most effective at.”

From the time Jaeger started in Missoula he was about 5’8 and was 6’2” when college came around. It was a different battle in trying to balance the weight without sacrificing athleticism. Jaeger admitted it was rather hard on him to keep all his same skills while also growing a lot.

He had to adapt from being a skill player in the WSHL to a more grinding style being in NCAA's Atlantic Conference. Jaeger assessed that it’s more about how you work and maintain your balance over how much you can lift.  

“When I battle in the corners against a freshman you can tell, they aren’t necessarily weak, but lack in tenacity or power that you kind of build up,” Jaeger said.  

Jaeger has settled in nicely with Air Force. Playing under Coach Frank Serratore comes with its list of demands but his animated personality can bring out a laugh in anybody.

(Photo of Jaeger courtesy of Dave Toller)

“It’s hard for people on the outside to understand, but he is the best media guy I have ever seen,” Jaeger said. “He does a radio show at this bar and he invited the seniors to talk, well he gets up there and he is just like the peoples’ champion, absolutely fantastic.”

Ask him about his one-liners…

“He has got so many one-liners that you have never heard before and he never repeats them. I’m going on four years and sometimes when we’re doing video there are just so many things he says that are right off the top of his head.”

Truly never a dull moment with Serratore as your head coach but things are finally getting serious with the season starting. Serratore attended last year's WSHL Showcase in Las Vegas and spoke on behalf of Air Force at the college seminars hosted throughout the week. Air Force is one of the multiple D-I schools that attend Showcase. 

Serratore, Jaeger and Air Force already began their 2019-2020 campaign with an 8-0 win over Trinity on Sunday. Jaeger found the back of the net twice.