The Esmark Stars, proud members of the North American Prospects Hockey League (NAPHL), are pleased to announce that former Esmark Stars defenseman Carter Ekberg has committed to play NCAA Division I hockey for the Air Force Falcons of Atlantic Hockey.
Ekberg played two seasons of 16U, Pittsburgh Viper Stars (2012-13) and the Esmark Stars (2013-14), and then one season, his senior year, with Esmark (2014-15), during which he registered 23 points in 24 NAPHL games. He signed a tender with the Janesville Jets of the North American Hockey League (NAHL) during his 18U season.
A McMurray, PA, native, Ekberg (180 lbs., 6’1") has played for the Jets for parts of four seasons. In 84 career NAHL games, all with Janesville, Ekberg has totaled 32 points.
Ekberg is the first Jets defenseman this season to earn his NCAA commitment.
“I’m extremely excited to commit to Air Force,” said Ekberg. “This year has been huge for me, becoming a leader on the team and having more chances to play and make big impacts on every game. It’s had a huge impact on my confidence.”
Ekberg joins forwards Kip Hoffmann (Robert Morris) and T.J. Polglaze (Michigan Tech) as 1997-born Jets veterans to earn their commitment this season.
“This year Carter has taken a huge step and evolved into a complete, two-way guy on the back end,” said assistant coach Corey Leivermann, who works with the team’s defensemen. “As the ‘D’ coach, he’s meant everything to me and to our group. When he’s healthy I lean on him heavily because I know he consistently gives us what we need in all situations. Whether it’s the power play, penalty kill, five-on-five, the first minute of a period, the last minute of a period, overtime, it doesn’t matter ... Carter Ekberg is our guy.”
"I think Carter realizes this day came to be because of a huge investment of blood, tears and sweat," said his U18 Esmark head coach Dave Kosick. "He is an extremely bright and skilled young man who will be a great addition to the Air Force Academy."
“As a young, developing guy, you sit out games, holding clipboards, battling to earn your spot every day. There are a lot of stories like that in this league with older guys getting commitments at the ends of their junior careers. I’m definitely not the first,” said Ekberg.
Ekberg’s junior career began in March of 2015 with two games as an affiliate player of the Jets. He started the following season with the USHL’s Des Moines Buccaneers, suiting up for two games before rejoining to the Jets again in October.
Ekberg played 22 games with the Jets before getting another crack at the USHL with a call from the Youngstown Phantoms in February. He again returned to the Jets for the 2016-17 campaign with the Jets.
This season, Ekberg tops Janesville's blueliners in scoring with four goals and 18 total points, playing most of the season on the Jet's top pair.
“As a kid coming out of that Esmark Stars program, the first thing you noticed about Carter’s game was his mobility,” said former Jets head coach Joe Dibble, who brought Ekberg to the Jets and coached him for two seasons.
Dibble said he’s seen Ekberg take important strides both mentally and physically.
“He’s always been an elite skater who plays with his head up and has the skill to make plays, but I was especially impressed with his development this year. Last summer I think he really dedicated himself to becoming a college athlete. He worked on his strength and you see him now stronger on the puck, stronger in the corners, stronger in front of his own net," Dibble said.
"He’s always been a confident skater and playmaker, but now you see that confidence defensively and without the puck. He’s a complete defenseman who’s ready to become a student athlete at the Division I level," he added.
The Falcons play at the nearly 2,500-seat Cadet Ice Arena in Colorado Springs, CO. Head coach Frank Serratore has held the reigns since 1997, and last season joined a group of just 22 with his 400th career NCAA Division I win.
“The coaching staff was definitely one of the biggest reasons for choosing Air Force,” said Ekberg. “A bunch of them are alumni, or they played D-1, or they played pro, so they know what they’re talking about. They’re all great, knowledgeable people who made me feel super welcome and wanted there, which was important to me. I can’t say enough good things about that staff.”
To Leivermann, it’s an especially great fit for Ekberg as a student and as a person.
“That’s an amazing academic school out there in Colorado,” he said. “That works well for a smart kid like Ekberg. He’ll get good academics, he’ll get to play good hockey, and they do a great job helping their alumni find careers after their playing days, too.”
Air Force recorded five NCAA tournament appearances from 2007 through 2012, missing just once in 2010. Last spring, the Falcons qualified again, breaking a four-year drought. Their offense includes attacking defensemen, said Ekberg, which was a major reason in choosing the school.
“They like to get their ‘D’ involved in the offense,” Ekberg said. “Coach Serratore told me they try to activate them through the zones, which is a good fit for me. I like to take my chances when I see fit, and that’s something they’re big on. It’s a good opportunity for me to be an offensive guy on the back end.”
With his NCAA D-I commitment secured, Ekberg said he feels even more ready for a long playoff run with the Jets.