WATERLOO — The message probably came off as mixed at best.
In order to see one of his best forwards reach his highest potential, Waterloo Black Hawks coach P.K. O’Handley told him he had to slow down.
Ben Copeland heard the message inside the message.
As one of the fastest skaters in the United States Hockey League, Copeland has to use his speed to his advantage. But in his first two seasons, he may not have used it most productively.
“I needed to use my speed more cautiously, differently and use my energy more wisely,” said Copeland, the Edina, Minn., native who is set to play at Colorado College next winter. “I needed to slow the game down a little more, obviously, so I could make faster plays.”
Waterloo drafted Copeland in 2015 in the second round. A year later, Copeland played in seven games as an affiliate player for Waterloo, before joining the team full-time last season and racking up 20 points (five goals and 15 assists) in 56 games.
Playing more efficiently this season. Copeland has emerged as one of the top forwards in the USHL with 13 goals and 36 assists in 52 games.
“He has NHL speed,” O’Handley said. “I think the best part of Ben is that he slowed it down inside his own head and I think he is getting rewarded offensively for it.
“His knowledge of the game has caught up with the speed he can play at. It takes time and experience for that to happen and it is harder for guys like Ben because they can get from point A to point B faster than most.”
Copeland plays on a line feared throughout the USHL, with Jackson Cates (33 goals, 28 assists) and Garrett Wait (17 goals, 21 assists) flanking him. He’s been paired with Cates for nearly two full seasons, with third-year veteran Wait joining the line this season.
“Garrett just makes plays, is a great playmaker, good passer,” Copeland said. “Jackson ... we’ve been together forever. He just scores goals. I love playing with those guys.”
Copeland, whose dad Rob captained Edina’s 1988 state championship team before playing four seasons as a defenseman at Notre Dame, says the seven games he played as an affiliate helped him prepare for his rookie season last year.
“Obviously, the USHL is a super-fast league, probably as fast as college or faster,” Copeland said. “I was young then. I was deciding on whether to go back and play at Edina or come to Waterloo, and I had a good feeling I was coming to Waterloo.
“Those seven games helped me a lot, helped the coaches understand me better as a player.”
Copeland’s numbers last year were a byproduct of a rookie playing third and fourth-line minutes, but O’Handley knew what he had and what Copeland could become. That showed in the playoffs when Copeland scored three times while Waterloo reached the Western Conference finals.
“He was great in the playoffs,” O’Handley said. “He has matured a lot both in his thinking on the ice and how he has grown as a young man off the ice. That is really gratifying from a coaching perspective to see.”