One-on-One with Justin Mercier

When a 24-year-old athlete starts using phrases like, “I’m not getting any younger” – you know he’s arrived as one of the team’s veterans.

That’s the case for Justin Mercier, who returns to the Lake Erie Monsters for his third season. Born and raised just 90 minutes away in Erie, PA, the skilled left winger was a standout performer for Miami University – leading the MAC powerhouse to the Frozen Four in 2009.

Two years ago, Mercier spent nine games with Lake Erie’s parent club in Colorado. And last season, he established himself as the Monsters’ iron man, the only player who skated in all 80 games in 2010-11.

Mercier took a few minutes to sit down with -- discussing topics ranging from how he chose Miami, what his first NHL goal felt like and what exactly is up with a pregame contest called “Sewer-Ball...”

So, do you live in Erie during the offseason?
Justin Mercier: Yeah, during the summer I do. My girlfriend had worked in downtown Cleveland so I spent a lot of time in Cleveland this past summer. But most of my time was spent in Erie.

Did you play other sports growing up?
Mercier: I did. But, just because hockey was such a long season, the only sports I could do were soccer and golf. I still play golf a lot to this day. But soccer kind of died when I had to focus on hockey full-time.

What’s the story with this year’s number change?
Mercier: Well, I wore 16 in college. Growing up, I was never picky about that because my number changed so much. But I was usually 16 or 17.

When I got to college, somebody had 17, so I wore 16. And you wear a number for four years and you get kind of close to it. Then, I get here in Training Camp and they have, like 50 guys in Colorado and of course, the rookies end up getting the higher numbers. So I got 43. I wore 16 last year and now I’m back with 43.

It’s a number that not too many people have – even though it’s a very famous number for Cleveland. But for me it was just an identity thing – start something new, I guess.

So you’re not the superstitious type?
Mercier: A little bit. I have a routine for sure. I have my routine on gamedays.

My routine is more for time, though, because we’re required to get to the rink two hours beforehand. You can imagine what you can do in two hours. So, I find that if I don’t stick to a routine, I’ll be sitting around with nothing to do. So I go through the same process.

What’s the gameday process?
Mercier: I’ll immediately cut a stick and tape my stick and get that taken care of first. So I get my sticks taped.

And we have these recovery drinks or energy drinks that I like to drink during the game to prevent cramping. So I’ll go prepare all my drinks, mix all my shakes, whatever I have to do.

And I do like to sit for a little bit – five or 10 minutes. Then, we have a meeting an hour-and-a-half before the game so usually we’ll have the meeting. And as soon as the meeting is over, that’s when I’ll start my warm-ups – stretching, doing a dynamic stretch. Then, we play this game here called “Two-Touch” or “Sewer-Ball” – whichever you prefer.

Mercier: Yeah, we like to “sewer” people to get them out of the game. Everybody stands in a circle and it’s basically juggling a soccer ball and the object is obviously to not let the ball hit the ground. (It’s kind of like hackey-sack with a soccer ball.)

If the ball hits you last, then you’re out. So the guys, instead of playing nice, will kick it as hard as they can at somebody. That’s where we got the term “sewer ball.”

And usually when that’s done, it’s game time. It’s time to get ready.

Does Coach Quinn ever break your chops about Boston U. beating your Miami team in the 2009 Frozen Four?
Mercier: You know, never really too seriously. But when I first got here, there were quite a few Boston U. guys.

My first roommate was Brandon Yip my first year. We had Quinn, we had Zach Cohen. Then we wound up getting Colby Cohen and (Kevin) Shattenkirk. So there were like five guys who played against me!

But I think the only time that it really came up was when they got their Championship rings.

Quinny had Yipper’s ring and he walked in the locker room and I was at the dry stall just messing around doing my stuff. And he said it loud enough to where I could hear and he said: “Hey, Yipper. I got your ring for ya!”

As a third-year guy – but still only 24 years old – do you consider yourself one of the leaders on this team?
Mercier: I kind of want to call it a transition period, because I’m not a rookie anymore but I’m by no means a seasoned vet. We have guys playing on the team – (Greg) Mauldin, (David) van der Gulik, (David) Liffiton – that have been around a long time.

But I feel like I’ve been a part of this organization for so long that I know how things work. And we do have a young team. So I do know that, being here for so many years, a lot of these younger guys are going to look up to me. Not to sound cliché, but I try to lead by example.

Coach Quinn expects a certain style of hockey and because I’ve been here for so long, I know what that style is. So if I can do that on the ice and teach these younger guys what to do, then hopefully, I can help teach them.

What was it like to score your first NHL goal with Colorado?
Mercier: It was special. Personally, it kind of symbolized everything that I’d worked for.

Obviously, my first game was exciting. And I’d been working towards that. But realistically, to get on that score sheet and say I scored a goal in the NHL, nobody can take that away. Unfortunately, it came in a game we were losing. So I found myself not able to celebrate it.

Inside, I was like throwing a party and jumping for joy. I had fallen down after, and I got up and kinda looked around. And Darcy Tucker came over and gave me a subtle tap on the butt, like, ‘Nice job, kid. But keep it cool.’

I think that made the score, 4-2. But it was really late in the game. There were only a couple minutes left. It was a stretch that we’d come back but you never want to give up hope. But it was awesome.

Afterward Adam Foote, who’s been playing in the league for like 20 years, came up to me and said, ‘Hey, nice job.’ And it meant a lot to me because at the time I’m 22 years old and I’ve been playing hockey since I was three. And now I’ve finally done something that not a lot of people can say they’ve done.

What are your goals this season – personally and professionally?
Mercier: Personally, of course, I’d love to get to Colorado. But I think that a lot of my personal goals are team goals.

As a team there’s a certain way that we want to play. And the one thing I’ve learned is that Coach Quinn and Ollie (Director of AHL Operations/Assistant Coach David Oliver), they want us to get to the next level as bad as they want to win. It’s so cool.

You’d hear stories about getting to pro hockey and being on your own and not really have any direction and coaches that just play the silent role. You’re kind of expected to do your own thing. And Ollie totally changed that. He’s a very hands-on guy and he wants to be part of your development. I couldn’t have asked for anything more.

The sole reason I got called up – my first year, I had maybe an assist, no goals down in the American League. But I did what they told me to do – work hard, be in the right position. Doing the little things right. Consistency is what it basically comes down to.

So, that’s a team goal as much as it’s a personal goal for me. Night in and night out, it’s a long season. How many nights out of 76 are you going to show up that the other team isn’t.

For me, it’s getting to the NHL. And for the team, it’s winning.

Speaking of games, you were the only Monsters player to play all 80 last season. What’s the secret?
Mercier: It’s mental and physical. One thing our staff preaches is: Are you treating your body the right way? Are you cold-tubbing after the game? Are you making sure that you’re re-fueling your body with protein shakes and salad and not a burger?

Every now and then, it’s nice to indulge. But it's a long season. It’s all about taking care of your body and preparing yourself.

A lot of times, it’s getting to the rink after a weekend. You show up on Monday and think, ‘Man, I really don’t want to stretch right now.’ But stretching and warming up is going to prevent you from pulling your groin out on the ice.

I can’t do what I did when I was 18. It’s just dedicating yourself to this – because it is a job. And if you can do the right thing, that’s going to help you play longer.

How did you choose Miami University?
Mercier: I’m from Erie, but I moved to Michigan for hockey. During the summer, they have these select festivals. They take kids from all the different regions of the states and get them together for like an Olympic development for the national team.

And a lot of college coaches get involved and (Miami coach) Jeff Blashill – who’s now with the Red Wings – just happened to be part of it from Michigan. He was our regional coach. I just developed a relationship with him.

When the time came to look at colleges, he said, ‘Hey Merc, we’d love to have you down at Miami. Why don’t you come take a look?’

And it was just, Coach Blash – the way he coached was the way that I lived my lifestyle. He was focused on family and bonding. I’ve never seen a group of people that was that close. It kind of swept me off my feet.

Before I got there, they had made the NCAA Tournament twice, recently. They had a championship team back in the early 90s, but realistically, right before I got there, they were just getting the ball rolling. And from sitting down with Coach Blash, it was like, ‘Man, this guy’s going to do something special here in the next couple years. And I want to be a part of it.’

And sure enough, my freshman year we won the league championship. We went to the NCAA Tournament all four years, made it to the Frozen Four in my senior year. I mean, I couldn’t have asked for a better four years. (Besides winning the whole thing.)

Do you feel like the interest in hockey is beginning to take hold in Cleveland?
Mercier: I remember when I was a kid, coming here for Lumberjacks games. We’d come here and I remember some decent crowds. But you talk to kids who played in the American League for seven, eight years when the Barons were here, and people hated playing in Cleveland because no one came.

We’ve been in the top 10 in league attendance since I’ve been here. The support has just been phenomenal! I give a lot of credit to the staff and the front office people. Because I have family and friends that come in from Erie, and the fan experience they say is just fantastic.

I mean, once you get someone at a game, (the Monsters) do the best job in the league at getting them to come back. And for us as players, there’s nothing better.


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