Jackson Dickson is easy to spot on the ice.
Though only 15 years old, he stands 6-foot-3 -- much taller in skates -- and has a mane of brown hair flowing from the back of his helmet. He looks like the quintessential hockey player.
However, the New Albany freshman doesn't play for the Ohio AAA Blue Jackets club program for appearances' sake. He's trying to take his game to the next level.
"I love to play and it's my best opportunity to go where I want to go," said Dickson, a left wing who plays for the 15 Only team. "It's a higher level, and you get to play better teams and I think we develop faster because of that.
"I'm tall, and I have been getting faster. Watching high school (hockey), a lot of it is about the speed of it and seeing the ice more. We have much more time on the ice."
That ice time, as well as going up against the best his age group has to offer from around the country and Canada, provides a boost for Dickson and his counterparts.
In 16 seasons, the AAA Blue Jackets have grown into one of the top club organizations in the country thanks to the support from the NHL parent club.
According to the organization's website, it has produced 16 players who have competed professionally, whether in the NHL, minor leagues or overseas. Five players currently are on NHL rosters: Boston center Sean Kuraly, Chicago defenseman Connor Murphy, Winnipeg center Jack Roslovic, Anaheim right wing Kiefer Sherwood and Columbus right wing Kole Sherwood -- although the Sherwoods currently are playing in the American Hockey League, the top minor league for the NHL.
Also, more than 30 AAA Blue Jackets alumni have played at the Division I college level, along with numerous others on college club teams.
"It's about developing kids from central Ohio," said J.D. Kershaw, vice president of operations and development for the Blue Jackets. "Some teams bring kids in from all over the world to make sure their teams are good. We don't do that. We want to develop kids from central Ohio. We have done things the right way."
The AAA Blue Jackets have eight age divisions: 10-and-under, 11U, 12U, 13U, 14U, 16U and 18U as well as the 15s.
Defenseman Nate McBrayer also is on the 15s squad and already has committed to Ohio State.
"I started playing here five years ago and it's been great," said McBrayer, a freshman at Dublin Coffman. "We have great coaches and teammates and we have good support. The coaches really care about development. ... Their No. 1 goal is to develop players here.
"I have learned a lot of things, but probably my skating ability (has improved the most). That's the biggest thing you need to be a good hockey player. Our skating coach, Lee Harris, works with the Blue Jackets and he teaches us little things like the inside edge work and other basic skating stuff and then getting progressively more difficult."
Keeping talent at home
The 15s coach, Ed Gingher, helped to start the AAA Blue Jackets in 2004 after noticing central Ohio players were heading to Cleveland to play club hockey. That didn't sit well with Gingher, who was general manager of the East Coast Hockey League's Dayton Bombers from 2000-04.
"You looked around and there was a void in elite club hockey in central Ohio," said Gingher, who is president of the AAA Blue Jackets. "The top players were having to go elsewhere. We wanted to improve the depth and the quality of the players in Columbus."
Gingher's son, Ryan Gingher, is on the 15s along with fellow Coffman sophomore Ryan Cox. Both started with the AAA Blue Jackets with the 10U team.
"Ryan G. and Ryan C. have been skating since they were 4, went to preschool together and started playing in Mini Mites together," said Cox's father, Andy Cox, who is girls cross country and track and field coach at Thomas Worthington. "I think (playing with the AAA Blue Jackets) is more about the time. They start in August and they wrap up in April, so there is more time on the ice. They have more touches on the ice. Practices are a little more intense.
"The travel and the experience (my son) gets is a great opportunity. The exposure he gets, just like with indoor track, we get to go to different college campuses to check out facilities. He gets to see if this is something he wants to do the rest of his life and find out if it is a passion."
As members of the Tier 1 Elite Hockey League, the AAA Blue Jackets face top-flight competition while playing in front of top hockey scouts.
"With the ice time that they get, we're able to help with their development," 15s assistant coach Steve Petures said. "They get a lot of eyes on them that they wouldn't in a high school environment. We go to Phoenix, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Cleveland and places where the scouts go and they get that exposure.
"Also, the players get to work with Anthony Donskov (of Donskov Strength and Conditioning in north Columbus). He works with Olympic athletes and we have (AAA Blue Jackets) alumni who come back to work with him. He teaches our kids the logistics of taking care of their bodies and eating right, so it's kind of the total package."
High school coach Tim Pennington has seen area programs lose players to club hockey, and gain some as well.
"Carson Jankowski came (from club hockey) to play for us this year and he's really skilled and is only a sophomore," said Pennington, who coaches Olentangy Berlin and previously coached Olentangy Orange from 2008-15. "Not all kids want that (club experience).
"(Jankowski) just wanted to have a normal high school life. He wanted to be able to go to high school football games. We're happy to have him."
Program enjoys growth
The AAA Blue Jackets started as one 18U team in 2004-05. They had 18 players that first season. Now, the program has "around 155," according to Gingher.
"The first few years, we were struggling to find 15 AAA players on a roster of 20," Gingher said. "Now we have so much depth that we have to cut players. We keep our eyes on the players we cut, whether they go to the high school, AA or wherever to see how they are doing and maybe they'll try out in the next year.
"One of the big benefits of the program is that it's not so much about wins and losses but coaching up the player. We want to teach (not only) fundamentals but how to play games the right way and things that will be advantageous to them in the future."
Why have the numbers grown? Todd Ehrie, a 15s assistant coach, has a theory.
"It's their best chance to go on and play Division I (college) and professional hockey," he said. "It's why these kids play for the AAA team, to play against the top talent in their age group in the country."
However, as much as hockey matters to the organization, there's more to it.
"The five guys in the NHL get a lot of attention," Kershaw said. "To have five kids in the NHL from a non-traditional market is incredible. That's nice, but we want to develop kids to be successful at the Division I college level, the minor leagues or even just life. We're trying to develop people for success no matter what they do."