Interview with Jonas Dobnig: Life as a Junior Hockey Player & U20 Junior World Cup Experience

Interview with Jonas Dobnig: Life as a Junior Hockey Player & U20 Junior World Cup Experience

Ice hockey fans were watching Canada capture the World Junior Championship 2023 crown at home some weeks ago, before the teams meet again for the next edition (World Juniors 2024) in Gothenburg, Sweden.

Jonas Dobnig, wo has grown up in Canada and Austria shared his experiences at the tournament as forward & goal scorer with us and also offered interesting insights into his daily life and routines as a junior hockey player in New Jersey for the New Jersey Rockets; a program, which is a proven stepping stone to mature, grow stronger and develop as a player before moving on to the next level.

"If you have a bad attitude, you're definitely not going to play the next game."

Amongst other things, Jonas explains why he has picked the junior hockey route in North America and why he decided against moving to a hockey league in Northern Europe: in short, he has his eyes set on getting recruited by a strong college hockey program in the U.S.

Junior Hockey: USHL vs NCDC

During the conversation, Jonas mentions junior hockey and the various levels (Tier 1, Tier 2).
He also mentions the time spent playing juniors so far and offers an outlook into how many more years he would be allowed to play.

If you are completely new to this topic, this older article may be worth checking out, listing the above divisions, as well as college divisions: College Hockey Explained: Divisions, Scholarships & Getting Recruited
Enjoy the interview with Jonas, who - spoiler alert - also happened to be found the fastest skater at the U20 Junior World Cup (preliminary round):

"It felt like I was just playing normally (...) I didn't really realize that I was going that fast."

Insights from Current Junior Hockey Player & National Team Player Jonas Dobnig

SMARTHLETE: Jonas, first off, how was your experience at the U20 Junior World Cup?

JONAS DOBNIG: It was a really good experience with my team mates and from my personal view, it was just amazing to be on that high level of hockey and just to show what Austria can do. We got relegated, but it was unlucky that we lost against Germany. A lot of penalties, but we tried our best and next year we're going to get promoted again, back to the A Division.

SMARTHLETE: I saw the game and I really thought you were going to turn it around. There are no bad teams up there.

JONAS DOBNIG: That's true. They're all really good.

SMARTHLETE: How do you think you compare to the strongest players from other nations or asked differently, how do you stack up against them?

JONAS DOBNIG: Speed wise, body weight and how we play, we can definitely play with them.
But it’s the small things that Team Canada players or players from Czech Republic do: everything they do is the right way, every small detail is perfect, just every pass is on the stick. So the small details, we ought to work on and just do the simple stuff before you do something difficult. That's what we try to do and it kind of works. We're still far back, but we're getting closer to that and we can see it now, because we played against a couple of good teams.

I would say the small details are the biggest problem right now and we have to focus more on them than the big picture.

SMARTHLETE: What do you think about your personal performance? How happy were you with your performance and how do you see yourself compared to some of the players that you've played against? For example, the physical level, stickhandling, or shooting?

JONAS DOBNIG: Physical level, I would say I'm up there. The physical level is just about how you work out in the locker room or in the gym and everything. But the small things: I can skate with them, but I need to work on my shot, I need to work on my stick, and I need to work on my hockey sense. That's everything you can work on. So it's nothing like, "Oh, I can't, I can't get there.“
If you keep on working, eventually you will maybe get there, and I hope so. That's why I'm still playing hockey and working on it. And I'm not going to stop till I'm going to make it right.

SMARTHLETE: There is one thing I found out about you: Did it surprise you that you were the fastest skater at the championships?

JONAS DOBNIG: It kind of did, because it felt like I was just playing normally. I didn't really realize that I was going that fast. But it was nice to see that you're up there with the best players in the world.

SMARTHLETE: I also read what your coach (New Jersey Rockets) had to say about you and that the staff is surprised every time they see you on the ice just how quick you are.

JONAS DOBNIG: Thank you!

SMARTHLETE: One topic we always come across is how strong you need to be in order to play junior hockey. So for you, it's a little different, compared to other kids who finish high school and then they move on to play junior hockey for a year or two, right? You've played in the U.S. since 2020, 2021, in total for a year and a half, correct?


SMARTHLETE: And how strong a league, how strong a club did you play in before getting recruited to play junior hockey?

JONAS DOBNIG: Before I started to play junior hockey, I played in Klagenfurt. It was U18 and that was just for (up to) 18-year old players, kids that are in high school. There were maybe around 20 kids in town who played hockey and then you were playing. Here it's thougher, even though it's junior hockey and still not pro hockey. If you play a bad game, you're benched, you’re gone.

"If you have a bad attitude at practice or a game because you're not playing or something, the coach is not going to come over and pat you on the back!

If you have a bad attitude, you're definitely not going to play the next game. That was a huge difference compared to playing back home and it was just a big difference from all the surroundings.

SMARTHLETE: Can you tell us a little bit about how you went about finding a hockey program? I guess you were scouted, recruited, drafted? Based on your performance, did you have teams reaching out to you?

JONAS DOBNIG: So, I got drafted to the USHL. That's the Tier 1 League of North America. I got drafted there (Editor's note: by the ”Sioux City Muskateers“). Then I went to training camp, which is when they make their last cuts. And then they cut me as the last forward because I didn't have enough sprints and my body weight wasn't enough. I had 72 kilograms (Editor's note: 159 pounds) and that wasn't enough. Then I went to the farm team of the USHL team in the NCDC, which is the Tier 2 League of North American skaters, and now I'm playing here. So that's how I got here.

SMARTHLETE: Did you have various options that you could pick from? Were you recruited by several teams, or was it kind of like your single one option you had?

JONAS DOBNIG: No, so the coach of the Sioux City Musketeers, that’s the USHL team, said: "We will give you any option where you want to go". Me and my advisor were sitting together and we were considering to go to Sweden, but I really didn't want to because I want to play college hockey. We were just talking: "Let's look at the teams", what kind of team they (Editor's note: Sioux City) would suggest, and then there was this team because they had a really good coach named Jared Kersner (Editor's note: New Head Coach at Sioux City in July 2022), and he developed me a lot this year; mentally and physically. I would probably say mentally the most, because we were doing a lot of mental training here and I really like it.

SMARTHLETE: That's good. And physically, how much weight did you put on from the 72 kilograms (Editor's note: 159 pounds)?

JONAS DOBNIG: I gained 10 kg (22 pounds) over the last summer.

SMARTHLETE: That is quite a bit.

JONAS DOBNIG: I got 82-84 kilograms now at 180 centimetres (Editor's note: 181 pounds at 5‘11‘‘).

SMARTHLETE: How was the transition for you from European hockey to North American hockey?

JONAS DOBNIG: It's a smaller ice, so it's not the Olympic ice. It's smaller all around. And it's much faster and there is way more “hitting“. That's probably why I was too light. I didn't have enough strength for the game style here. Just more hitting and just a lot more skills. Me as a fast skater can‘t use the speed that much.

SMARTHLETE: Did it take you a couple of weeks, a couple of months until you felt like: "OK, now I've arrived!”

JONAS DOBNIG: I wouldn't say it took me that long. It was just the first couple of practices and games. But then after a month, it felt like normal.

SMARTHLETE: Do you prefer playing on the smaller ice compared to the bigger ice or it doesn't really matter?

JONAS DOBNIG: I haven't played on the bigger ice since I got here, so I don't really know the difference. I haven't played on the big rinks for a long time.

SMARTHLETE: What is your housing setup like? Do you live with a guest family, a billet family? Can you tell us a bit more about how that works?

JONAS DOBNIG: I live at a billet family with a mother and a father, and they have two kids: a daughter and a son. The daughter just turned 18, and the son is 16. And three other hockey players that I play with, live at the family with me.

SMARTHLETE: You are 6 kids in total?

JONAS DOBNIG: Yeah, we hockey players live in the basement, with the whole basement to ourselves. I share a room with a player. And all three of them are 20 years old, they’re two years older than me.

SMARTHLETE: That sounds like fun, must be a big basement!

JONAS DOBNIG: It's not that big. I share a room and they share rooms, so that's it. And then we have a lounge area with a TV and a couch and then the bathroom and shower. But it’s nice!

SMARTHLETE: Do you guys eat together with the family or are you responsible for cooking on your own?

JONAS DOBNIG: Yes, breakfast, we cook ourselves, everything is here. We just get up and then lunch, we usually don't have time for. We usually just pack a sandwich and we bring it to the rinks. After practice, we come home and then we make an early dinner because we didn't have proper lunch; we just make some rice or something easy, a meal, not too much, because when the billet mom gets home, she cooks dinner for us.

SMARTHLETE: There is a second dinner? An early dinner and a regular dinner?

JONAS DOBNIG: We have a dinner at 3,00 pm, 3.30 pm, that's our early dinner. And then at around 6.30, pm 7.00 pm, we get another dinner.

SMARTHLETE: How about the other players? Where are they from? Are they from the U.S., from Canada?

JONAS DOBNIG: One player is from Canada, the other player is from Upstate New York and the third player is from Chicago, Illinois.

SMARTHLETE: Can you tell us about a typical day in the life of a NCDC hockey player? Some of that you have already touched upon, but perhaps you just want to walk us through that typical day with school and practice hours?

JONAS DOBNIG: I usually get up at 8.00 am in the morning, then I just get ready and make my bed and make breakfast. Then I have my AM routines where I brush my teeth, and just get ready for practice. We drive over to the rinks and in the car we listen to a podcast - “Success Hotline“ - we have to listen to every morning, because our coach does sort of a game, where you sit on a chair and just talk about what you listened to. It's like in school, he picks a person to do it, for mental training. You don't have to do it, but ... (hesitates)

SMARTHLETE: … you are encouraged to?

JONAS DOBNIG: … you have to do it (smiles).

Then we have the first meeting when we get there around 11ish, about mental topics and then we just watch a couple videos and we have video meetings with Brian Kane, who is the mental trainer here. Then we have a video meeting about hockey and talk about our last game.
Then, it depends on the day, usually on Mondays and Wednesdays after those meetings, we work out. And today (Editor's note: Thursday) we just have a video session and then we have “ice”. We warm up and then we go downstairs and just get dressed for practice. And some days - I think that's also Wednesdays and Mondays - we have skills ice session: the goalies go out for their special practice for 25 minutes and then forwards, defenders go out there for special practice. And then we have team practice for 1 hour, 1.5 hours.

SMARTHLETE: Where in that day is schoolwork? Or have you graduated already?

JONAS DOBNIG: I graduated here in the U.S. last year, but I'm still doing school in Austria to also get the national high school degree on top.

SMARTHLETE: If you think back to last year when you weren't quite done with school in the U.S.? Did you study in the evenings? Did you have mandatory class attendance?

JONAS DOBNIG: When I get home and after I have my early dinner, I would start studying for 2.5 hours and I'd just do the work that I was sent, as it was an online high school. I would study all by myself. Usually, I would watch YouTube videos and study on different websites.

SMARTHLETE: I realize you are one of the younger players on the team? You are born in 2004, but you also have players born 2002. How does that reflect on the ice or how does it reflect your position on the team?

JONAS DOBNIG: It doesn't mean anything. Nobody cares about how old you are. We are a team, the age doesn't really matter. We have 2005 born kids too and we see them as a “normal human“, they're just the same as an “ '02”. Everybody has the same rights.

SMARTHLETE: Not more responsibility for the older players?

JONAS DOBNIG: Everybody's a leader on our team. There are no rules, there are different rules of course (Editor's note: in general), definitely, but just everybody has to be a leader!

SMARTHLETE: Can you describe your role? What makes you really valuable for the team and what are your strengths in that team culture?

JONAS DOBNIG: I would say I'm a defensive player, more defensive than offensive, and I play more PK, I play more against the top lines of other teams, so they don't score against us. That's my main role and off the ice, I would just say I'm more quiet, but I like to talk too. Just, in front of the group I don't like to be the main focus, I would rather just sit back and watch, but sometimes I get goofy too.

SMARTHLETE: What are the things you want to improve the most? What do you focus on right now? What's going to make you a better player in the upcoming months?

JONAS DOBNIG: Right now, I'm just focusing on my mental game because when I made mistakes, sometimes I just got lost. I just focus on getting that right so that I concentrate on shift to shift. That's one of my main focuses and I'm doing pretty good this year. And I'm just trying to get my shot better, like the accuracy of my shot and the power of my shot.

SMARTHLETE: What I forgot to ask before when you spoke about a typical day, perhaps interesting for young hockey players: how many games do you get to play on average, as in how many games a week would you say during the season?

JONAS DOBNIG: We play 2 - 3 games a week. It's always Friday / Saturday and sometimes it's Friday, Saturday, Sunday.

SMARTHLETE: I assume you drive to the games or do you occasionally also fly?

JONAS DOBNIG: No, we don't fly. The farthest ride is like 1.5 hours, 2 hours. It's not bad at all.

SMARTHLETE: Considering you're already done with high school, at least in the US, which would entitle you to start a degree: What are your next steps after this year? Are you done playing Junior Hockey? Are you going to continue playing juniors? What does that look like?

JONAS DOBNIG: Oh, that's a good question. I don't really know yet. It depends on what's going to happen in the next two months … My main focus is on getting into a good college, a good college scholarship. And a good school, just what I find. I still have two years of juniors left and I still have time. It's not that I have to move on to college now.

SMARTHLETE: I think that there are a lot of misconceptions about junior hockey and there are different ways of how things can play out.

But you are in a good position: you play in a good league and your team really is a feeder team for strong college teams; just looking at the commitments from last year.

Have you already made contact with schools? Do you know of any concrete interest or not yet?

JONAS DOBNIG: Last year 1 school was interested, it was D1, but I wasn‘t interested in that school. I was texting with them, but I wasn't sure.

SMARTHLETE: What does it look like in terms of scholarship for you right now? Do you get everything paid, practice, living, food, etc.? Or is there some sort of budget that you need to contribute, to play junior hockey?

JONAS DOBNIG: Playing, everything is free. I get helmets, pants and everything from the team. And for the billet family, we pay a fee to live there. That's the only thing I have to pay.

SMARTHLETE: You pay for room and board on your own, but everything else is covered?

JONAS DOBNIG: Yes, just for the billet family, that's what I pay right now.

SMARTHLETE: Perhaps one last question that I have considering you can still play junior hockey for a year or two after this season. Do you intend to start some sort of part-time classes or working on the side or is it going to be full focus on hockey?

JONAS DOBNIG: Last summer, in between the season, I only worked out every single day. From end of April till mid-August, I worked out every single day and that's why I gained that much weight and made a huge step. I really didn't have a lot of time apart from hockey. I got to the gym in the morning and in the afternoon I did conditioning. That was the main goal of mine. And my parents supported me all the way. My mom always gave me a lot of food and a lot of muscle shakes with peanut butter and olive oil and all that stuff.

SMARTHLETE: What a mix! That means you spent your summer break at home as well, right?

JONAS DOBNIG: No, after the season, we made it to the semifinals and then after we lost I went home. That was the beginning of April and then end of April, we had the U18 World tournament in Asiago. Then after that, I started my off-season.

SMARTHLETE: Did you receive a practice plan from the coaches, the coaching staff?

JONAS DOBNIG: No, I got a practice plan from a coach at home, because my advisor told me I should talk to him about a training plan. And that training plan helped me out a lot. It's been really good!

SMARTHLETE: But that means you don't receive a set training plan from the coaches in New Jersey and it's a little bit up to you how you improve or work in the summer?

JONAS DOBNIG: I did not get a training plan because in juniors they build a new team every year. There is the draft every year. They just texted me if I want to come back, and then I came back. It's kind of a new team every year!

SMARTHLETE: Jonas, thank you so much for your time! It was very interesting to speak to you and best of luck with your future development!

Any questions about junior or college hockey? Feel free to share with us at!

Photo credit: Jonas Dobnig