After UConn men’s hockey’s 2019-20 season came to an abrupt end, Jonny Evans sat down for his end-of-year meeting with the coaching staff. Together, they went over his entire sophomore campaign and looked at the good, the bad, and the best opportunities for improvement.
One thing stood above all: Though Evans finished the year with nine goals — tied for fourth-most on the team — and 19 points overall, six of those goals in two games with two hat tricks: One against Vermont in December and another against UNH in January. Outside of those two performances, Evans scored just three goals in 25 games.
The coaching staff emphasized that if Evans wanted to take the next step as a player, he needed to be a factor every game, not just a few times a season.
“A big thing was just my consistency, like if I show up every night and then have my big moments here and there, then I can be a really standout player and that was just something that was in the back of my mind,” he said.
What followed was one of the best seasons in UConn’s Division I history. As a junior, Evans scored 14 goals and finished the regular season with 28 points — both of which led Hockey East. His 0.64 goals and 1.27 points per game ranked fifth and eighth in the nation, respectively. Evans also stood out defensively with 20 blocks, second-most by a forward in the conference.
Evans was declared Hockey East’s scoring leader, won the Three Stars Award, was named a finalist for conference player of the year, and became the first Husky to make First Team All-Star honors in the league.
Above all, the ACHA named Evans an All-American, something no player in UConn’s Division I history (1998-present) had ever accomplished.
While the foundation for Evans’ historic season was set during his end of the season meeting with the coaching staff following his sophomore year, the story of how he got to UConn starts in British Columbia.
“Who’s this Jonny Evans kid?”
Evans first landed on UConn’s radar thanks to his best friend and teammate, Carter Turnbull. The two played together on the Powell River Kings in the British Columbia Hockey League, though the Huskies were only recruiting Turnbull at the time.
As they kept tabs on Turnbull throughout the season, head coach Mike Cavanaugh couldn’t help but notice the same name appearing on the scoresheet night after night.
“I remember just looking at Carter’s stats and saying to (associate head coach) Joe Pereira, ‘Who’s this Jonny Evans kid?’,” Cavanaugh said in February.
Though Pereira had seen Evans play for Powell River, most of his attention was on Turnbull during those games. The coach took another trip up to British Columbia specifically to watch Evans play and returned with a good impression which prompted Cavanaugh to go see for himself. He arrived for one of Powell River’s playoff games in 2017 — ironically against future Husky Carter Berger and the Victoria Grizzlies — a game which went into two overtime periods.
“I remember because I had a six o’clock flight in the morning so I had to get up at 4:00 a.m. and wouldn’t you know, the game goes to [double] overtime so I’m there till midnight in the rink watching him,” Cavanaugh said. “But [Evans] reminded me a lot of Brian Gibbons, a player that I coached a BC with his how electric he was offensively and just had an impact on the game in so many different areas and all three zones.”
Once UConn started to show interest in Evans, the feeling quickly became mutual. It helped that Turnbull had already committed to the Huskies and the two wanted to play together in college, but Evans also liked the coaching staff’s honesty and felt he’d have a chance to play a lot right away with UConn losing nine seniors and three others to the pros.
There was just one problem. The NCAA had recently changed its academic requirements and Evans was short of the necessary “core classes,” making him a non-qualifier. Though plenty of schools were interested in him as a player, the academic question kept a lot away.
“Academically, I think, was the only reason it was tricky for a lot of schools to recruit him,” Cavanaugh said. “But he was a highly, highly touted player.”
That ultimately worked out in UConn’s favor. Evans took a year of online school, finished the classes he needed, and came to Storrs as part of the Huskies’ class of 2018 alongside Turnbull and 11 other freshmen.
“I’m glad we got him, that’s for sure,” Cavanaugh said.
The pandemic assist
After his meeting with the coaching staff, Evans returned home to North Delta, British Columbia and started to prepare for his junior season. He started off the ice, improving his balance and strengthening his core. Once Evans got back on the skates, he worked to get stronger and also improve his skating.
UConn strength and conditioning coach Mo Butler would send him off-ice workouts while he worked with a trainer for everything on the ice. Though the pandemic ended the Huskies’ previous season earlier than expected, it also gave Evans more time to train and get ready for the upcoming year during the summer.
“I’d say COVID kind of helped me a little bit, just a little bit more time to get stronger and work on my skating,” Evans said. “I think that was a huge part of it.”
When the Huskies finally began workouts in the fall, it didn’t click right away for Evans. First, he needed to re-find his confidence.
“I think it kind of took a little while to have a little bit of self belief,” he said. “After a few weekends I just thought to myself, ‘I can kind of play with anyone.’”
Though Evans recorded just one assist and no goals in UConn’s opening weekend against UMass, he went off on a six-game point streak right after. Over the rest of the season, he put together a pair of four-game point streaks while never going more than back-to-back games without contributing to a goal.
The big nights didn’t disappear, either. Evans set UConn’s Division I record with four goals against Merrimack on Jan. 30. Even more impressive, he scored in four different ways: Even strength, delayed penalty, power play, and shorthanded.
There have been seven hat tricks in the Huskies’ Hockey East Era. Evans is responsible for three of those while no other player has more than one. Few players can explode in a single game the way Evans can but once he figured out how to bring it every single time out, he transformed into one of the most dangerous players in the country.
New season, new expectations
Evans will likely be back for his senior year with high expectations — higher than anyone has ever experienced at UConn.
“There’s no question in my mind he’s going to carry that over into next season,” Cavanaugh said about Evans. “He’s really, really diligent in his off-ice training. He wants to be a hockey player.”
For Evans, his work last offseason clearly paid off, so he’s planning to do the same thing again this year — with one difference.
“I’m just going to pretty much do the same thing as what I did last summer and just work even harder,” he said.
What makes Evans’ success even more impressive is he rarely says anything about himself without passing off credit to his teammates and was quick to say he’d trade any player of the year or All-American honor for a team trophy.
“Yeah it’s pretty special,” Evans said about being named an All-American. “I’d say it’s not something that I personally try to get. I don’t really care too much for the individual awards. I’m more looking for like the Hockey East championship with my team and stuff like that.”
In fact, it was so far off Evans’ radar that he didn’t even know he was named an All-American until one of his teammates told him.
Evans started to receive national attention this past year not only with the All-American honor but also as a candidate for the Hobey Baker Award, which goes to the best player in college hockey. That attention should only increase next season and if he can put together a similar campaign as a senior, he could become a legitimate candidate for the Hobey Baker Award next season instead of being one of 50 players on a watch list.
While Evans admitted he does want to back up the season he just had next year, his main focus is helping UConn reach heights that it’s never been to before.
“We have a pretty big senior class so we obviously want to do something special with each other,” he said. “Our goal is going to be to win Hockey East, obviously, and make the tournament having no doubt and not having to do what we had to do this year and just wait and see if we make it in. We want to be like solidified in the tournament and see where we’re gonna play so that’s obviously going to be a huge goal for us going forward.”