Belpedio resists urge to go Wild
OXFORD, Ohio – More than ever, elite hockey players are choosing college as their path to the pros, leading to an increase in the number of early departures among high draft picks in the university ranks.
Louie Belpedio has faced the arduous decision to turn professional multiple times during his Miami career.
The third-round NHL pick’s choices? Sign and take the money while maneuvering closer to the dream of an NHL career, or remain in school as an amateur.
Each time, the two-year captain has picked Miami.
“That’s difficult,” Belpedio said. “How many times can you say ‘no’ to the thing you’ve been working on your whole life? But at the same time, I’m glad that I came back to school because of the player it’s developed me into today.”
Now a senior, Belpedio is one point away from tying Matthew Caito for eighth place on the RedHawks’ all-time defenseman points leaderboard, and his wait to join the paid-to-play ranks is nearly over.
“I think staying in school is most definitely the right decision, but it was a hard decision for sure, because I truly believe that if I would have had signed I would’ve had a shot to play in the NHL already,” Belpedio said. “But at the same time if you keep working hard and doing the things you’re supposed to do, the opportunity will be there again in the (coming) weeks for me.”
After captaining the U.S. National Development Under-18 team to a gold medal while racking up 23 points in 61 regular season games, the 5-feet-11, 194-pound Belpedio was selected 80th overall by the Minnesota Wild in June of 2014.
Belpedio is from Skokie, Ill., a northern suburb of Chicago, and a month before he was drafted, the Blackhawks knocked the Wild out of the playoffs in the conference semifinals.
The following season, Chicago would again end Minnesota’s season in that round en route to a Stanley Cup championship.
“Growing up just outside the city, the Blackhawks are my hometown team – I have to like them – but at the same time I have to like the Wild too,” Belpedio said. “Now that I’m about to enter my pro career, things are getting a little more interesting with that, so we’ll see how that plays out.”
Minnesota has taken interest in several Miamians in recent years, as Jarod Palmer, Pat Cannone and Marc Hagel have all played in the Wild’s system. The former two made the big club.
Ryan Jones is the only other Wild draft pick to play for the RedHawks, although that was under a different set of team brass and Jones was traded to Nashville before making his NHL debut.
Belpedio was already skating by age three and joined a team before starting elementary school, and although the three-sport star also played football and baseball through eighth grade, he gave them up to concentrate on hockey.
By junior high, Belpedio’s talents were evident, but rather than graduate to midgets like most area standouts he relocated to upstate Indiana where he attended Culver Military Academy.
“Obviously guys are successful staying in Chicago but I thought that was the best thing for me at the time,” Belpedio said. “I was there for two years, I liked it a lot – it helped me grow up a lot, being away from home. It kind of molded me into who I am today.”
Away from his family and homesick, Belpedio wasn’t always a fan of the regimented boarding school lifestyle, and long hours at the rink helped him escape Culver’s military drills.
After two seasons, 61 regular season games, 11 goals and 25 assists, Belpedio was invited to play his junior and senior campaigns with the U.S. National Development Team.
He finished with a goal and 10 assists as an Under-17 and was named captain the following season.
“The experiences that I had there were unbelievable – I’ll never forget any of them,” Belpedio said. “I was around so many of the best coaches, best trainers, got to play against the best players from around the world. It was awesome, and I’ll never forgot what that program did for me personally. I don’t know many kids that would say ‘no’ to that but I would recommend it to anyone I could, obviously.”
That U18 team won the World Juniors gold medal, and Belpedio was drafted that spring.
“It was especially exciting for me to be with my family at that time and know that it wasn’t just me that did it,” Belpedio said. “Without my mom and my dad and my brother, I wouldn’t be half the person or the player that I am today (without) the sacrifices that they made. It was an accomplishment for me but, (it) let them know that they were doing everything right. I was probably more happy for them than myself.”
Belpedio had chosen Miami before being selected by the Wild. Knowing nearly one-third of the RedHawks’ roster of fellow Chicagoans swayed his decision.
“I kind of felt: Not that I had to come here, but I wanted to come here and be the next on the Chicago-to-Miami train,” Belpedio said.
He said Oxford reminded him of Culver in some ways, including the building styles.
“And the whole girl thing isn’t too bad either,” Belpedio said.
“There was kind of lot going into (the decision), honestly, but the second I visited – I didn’t commit right away but I told my dad I was coming the second we got in the car after leaving the rink,” Belpedio said.
One of Belpedio’s cousins on his mother’s side is former RedHawks defenseman Vincent LoVerde, a 2011 graduate who played 159 games for Miami and was one of the best shut-down blueliners in the Cady Arena era.
LoVerde has played over 400 pro games and is currently with the Toronto Marlies of the AHL.
“I talked to him about it,” Belpedio said. “We weren’t extremely close at the time, now we work out together, skate together in the summer every day, so we’re definitely a lot closer. I obviously knew he went here and just from hearing stories from my mom’s side of the family, that kind of had an impact on it too. Even if (Vincent) didn’t go here, I was coming here. I love this place with all my heart.”
Just three months after his 18th birthday, Belpedio headed to Oxford for the 2014-15 season.
Especially at that age, freshmen typically need to adjust to the collegiate game, but Belpedio jelled immediately with his new teammates. He scored six goals and dished for 13 assists, totaling 19 points.
“One thing that stands out to me right away is his ability to escape and move away from people, whether it’s on a power play or bringing the puck up the ice, and then his ability to make plays,” classmate Conor Lemirande said. “It’s something that’s very special and unique to him.”
He dressed in all 40 games that season, including an outdoor contest vs. Western Michigan at Soldier Field, an NCHC championship game and an NCAA Tournament appearance.
With Belpedio growing up a handful of miles from the Chicago Bears’ home stadium, 100 members of his extended family as well as his circle of friends were able to attend that matchup vs. the Broncos.
“That was one of the coolest things ever,” Belpedio said. “I don’t even know how to describe that. You know, you grow up watching the Winter Classic, you watch all kinds of outdoor games. Obviously, it wasn’t being in the NHL but it was my dream school getting to play in my home town. I wish that was a yearly thing because that was one of the most fun games I’ve ever played in.”
Belpedio calls the RedHawks’ 2014-15 league tournament run the highlight of his career. He scored twice and dished for two assists in five NCHC postseason games and picked up a helper in Miami’s NCAA Tournament loss to Providence.
During the NCAA first-round regional, Belpedio famously skated full speed more than halfway down the ice and dove to knock a would-be empty goal away from his net before jamming into the boards at maximum velocity.
As a sophomore, Belpedio was named an assistant captain – a rarity for the RedHawks. He said the senior captains, Sean Kuraly and Kevin Morris, were instrumental in helping him adjust to wearing the ‘A’.
“That whole senior class was so supporting – I’m still close with all of them,” Belpedio said. “It was cool, but I definitely don’t deserve all the credit. They deserve most of it for helping me and getting me through it, because it’s not an easy job as a young kid.”
Belpedio went 4-13-17 as a sophomore and left Miami for two weeks over the holiday break, as he was named assistant captain of the U.S. World Juniors team that won the bronze medal in Finland.
Named captain prior to his junior season, Belpedio passed along what former letter wearers had taught him.
Junior and fellow blueliner Grant Hutton was a freshman in 2015-16 and said his adjustment to Division I was facilitated significantly by Belpedio’s unselfishness.
“As a freshman it’s hard sometimes to reach out to older guys and ask them to (hang out) together, but when it comes from the older guys I think that’s a really comforting thing and I think that helps not only me but our entire freshman class fit in,” Hutton said. “For me personally, I felt like I needed someone to kind of latch onto, and learn the ways from and Louie was that person for me. He was the first person to offer me a hand and offer me help in whatever situation it might be, whether it’s watching video, he was the first person to come up and offer advice in practice, so from a hockey standpoint, in my development, he was a huge help and I’m very thankful for that and the time he put into helping teach me what it takes to play at this level.”
“From a personal standpoint, Louie’s an unbelievable guy. He’s probably one of my best friends on the team and he’ll probably be my best friend for a really long time, but he’s a guy that’s always there for you. Usually when you come to a team, whether it’s college or juniors, it takes a little while to fit in with the guys, and he’s the complete opposite.”
Hutton attributes much of his own offensive success to Belpedio. Held without a goal his freshman season, Hutton netted nine as a sophomore and has 10 more in this campaign.
“I came in my freshman year and obviously my primary role was to be a shut-down defenseman, and I had five points (that) year,” Hutton said. “Louie’s an elite, elite offensive defenseman, a two-way defender, and if you watch him, he’s so dynamic when it comes to skating the puck, and handling the puck. That part of his game is so superior to most of the players at this level. For me, it was just a privilege to watch him in games and practice, and you try to pull bits and pieces out of what he does. Obviously I don’t have the skill set that Louie has in terms of offensive ability and the way he handles the puck and skates, but you try and take some of the plays he makes and the reads he makes and translate them to your own game, because he makes the game look so easy.”
The captaincy at Miami has proven a difficult title for even the most successful RedHawks. Just in the past few years, Austin Czarnik wasn’t initially stern enough with his teammates and Kuraly did not score until the 12th game of his senior season while wearing the ‘C’.
“There’s good days, there’s bad days, but that’s where being mature and being a leader comes into play – you’ve got to know how to handle that,” Belpedio said. “Everyone’s watching you and how you react at all times, so I think that’s helped me a lot attitude-wise and body language-wise. Even if it doesn’t show that we’re successful on the ice, I think it’s a big learning experience for me.”
Though Belpedio scored six times and set up 11 more goals, he was limited to 24 games as a junior.
He pulled his hip flexor first weekend of the year and missed first six games as a result. His first game back he jammed his thumb into a medal divider in the boards at Ohio State and tore a ligament.
Belpedio was unable to squeeze his hand for the next three weeks. Then a knee injury cost him the final six games of 2016-17.
This season, Belpedio is tied for fourth on the team with nine goals, is tied for Miami’s assists lead with 19 and is even with Josh Melnick for second in points (28).
“What’s impressed me is how he’s grown as a leader,” Hutton said. “When I came in he was an assistant captain and then obviously last year he took over as a first-year captain, and you can just see how much he’s learned over that time.”
Belpedio was named to the all-NCHC’s second team, is second on the RedHawks in blocked shots (40) and is second in plus minus (plus-3).
“I think he continues to grow as a person, and he makes the right decisions on and off the ice and it really sets the standard for everyone else,” Hutton said. “I know a lot of guys on this team look up to him and aspire to be the same person that he is on and off the ice.”
For his career, Belpedio is ninth all-time in RedHawks defenseman points and fifth in blueliner goals with 25.
“Being a consistent, every-day guy – he’s been someone we’ve been able to rely on for four years now,” Lemirande said. “And now we look at him, and he’s got tremendous upside. This is only a start for him. He’s going to have a tremendous career, and it’s going to be fun to be able to watch what’s in store for him.”
On pace to graduate with over a 3.0 grade-point average as a sports management major later this spring, Miami’s season could be down to its final days and the call of the pros may be too strong for Belpedio to resist any longer.
“He cares more about this program, the Brotherhood, than anyone I’ve ever known, and he’s always been someone you can rely on to put a smile on your face when you need it,” Lemirande said.
Despite any possible missed opportunities in the pros, Belpedio he has no regrets about remaining in Oxford for a fourth college season.
“A place like Miami is just so special I think in every aspect,” Belpedio said. “It’s been honestly way more than I could’ve ever imagined, hockey, school, people I’ve met, experience here. For me to turn down my dream, I turned that down a couple of times to come back to a place like this. That’s how much it means to me. And the people here, my teammates, the coaching staff…honestly it’s become a home for me. It’s actually disappointing that I have to leave, but I’m obviously excited that I was lucky enough to come here for four years and live out my dream and set me up for success in the future.”