OXFORD, Ohio – Too small to succeed.
That has been the label given to Anthony Louis his entire life, but he continues to rack up the points despite his detractors’ criticism.
The senior forward who is listed at 5-feet-8, 158 pounds has climbed Miami’s all-time points leaderboard in his four years in Oxford and is currently 22nd in team history with 125 on 45 goals and 80 assists.
“I tend to use it as motivation,” Louis said. “I always wanted to prove people wrong and make it to the next level.”
Louis grew up in Winfield, Ill., a far west suburb of Chicago but now lives slightly closer to the city in West Chicago. He scored 60 times in 66 games between Team Illinois’ Bantam Major and his Under-16 seasons, earning his way onto the U.S. National Development Team.
On the Under-17 team in 2011-12, he netted 27 goals in 49 games, and he was second on the Under-18 team with 51 points the following season, second-best on the team despite facing much tougher competition.
Louie Belpedio, MU’s captain and junior defenseman, played and lived with Louis in Ann Arbor on the USNDT. Belpedio is also from Chicago, and with the tandem’s dads being longtime friends, so too have Belpedio and Louis.
“He keeps proving people wrong – that’s one of his best traits,” Belpedio said. “People always told him he’s too small, and he’ll never made it. Every level he moves up, he gets better. He proves to people that size isn’t necessarily the biggest factor, and his heart’s bigger than his body is.”
Louis turned those negative stereotypes into positives, and he said he developed a thick skin when it comes to dealing with negative comments surrounding his play.
“I wouldn’t say I didn’t believe in myself but I knew it was going to be harder because people thought I was too small,” Louis said. “I definitely used it as a motivator to myself what I could do, and prove people wrong that didn’t believe in me. It made me work (harder) than I would’ve if they weren’t doubting me.”
He earned a silver medal his final season prior to college with the U-18 squad, and Louis also keyed a Four Nations championship by recording five points in four games.
Despite that resume, every team in the NHL passed him by with their first six selections of the 2013 draft. That is, until the Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks picked him last in that round.
The hometown Louis was the 181th overall pick in June of 2013.
“Obviously it’s a dream come true,” Louis said. “It’s just the first step to hopefully a few more to make the team. Growing up watching them, it was awesome, and I always wanted to play for them. Now that it’s only a few steps away, it’s going to be a lot of hard work but it’s a pretty exciting process ahead of me.”
Following in a familiar line of players from the Chicago area, Louis chose to play for Miami, where he began his career in the fall of 2013. Knowing the Wingels brothers – NHLer Tommy and brother Johnny, a current senior and student coach – helped seal his decision.
“The culture here at Miami is a big reason why I committed here,” Louis said. “Everyone here has really lived by The Brotherhood – I know there’s some people who think that’s not true – but they really do live by it here, from the staff to the players, all around at the school, just unbelievable people here at Miami. The fans, obviously, and atmosphere are incredible.”
He said the combination of playing against international competition like in the Four Nations tournament parlayed with the U.S. team taking on college teams in exhibitions prepared him for life in Division I college hockey.
But it was a slow start for the offensive whiz, as he was limited to four goals and three assists in his first 17 games wearing a RedHawks sweater.
“Getting used to the system, and obviously guys are bigger,” Louis said. “I don’t think I was as consistent my freshman year, and I was in my own head a little bit, but as I grew as a player I obviously learned how to handle that. Once I did things started going much (better) for me.”
Louis began to thrive as that season progressed. He recorded eight goals and seven assists the final 15 games, notching points in all four of Miami’s postseason games.
While the RedHawks fell a goal short in the NCHC Tournament championship game, Louis earned a spot on the All-Tournament Team as he finished that event with four goals and a pair of helpers.
Louis followed up on that campaign by tallying nine goals and a career-best 27 assists as a sophomore, and once again Louis exceled as games became more important.
He scored twice and set up five more goals in six postseason games, including a 1-1-2 line vs. Providence in his lone NCAA Tournament contest.
In his junior season, Louis amassed 11 markers and 15 assists, and although Miami was limited to two playoff games – in the first round of the NCHC Tournament at Minnesota-Duluth – he scored once and dished for two helpers in that series.
That gave Louis a career 7-9-16 line in 12 postseason games his first three seasons in Oxford, as he has loved college hockey’s spotlight.
“I have a lot of fun with it,” Louis said. “I know a lot of guys are pretty nervous and overthink things. I just try to take it all in and enjoy the atmosphere. I think it’s the most fun time of the year.”
Named an assistant captain last summer, Louis’ goal and points totals are career highs, as he is 13-24-37 this season. For his career, he has 45 goals and 80 assists for 125 points, ranking him 22nd all-time among RedHawks skaters.
One more point would move Louis into a three-way tie for 20th.
“I think that’s obviously a huge accomplishment for him, and I’m happy for him and everything that he’s done,” Belpedio said. “Obviously we’re playing top teams every night, so for him to be able to do that says a lot about him.”
But beyond the offensive stats, Louis has worked to become a more complete player in his four years at Miami.
“My defensive game has gotten much better – this is my first year of penalty killing,” Louis said.
Louis is also proud of how much physically stronger he has become since that freshman campaign. Belpedio has been impressed with Louis’ leadership this season.
“Just because I wear the ‘C’ and he wears the ‘A’ doesn’t mean he’s not just as much of a leader as I am,” Belpedio said. “We work well with each other, and we’re two guys who like to lead by example. He’s a good leader, and he might not be the most vocal guy in the world, but he’s got character traits about him that make everyone else around him better.”
Louis is set to graduate in May, when he will earn a degree in sports management. From there it’s on to the pros, and no matter how his future career in hockey evolves, he will always cherish his Miami years.
“My experience at Miami has been incredible,” Louis said. “All of the people that I’ve met, and as a whole my teammates I’ve grown with – a lot of lifelong friends that I’ll have. And from a hockey (standpoint), it’s just been incredible playing in front of the fans here. Throughout the country, even the alumni supports us well. It’s truly a Brotherhood here. It’s pretty much everything I expected coming in. I’ve really enjoyed it. Hopefully it’s not over.”
OXFORD, Ohio – Johnny Wingels missed the last four months of his final juniors season because of concussions.
And after he’d worked his way back on the lineup card his first season at Miami 3½ years ago, the worst thing that can happen to someone coming off that type of head injury occurred: Another major concussion.
For the second time in a year, the 5-feet-10 defenseman suffered through the aftereffects. He decided the risk of permanent injury was too great and opted to hang up the skates after just 11 games in a RedHawks sweater.
“It was definitely always a dream of mine to play college hockey, and even though it only lasted half a season, it was a dream come true and I think I proved to myself that I was very capable of playing at this level,” Wingels said. “Because of that I don’t have any regrets with this decision and am satisfied with what I was able to accomplish.”
Wingels is the younger brother of Ottawa Senators forward Tommy Wingels, and when Johnny was very young, he was dragged to Tommy’s practices each morning. Inevitably, Johnny took up the sport as well.
The brothers are from Wilmette, Ill., a northern suburb of Chicago, and fortunately for Johnny Wingels, his juniors rights belonged to the Chicago Steel. He was called up from Triple-A to the Steel for two games in 2011-12 and was slated for a starting role the following season as an 18-year-old.
Wingels exceled in his only season in the USHL. He recorded assists in each of his first two games of 2012-13 and racked up seven in the first 22 contests.
“It was cool to play in my hometown – my parents got to come to all of my games, which was nice, and I got to live at home,” Wingels said. “So it wasn’t your typical junior experience. It was a pretty short junior career, but it was fun while it lasted.”
In mid-December vs. Dubuque, he received a minor concussion and was out for nearly three weeks.
But in his first game back from that injury, he was blindsided and suffered a more substantial concussion. Wingels said he had others before that, but these were his first two documented cases.
That cost him the balance of the season, as he wrapped up a brief juniors career with 26 games played, seven assists and a plus-2 rating.
Wingels had visited Princeton and Yale, but he had narrowed his college choices to St. Lawrence and Miami. With two sisters and his older brother having chosen the latter, Wingels went that route as well.
“I felt at home at Miami,” Wingels said. “It just was always a dream of mine to play here after seeing my brother play here when I was younger, so it definitely felt like it was the right decision to come here.”
Coming to Miami meant joining a team that his older brother had captained four seasons earlier. Tommy Wingels recorded 99 points in three years in Oxford and has logged 355 NHL games between San Jose and Ottawa, scoring 52 goals and assisting on 72 others.
By the start of the 2013-14 season, Tommy Wingels was a regular for the Sharks and had set a high bar for the Wingels name in Oxford. Comparisons were inevitable when another skater named Wingels joined the team.
“We were far enough apart (age wise) that I never really crossed paths with him,” Wingels said. “The only time I ever felt that was when I was considering coming to Miami. The coaching staff let me know that they were recruiting me for me and not because of my brother.”
Cracking MU’s lineup presented a challenge. Wingels had not played since January, and the RedHawks had seven other highly-skilled defensemen on their roster in 2013-14.
That meant Wingels was going to have to beat two of them out each night just to earn a spot in the lineup.
“It was a struggle to start, not having played in four or five months and getting back into hockey shape and game shape,” Wingels said. “It was difficult – it was a tough training camp – but the coaches prepared me very well, spent a lot of extra time getting me back into game shape and getting ready for the games. “
Wingels played in three of Miami’s first six games that season but was scratched for the next eight. Finally in late November, he forced his way onto the ice with his dependable and heady stay-at-home style, dressing for six consecutive tilts and eight of nine.
Wingels was a regular in the RedHawks’ lineup when he headed to Colorado College in late January of that freshman year.
In the series opener, Wingels got the puck from the blue line along the boards, ran a scissors play and tried to cut back. But when he did, he was crushed from behind, slamming his head into the boards.
No penalty was called at the time and Colorado College actually scored before the next whistle, but after reviewing the play, a major penalty was assessed to CC.
“Didn’t think too much of it at the time, had a little bit of a headache but nothing too serious,” Wingels said. “I didn’t think it was another concussion because I pretty much knew what the symptoms were from my other experiences.”
So he finished the game and felt fine the rest of that Friday night. But when he woke up on Saturday, those familiar concussion traits had returned.
And they didn’t go away.
At that point, Wingels had to weigh his future in hockey vs. his future quality of life. And while Wingels had logged quality minutes in his brief Miami career, he was undrafted, and just six defensemen in the history of Miami hockey have ever made the NHL.
He chose retirement.
“I was never actually told by a doctor that I needed to stop playing,” Wingels said. “I just talked with many doctors who were trying to get my symptoms to subside, and I tried many forms of treatment and none of them really seemed to help, and so it seemed like time was really the only thing that would help me in the long run. With my experience the year before, having symptoms for four or five months and having symptoms for four to five months after this last one, it just dawned on me that there’s a lot more to life than hockey, and I have 60, 70 years left of life ahead of me. So I just knew it was the right decision to stop playing, because I need my brain for longer than I need hockey.”
During this time, he read an article about Scott Parker, an enforcer for the Colorado Avalanche who sustained at least 20 concussions. At that point, it had been five years since head injuries forced Parker out of the game, but he still suffered from seizures, acute nausea and intense ringing in his ears.
Like the previous season, Wingels’ headaches and other maladies lasted over four months. The chance of long-term effects increase as concussion totals mount in an individual.
In about a year and a half window, Wingels had already suffered through the recovery process for over eight months in total.
“I sort of had the mindset that if I kept playing, I had to assume that this would happen again eventually just because of the nature of the sport, and that’s not something I was prepared to handle again,” Wingels said.
Fortunately for Wingels, he had already made a couple of close friends on the team in current fellow seniors Colin Sullivan and Justin Greenberg, who could empathize because of their own injury histories.
“He waited a while…we kind of knew he wasn’t going to play again because he was really struggling with headaches,” said Greenberg, who was concussed last season and dealt with the effects. “Obviously that’s not an easy decision, but I still remember when he came in and told us, he was pretty much in tears and the guys were pretty broken up about it.”
Said Sullivan: “That’s actually how we got to be really close. He dealt with concussions, and before I got here I dealt with concussions. I had one serious concussion going into my senior year of high school where I was out of school for two months. I’ve gone down that road and I know what he was going through, trying to come back. The headaches, the memory loss, you don’t really feel like yourself. I have the utmost respect for Johnny because what he’s had to go through I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.”
Wingels finished with 11 games played, seven shots on goal and seven blocked shots. But just because he was done as a defenseman did not mean his Miami career was over.
He was given an opportunity as a student-coach, a position he has held for the past three seasons.
“When I was going through this decision to stop playing, the coaches were extremely supportive and wanted me to do what was in my best interest, and they said I could be involved as much as I want or as little as I want,” Wingels said. “To start, I didn’t really have a clear mindset as to what I wanted to do, I just wanted to be around and obviously all of the guys on the team are my best friends. It just sort of evolved from helping out in drills, taking stats during to games to what it is now, which is helping out the coaches accomplish some of their coaching duties.”
Wingels said that being a coach who is also a student – and one who has players in his class still lacing up the skates – can be a little awkward.
“I feel like I’m sort of the liaison between the coaches and the players – whether that a good thing or a bad thing I’m not exactly sure,” Wingels said. “It’s a little bittersweet to see my classmates finish up their time here. I definitely wish I could be out there with them.”
And while Wingels is enjoying his role as a coaches’ assistant, his career goals are loftier. He has a 3.61 grade-point average as a finance major and would love to work on Wall Street.
Or if he did work in hockey, his dream job would be general manager of an NHL team.
“He could be a GM, he could be the CEO of some Fortune 500 company – I would give him all of my money to invest in whatever,” Sullivan said. “That’s how much I trust I guy, that’s how smart he is, and I’m sure Justin Greenberg’s going to be handling his books too.”
Greenberg and he and Wingels initially ended up hanging out frequently because the pair were in business school.
“I can’t even imagine how he went through everything he went through,” Greenberg said. “Hockey was everything. He had to make the decision, because it wasn’t healthy for him to keep playing. There’s always a life beyond hockey, we talk about that all the time – even coach does, no matter how long you’re going to play for. For him to come to the rink and be so positive is unbelievable. I can’t imagine having to do that.”
Wingels has made the transition from player to coach look easy, but his friends know how much he misses taking regular shifts on game night.
“The kid still comes to the rink every single day, he’s helping guys out on the ice, trying to help guys get better,” Sullivan said. “Watching us be able to play, and him I’m sure wishing to God he could – he’d give his right arm to play one game, one shift – so I gave the greatest respect for Johnny and what he’s had to go through. He’s somebody that younger kids should definitely emulate.”
Off the ice, Sullivan called Wingels one of the most genuine people he’s ever met.
“He’s super smart, super intelligent, just a really nice person,” Sullivan said. “He and I kind of have the same personalities, we watch the same movies, we’re too pretty big movie buffs – we swap movie quotes back and forth – he’s one of my roommates too. We spend a lot of time with each other, and Johnny is a guy I made friends with here and he’s going to be a friend for the rest of my life, for sure.”
Obviously, being limited to 11 games was not what Wingels was hoping for when he came to Oxford in the summer of 2013.
But he has still enjoyed the Miami hockey experience in addition to thriving in the classroom. And he has still found a way to contribute to the team without putting on his No. 21 jersey.
“It definitely didn’t go as I expected – I would’ve loved to have played four years here and then played professional hockey like my brother – go down that path, but it’s been a wonderful experience,” Wingels said. “I’ve had a great time here, I’ve made great friends and the coaching staff has been great. I have nothing to complain about during my time here, and the school here – it was just an awesome experience.”
OXFORD, Ohio – Miami suffered through a miserable 3-12-1 stretch to wrap up the 2013-14 regular season and limped into its conference tournament, finishing last in the NCHC.
That meant a best-of-3 series at top-seeded St. Cloud State just for the RedHawks to extend their season.
Miami shocked the Huskies by winning Game 1, and just as it appeared Game 2 would head to overtime, Justin Greenberg buried the game-winning and series-clinching shot in the closing seconds of regulation.
The decisive play started with Matt Joyaux knocking down a SCSU shot in front of his net and skating to center, where he fed streaking Anthony Louis on the right wing. Louis crossed the blue line, curled and slid a pass to Greenberg, who was open in the slot.
Greenberg settled the puck down and buried a wrister low to the glove side, then after sliding on his knees in celebration, he jumped into the arms of Alex Gacek – a close friend of his on the team – in one of the more picturesque moments in recent team history.
“It’s pretty unrealistic still because if you go back and look at it, I still remember Matty Joyaux – a freshman – blocks a shot and ends up passing up the ice to Anthony Louis, another freshman,” Greenberg said. “I had no idea how much time was left on the clock when it actually happened, which is probably bad on my part, I probably should’ve been more aware. But Anthony made a pass, and I remember when I shot it, I thought it was going in, in slow motion. I didn’t really have to do a lot because Anthony did all the work.”
It was just his second career goal, with his other coming in a 6-1 win over Colorado College 12 games earlier.
“When you come in as a freshman, it’s a big transition,” friend and student coach Johnny Wingels said. “College hockey is a much faster and bigger, stronger game than junior hockey is. With him being a smaller player, it can be difficult to get some confidence. Any time you can score a huge goal like that to make our team move on to the next round, that’s just a huge confidence booster, and everyone was really happy for him to able to score that goal.”
That shift is even more impressive considering Greenberg did not field Division I offers until midway through his final season of juniors.
Greenberg grew up in Plano, Texas, and he said his father, Joel, used to take him and his brother to watch his godfather’s son play. Both Greenberg brothers caught the fever and soon began lacing up the skates.
Even with the Stars entrenched in the local market, Greenberg said he had a difficult time gauging his ability because of the relative lack of teams in the area.
He was drafted by Green Bay of the USHL but ended up playing for the closer-to-home Texas Tornado of the NAHL. In Greenberg’s first season with that team, he recorded 27 points in 39 games, but more importantly, he netted the Robertson Cup-clinching goal in overtime.
Greenberg rolled up 25 goals and 32 assists for 57 points in 60 games in his second season with Texas, toward the end of which he ended up committing to Miami.
Greenberg’s brother was the same age as a former Miami forward from the Dallas area – Blake Coleman – and those two ended up playing against each other and becoming best friends.
“So it ended up being a pretty easy decision,” Greenberg said. “I had basically an older brother here the first couple of years.”
Greenberg did not commit until February of 2013, and was the last player in his class to sign.
When he came to Oxford, Coleman was the only MU player he knew.
“He definitely helped make the adjustment a lot more comfortable,” Greenberg said.
In his freshman season, Greenberg dressed for 33 of the RedHawks’ 38 games, including the final 25. He finished with two goals – including that series clincher vs. St. Cloud State – and six assists while taking just four minor penalties.
“All the coaches made me feel pretty comfortable right away, they made sure I was playing with confidence – that’s always been a big thing since I’ve gotten here is I’ve got to work on being more confident, being more mentally tough,” Greenberg said. “But I think a big thing was the coaches actually believed in me before I believed in myself. That’s what contributed to me playing that many games is (them) showing they had faith in me and that I was responsible enough to dress in almost every game.”
Greenberg should have been brimming with confidence after playing such a crucial role in Miami’s postseason, but he was unable to work out that summer because of shoulder surgery.
Partly as a result, on a points-per-game basis his sophomore season was his worst in Oxford, as he ended up with a goal and five helpers despite being in the lineup 35 times.
In his junior season, Greenberg saw more time on the penalty kill – partly due to the loss of key forwards including Austin Czarnik and Riley Barber – and he began to thrive in that role.
He played 32 games and scored just once but tallied a career-best nine assists.
“Greeny’s a huge impact player for us,” Sullivan said. “He’s the guy you want to be in a foxhole with. He’s totally selfless – he’s one of the most selfless human beings I’ve ever met, on or off the ice – he’s willing to sacrifice his body to block shots. He does all of the little things very, very well and I think that’s what makes him a huge impact player for us.”
Greenberg blocked 22 shots – third-best among forwards on the team – and was assessed just one minor penalty as he helped the RedHawks to a 91.0 percent penalty killing percentage.
“I feel like I’ve found a way to play a lot more minutes being responsible,” Greenberg said. “I know if we have a defensive zone faceoff, the coaches normally put me out there…same with PK, I normally play a lot of penalty kill.”
This season, he has improved his win percentage in the faceoff circle to .499 after a slow start on draws. He worked with former assistant and ex-Miami star Derek Edwardson tirelessly, and that effort seems to paying off.
“Every day after practice, you’ll see Kiefer Sherwood, he’s taking one-timers,” senior defenseman Colin Sullivan said. “But what you don’t notice is Justin Greenberg’s other there in the corner taking hundreds and hundreds of draws. He’s one of the hardest-working guys on this team. Everything that he’s been given he’s definitely deserved. He works super, super hard and he’s reaping the benefits of it right now.”
He has a goal and three assists, but unfortunately has missed the last nine games with a lower body injury.
“(Penalty killing forward) was definitely a hole that needed to be filled,” Sullivan said. “He’s a huge, huge befefit to our PK…he does all the little things that people who are not familiar with hockey might not notice, but the little detailed things that he does on the penalty kill and 5 on 5 makes a huge difference. Hopefully we can get him back soon.”
Greenberg is close to returning and could be back this weekend, as he has just four regular season games remaining in a career that has seen him improve dramatically in some of the nuances of the game.
“I’d say I definitely became a more complete hockey player,” Greenberg said. “I should’ve contributed a lot more than I have offensively, I’d say I do have the skill set to do it, but a lot of it was a confidence thing. But I’m glad I’ve found a lot of ways to at least contribute other than scoring since I’ve been here.”
Miami’s penalty killing was 85.0 percent with him in the lineup and 80.0 percent since his injury.
Greenberg is one of several Jewish players to come through the RedHawks’ hockey program in recent years. That list includes standouts Carter Camper and Matt and Nathan Davis.
Joel Greenberg is Jewish and Justin’s mother, Doreen, is Christian, but Justin was allowed to decide whether to go through Bar Mitvah when he was a teenager and both he and his brother chose that route.
“I felt like it was the right thing to do,” Greenberg said.
For his career, Greenberg has logged 121 games, piling up five goals and 23 assists for 28 points.
“He’s not someone that’ll jump out at you on the score sheet, he’s just very sound defensively, he’s always in the right position,” Wingels said. “He’s good at faceoffs, which is a really big thing for us, and we really miss him in the lineup. You can see that third-line center spot is really important, and you can right now with him out it’s something we’re lacking, and we’re looking forward to getting him back in the lineup.”
He has blocked 49 shots, and despite playing a defensive role much of the time, has just 30 penalty minutes.
“PK is one of his strong suits, and (with him out) you’ve got to get guys slotted in there who might not be the best in that role, but you need someone to do it,” Wingels said. “Having him back in the lineup, solidifying that PK will be a huge help for us. The penalty kill is something that we take huge pride in and we like to be at the top of the league every year.”
Wingels, Sullivan and Greenberg have been close friends the past several years.
“He’s a really nice kid – he’s a little quiet but he’s really funny as well,” Wingels said. “Once you get to know him he opens up more. He likes to joke around, have a good time. He’s really easy to talk to, and a big sports fan – we’re really similar in that, we’ll watch anything on TV that’s involving sports.”
Said Sullivan: “Justin’s my friend now, he’s going to be my friend until I’m 70, 80, 90 years old. That’s a reason why I wanted to come here is to build lasting relationships, and in Greeny I definitely did that.”
Greenberg said besides hockey, he said his personal growth is one of the best things to come out of his Miami experience. In the classroom, Greenberg has a 3.3 grade-point average as an accounting major.
“I’ve matured a lot,” Greenberg said. “To be able to play college hockey, you don’t realize coming in how much you need to mature mentally. Stepping from youth hockey to junior hockey, it’s completely different from stepping from junior hockey to college. Here, you’re on your own. You have the coaching staff, but they’re not with you at all times.”
Because he signed so late, Greenberg did not have the opportunity to visit Oxford prior to his freshman year, but he fell in love with the town and the program immediately.
“When I came here in the summer (before freshman year), I couldn’t believe it,” Greenberg said. “This place is awesome. We play in what many call the best league in the country, and you go to the (other) campuses, and I don’t even know how someone could even pick there if you’re not looking at hockey. Great town, great people.”
Looking at Gary Steffes’ career stats line from juniors in Cedar Rapids, four years in college and the last six years when he has played in several levels of the pros, his senior season at Miami stands out for all of the wrong reasons: 17 games, no goals, one assist.
Without knowing more about the 29-year-old forward, one might assume he was hurt that year, lost his passion for the game or battled any other of countless issues that sidetrack numerous would-be pro athletes from their ultimate goal.
But while many would hang up their skates and cash in their Miami degrees for lucrative jobs in their respective fields, the struggles of that 2009-10 campaign combined with hard work and a strong religious faith have culminated in his becoming one of the most lethal clutch scorers in the ECHL and Kelly Cup championships each of the past two seasons.
“I look back at my senior year, and it was probably one of the hardest years, hockey-wise, that I’ve ever had,” Steffes said. “I didn’t score a single goal all season, I had one assist and I played half of the games, and I really went through a lot. There’s no question that my faith in Jesus Christ was impactful for me.”
After netting just 12 goals in 98 games in the USHL, Steffes arrived in Oxford in the fall of 2006, becoming a member of the first freshman class to play at Cady Arena.
“I came in one guy and left another guy, both on and off the ice,” Steffes said. “Being a part of the RedHawks’ organization was an amazing blessing, and I can’t say thanks enough for how the coaching staff invested in me. When I think about my experience about Miami, it’s so much bigger than hockey, but my experience as a hockey player was top-notch. I got to play against some of the best programs in the world, and it was a tremendous honor. It developed me a ton, and I’m grateful.”
Steffes skated in all 42 games his rookie season, and as a sophomore, Steffes doubled his points total from his 5-3-8 freshman season, as he scored six times and set up 10 more while rising on Miami’s forward depth chart.
He also dressed for both games in the NCAA Tournament before Miami fell in the regional final.
Steffes was roomed with classmate and former NHLer Jarod Palmer when he first came to Oxford. The two had never met before but are now close friends.
“He was extremely energetic – a go-getter in every facet,” Palmer said. “I was a lot more laid back as far as life went, but Gary was 110 percent in everything he did, in every category. That really impressed me, honestly, and kind of intimidated me.”
Junior season was Steffes’ collegiate high point. It started with him recording a hat trick in the RedHawks’ home opener vs. Ohio State, and he finished with 11 goals – tied for fourth on the team – and 12 assists.
Miami advanced to the national championship game for the only time in its history, and Steffes netted the RedHawks’ first-ever NCAA title game goal.
“Junior year was probably the best year that I had of all of them,” Steffes said. “We get to go into the Frozen Four, and we beat Bemidji (State) and then we go to the national championship game, and the environment was just crazy. I still remember the line I got to play with and the teammates that I had – it was an exhilarating run and an exhilarating year, and really just to be a part of a team that was atop the nation fighting to win a national championship. It was an amazing experience that I’m blessed to have been a part of.”
There was reason to believe Steffes’ development would take yet another step forward in 2009-10, but his on-ice story in Oxford was pretty much complete.
“In college, (Steffes) had a tough time trying to stay calm,” Palmer said. “He was really nervous before games, and it would show in his play. He’d make panicked decisions out there. He wanted to be successful – he trained harder, he practiced harder than anyone. If you came to our practices you’d have thought he was the best player on the ice, without a doubt. But when it came to game time, performance time, he would get nervous and make strange decisions. As things didn’t go so well, his pressure increased.”
He was a healthy scratch down the stretch, including the NCAA Tournament as the RedHawks again qualified for the Frozen Four.
“Going through my senior season, it really was a very big maturing year, and the Lord, he pulled some things out of me and I had to develop in a lot of ways, mentally and emotionally. I look back at my performance, and I would’ve liked to have seen it a little better, but at the same time there are so many things that I took from that. I grew as a man, I grew as player – it was a tough year overall.”
Meanwhile, Palmer scored a team-high 18 times and picked up 27 assists for a RedHawks-best 45 points in his final season at Miami, but he was unable to help his struggling friend garner that same success.
“Senior year, he tried to find his way in life, and he really changed dramatically,” Palmer said. “He became a close follower of Christ, and I think it was really tough for him to watch other guys play games. He was (a) healthy scratch sometimes, and I saw that it hurt, it was really painful, and I didn’t really know how to help him. I tried to tell him mostly…he needed to relax, he needed to not think hockey is the most important thing in the world. He would put so much pressure on himself that he would kind of choke out there.”
Unless there’s a major injury, it’s almost a given that when a skater’s stat line reads 0-1-1 his final collegiate season, it’s time to find another line of work.
Steffes’ stock had obviously taken a major hit, and after being discussed as a potential AHL candidate prior to 2009-10, he found himself out of college eligibility and wondering if he had logged his last competitive game.
“I remember getting on my knees, saying Lord, if you want me to play, open up a door,” Steffes said. “But honestly, I didn’t have a ton of credibility to get my own contract. I didn’t know if I was going to play again. The Lord opened up a door in Tulsa, Oklahoma, to go play in the Central League and get my pro career started. It was crazy: An agent called me and asked if I wanted to play, and I said absolutely, I’d love to if there’s still an opening, and sure enough I had a contract a couple of weeks later, and I spent the next three years in Tulsa. I’m really grateful that I got to, I can tell you that.”
Tulsa, in the now-defunct CHL, was a step below the ECHL. Already 23 years old entering his first pro season, Steffes spent three full seasons with the Oilers and improved his points-per-game average in each one.
He went from 43 points in 66 games (0.65) as a rookie to 52 points in the same number of contests in his second pro season – a 0.79 clip – finishing third on his team in scoring and goals (22).
Steffes’ third season was a turning point in terms of offensive production. He scored 20 times and set up 14 more goals in just 37 games before vaulting two levels to the AHL, where he played 16 games with Lake Erie.
“I’d heard that the Central League was not the greatest league, and I was totally blown away by how gifted those players were,” Steffes said. “I grew so much as a player there, and my coach, Bruce Ramsay, took me under his wing and taught me how to be more offensive, and how to play in different spots on the power play, and how to be in situations that allow my game to develop and grow. And through that, I got my opportunity to go Lake Erie of the American League.”
Steffes put up a modest three points in his inaugural call-up to the Lock Monsters of North America’s second-best league, and his play in that 2012-13 season earned him a spot on Bakersfield of the ECHL the following fall.
It was Steffes’ first stint in that league, and he posted 18 goals and 17 assists, adding nine more points during the Condors’ conference finals run.
From there it was on to Allen – his current team and member of the ECHL – and Steffes has seemingly found the net at will since joining the Americans in 2014-15.
He led the league in goals with 44 despite a nine-game call-up to AHL Milwaukee. No one in the ECHL has scored more regular season goals since 2011. Steffes ended the season with 73 points and a plus-31 rating.
Steffes also netted four goals with the Admirals during his promotion and said that helped boost his confidence level even more.
“How could it not, right?” Steffes said. “You get to live out your dream, you get to go to the American League and play just on the verge of being in the NHL. There’s not an awe factor like there is some places. Now there’s a confidence like, holy smokes we could be called to be there tomorrow, and that’s just a totally different mentality. Obviously everyone’s games are totally top-notch, so it was extremely encouraging.”
He was sent back to Allen for the playoffs, where he resumed his torrid pace. Allen won the Kelly Cup that season, thanks largely to 13 goals by Steffes, tied for the second most that playoff year.
That gave him 61 goals between the regular season and playoffs.
Steffes called Palmer after he won that first Cup in Allen to thank him for helping him through that difficult period in Oxford.
In that conversion, Steffes told Palmer that he remembered their first game day together at Miami in the fall of 2006. Palmer was relaxed that day and took a nap while Steffes was pumped up in the hours before the puck dropped.
The result: Palmer had a solid night and Steffes did not.
“I said ‘wow, I’m glad I did something to help you out,’” Palmer said. “He said ‘I stayed really relaxed out there and we played great and we won the championship,’ and I said ‘that’s awesome’.
“The best athletes in the world, they’re not nervous before the game because they’re confident in themselves and they’ve practiced so many times and they’ve seen success in what they do so many times that they don’t have a thought in the world that something could go bad. It took Gary a long time to figure that out, and you can see it in pro hockey – he’s done really well for himself. Not just in the ECHL, but he’s gotten some chances to play in the AHL. That’s pretty special compared to where he finished his college career.”
But that was just half of Steffes’ championship story. He returned to Allen last season and earned another brief stint in the AHL, this time a two-game recall with San Jose where he picked up an assist.
Palmer, who had retired because of concussion issues in 2012-13 after six games in the NHL, actually joined shorthanded Allen over the holidays and played three games with his former Miami teammate before hanging up the skates again, this time for good.
“I’m really excited for him, to see his hockey success,” Palmer said. “I know he really battled hard in college and had some rough times, and to see him come out of that and end up becoming a champion in the (ECHL), it’s pretty cool. He was a captain in every way, shape and form. They even had him kind of coaching the penalty kill and teaching the system. It was pretty cool to see what a prominent role he played on the team.”
Steffes dominated in the playoffs again last season, amazingly putting up the same 13-5-18 postseason line en route to another Kelly Cup title this June.
“It’s such a neat feeling,” Steffes said. “You can look your brother in the eyes and say, ‘we did it’. Of all that we went through, in that moment you’re thinking about all of the bus trips, and you’re thinking about the ups and downs of your season, and you’re thinking about the injuries that guys took on, the guys that took big hits to make plays, the sacrifice guys made and the times you’re getting in at four in the morning from a bus trip and you’ve got to be up and ready to play the next day. There’s just this feeling of joy and relief and excitement and gratitude – it’s just a great feeling. And then that’s something you get to celebrate with your guys moving forward, right? We’ll always have that bond as brothers. It’s not just another team that we played for, it’s a team that did something successfully, a team that won the last game that they played in the season. That’s a pretty awesome feeling to have.”
So what has been the difference in Steffes’ game? He scored 22 goals in 136 games in four years with Miami and never recorded more than that in a single season dating back to juniors.
In 2014-15 and 2015-16 he has 96 between the regular and postseasons, including his trips to the AHL, in 192 games.
“I would say there’s been some significant development that’s happened in my career the past couple of years,” Steffes said. “My coach in Allen (Steve Martinson), of course, gave me the chance of a lifetime. He’s put me into opportunities when I can be effective offensively. And then I’ve had people come into my life that have really challenged me to become a critical thinker and to become a guy who is not just a robot and just does what coaches says but actually tries to get into (players’) heads as to how they think. When you watch the NHL and see some of the most prolific offensive players like Patrick Kane and Sidney Crosby and Joe Thornton and (Joe) Pavelski and try to get into their minds, and what are they thinking in different situations? I really put a lot of time into that, I was watching video, I was learning, I was practicing different skills and trying to learn how to be a scorer. And then I got a coach that gave me the opportunity to do it and the Lord totally blessed the road. I walked away with nearly 50 goals in a season and to be a part of two incredible playoff runs, words can’t really express how I feel when I think about the whole journey I’ve been on here.”
Steffes will return to suburban Dallas again this fall where he will attempt to skate the Kelly Cup for a third straight year.
With three trips to the AHL in four years, chances are good he earns another recall.
No one in the hockey world appreciates his opportunities as much as Steffes, yet like all North Americans that lace up the skates, he still has strong NHL aspirations.
“I dream of it, man,” Steffes said. “I’m getting older, and I’m being careful of that line of perseverance and stubbornness. There’s a line where either you have to keep fighting a little longer, or you’re at the point of stubbornness, and you’ve kind of got to let go. But I’m still going for it, and I would love to be able to make the NHL and play one game. Anything’s possible and I’m going to keep working at it until God leads me out of it, leads me away. I’m hopeful – you never know – I got an opportunity last year, and I got an opportunity with Milwaukee the year before. (Need another) opportunity, and you never know what can happen from it.”
Now 29, Steffes has to make that annual decision: To keep playing or to turn pro in another field?
Even now, at the top of his game, it’s something he thinks about each off-season.
“Those are questions that I’ve really got to take some time to start thinking through, especially heading into my seventh year,” Steffes said. “I’ve definitely considered going to Europe, I’ve considered playing until I can’t play any more – you know, when you hang them up, you hang them up. I realize it’s a very big decision and I still love the game. I feel like I’m the prime of my career, and I feel like I’m totally in the best shape of my life at 29, so I’m not in a rush to hang them up, but I don’t know, but as for now I definitely hope to keep playing for a little while here.”
Opportunities, constant learning and staying in peak physical shape are musts for a hockey player’s game to spike.
But then there’s the mental side, the side that began evolving for Steffes during a tumultuous senior season in Oxford. And for Steffes, that growth directly correlates to his faith.
“As my life began to change in so many ways, I had to learn how to be motivated differently,” Steffes said. “I think there was definitely a transition of going from being motivated to prove people wrong and being motivated to prove how good and prove my worth by my performance to playing because I love the game, and I love my teammates and I love the Lord and I want to honor Him the best I can and be a man of excellence and be a man of honor in everything I can do.
“To be completely honest, this twitch in motivation has actually raised my game, because now my end goal isn’t just to be great in people’s eyes, my goal is to be the best I can possibly be in God’s eyes, and that draws me to a place where in my heart, I know if I’m really giving my all or not.”
Prior to that life-altering senior season at Miami, it was expected that Steffes’ final campaign with the RedHawks would pick up where his third year had left off.
Double-digit goals and assists as a top-six forward, even on a loaded MU team.
It didn’t work out that way for Steffes in 2009-10. But what if it had? What if the ECHL came easily to Steffes right out of college? Would he still be the player he is today?
“Where would I be if I had gone on that road, where would I be if that had happened?” Steffes said. “I definitely don’t know that I would be as strong in certain areas of character, in certain areas of the mental game that I am today. I have so much grateful for, but I realize that I don’t want to walk through that again. But looking back on it I can’t help but be grateful for some things that came out of it.”
So many people encounter seemingly-overwhelming obstacles in hockey and in life, and Steffes talked about how to overcome them.
“The encouraging thing is even when you walk through a valley, it doesn’t mean there’s not the opportunity for a mountain to be coming,” Steffes said. “If people are going through valleys, there are three enemies to persevere: The first one is we can buckle under the pressure and we can totally cave under the pressure. The second one is we can bail, when things get hard we just want to escape and want to get out of there, and the third one is we can start blaming. We can blame others and start pointing the finger left and right. Those three things I think about all the time when things get hard: Don’t buckle, don’t bail and don’t blame. Some of those competitive quote-unquote set-backs in life are really set-ups for us to do something greater. For me I look back at that tough (senior) season, and it was hard. It was really hard. But it totally molded me and I learned so many things that year that have really been huge for my in my pro career. I learned so much about strength of character and maturity and perspective and things outside of the rink that have totally catapulted me to be the player I am today. Totally.”
Steffes, whose Bachelor of Science from Miami is in kinesiology and health, is involved in an organization called Fellowship of Christian Athletes. In the off-season, he travels around the country and the world, running hockey camps and teaching Christianity.
He enjoys meeting and helping kids that are struggling with their own challenges in life.
“It’s bigger than hockey, but hockey has become my tool to impact a lot of people for Christ,” Steffes said. “I’ve learned so many things about how to be a confident, consistent, excellent athlete that’s not defined by hockey. I think one of the biggest lessons that I’ve learned over the years is that it’s so easy – especially for us as men – to be completely defined by what we do. What we do determines our worth and our value, and (determines) what other people think about us. To find freedom from that and to be able to experience the game the way it was intended to be played – you can compete when every time you’re touching the ice you’re not worried about your worth, your value being on the line. If you totally blow it, you totally fail you’re still the same guy – you’re worthy, you’re valuable. I think that is one of the biggest aspects of my journey is learning and realizing that hockey does not define me any more.”
When Steffes finally has to put the skates away for good, he would like to stay involved in the sport that he loves. He said he may write a book about his life and how to be a victorious Christian athlete.
“He’s very happy,” Palmer said. “He’s enjoying hockey, and he’s enjoying life – success or not – and I think that’s something that’s different about him since I played with him in college to now. When he found Christ he realized that he was loved by the Creator in all facets, regardless of whether he scored goals or not – that’s not something that’s very important in terms of eternity. Something for him was he found out that it wasn’t life or death to perform or not perform. Obviously everyone wants to perform and it’s always nice and feels good too, but I think Gary has gotten to the point where when he has a bad game or a bad shift, it doesn’t affect him like it used to because he knows he’s loved eternally by Jesus Christ. He’s a very loving human being and I think that comes from the Creator and his relationship with Christ.
“When I meet with him he likes to ask me the deep questions in life, like how’s your social life, how’s your relationship with your wife and your kids? And those are things that can be uncomfortable to talk about sometimes, but he’s really, genuinely concerned. Gary’s a very special human being because of how much he cares and loves people.”
To find out more about the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, click here:
OXFORD, Ohio – Alex Gacek finished his first season of junior hockey with 33 goals in 40 games and won a league championship.
He had also been selected to represent the U.S. in the prestigious Five Nations Tournament prior to the start of that 2009-10 campaign.
But in the summer of 2010, at age 17, Gacek suffered a full patellar tear, ripping the ligament that connects the kneecap to the tibia completely off the bone.
Two years later, Gacek limped into Oxford a shell of that standout player.
But nearly 3 1/2 years later, he has become an all-around force, scoring and setting up goals, killing penalties, blowing past would-be defenders and laying out anyone that gets in his way.
“That really did a number on my confidence more than my skill,” Gacek said. “Coming here, these guys gave me a shot. I’ve worked with some great people, and they’ve really helped my confidence pull a 180.”
Gacek hails from Dracut, a Massachusetts town north of Lowell near the New Hampshire border.
As a child, he told his parents while watching a Bruins game that he wanted to learn how to skate and play hockey.
With pond hockey a regional institution in the area, Gacek’s father, Mark, built an outdoor rink for the family to enjoy in the winter.
“I will never forget some of the memories of being out there – late nights, early mornings – how much my parents and my sister have given to me.”
When he reached juniors age, Gacek was fortunate enough to join New Hampshire, a powerhouse that has won seven titles in the Eastern Junior Hockey League. The team was also within driving distance, so unlike many hockey players of that age, he did not have to move.
“It was a team very much like this team: Very tight-knit, we wanted each other to do well no matter what the circumstances were, and we won a championship,” Gacek said.
But that summer while working out, Gacek severely injured his knee. He tried to come back the following season but was ineffective.
He was rushed back into action, which actually delayed the overall recovery process.
Gacek still played in 41 USHL games in 2010-11 but he did not score a single goal and finished with just eight assists and a minus-18 rating.
Even after racking up 32 points in 57 games with USHL Youngstown in 2011-12, he was not the same player he was previously heading into his freshman season in Oxford.
A New Englander choosing Miami is somewhat of a rarity, since a large number of the Division I programs are in the northeast.
Gacek said most people growing up in his area wanted to play for Boston College or Boston University, but neither made an impression on him.
“I guess I was an oddball – I didn’t really know where I wanted to go,” Gacek said. “A scout and I started talking more and more, and I did some homework, but what really sold me was the concept of The Brotherhood. I’m a really big family guy and obviously this program prides itself on family, so it was an easy fit.”
One player Gacek already knew when he moved onto campus was senior goalie Jay Williams, whom he had befriended in juniors.
“I remember when we first got here, he had had a rough junior experience as well, and that was something we could bond over,” said Williams, who never was able to start consistently in the USHL. “But as soon as he got his confidence and kind of got his footing, he was able to get comfortable with the guys in the room and develop that trust and that bond. He’s not always necessarily on the stat sheet but the contributions he makes, night in and night out – penalty killing, defensive zone, even just generating offense, getting in on the forecheck and stuff – it’s invaluable to this team, and he’s been a big part of the success that we’ve had for four years.
“He’s one of my best friends in the whole world. I knew him when he first committed – before I had committed – and we were roommates together freshman year. He’s real quiet at first, comes across a little shy, but once he gets comfortable and opens up, he’s awesome.”
Just four games into his RedHawks career, Gacek scored his first goal at Michigan, tying the score at two early in the third period and sparking a three-goal outburst in the final frame as Miami won, 4-3.
Overall, Gacek was not a major points producer as a freshman or sophomore, going 3-4-7 both seasons in 73 games.
But junior year, Gacek turned into a complete player. He scored five goals, including two in a critical late league game vs. Denver, and tallied nine assists.
His defense also was noticeably improved, as he became a dependable penalty killer and solid shutdown forward.
“He’s learned the system, he’s one of the best guys in the system, and that’s what the PK is about – knowing the system and being able to execute,” senior forward and captain Sean Kuraly said. “He’s one of the best, if not the best.”
That surge in all aspects of play has continued in 2015-16. Gacek already has five goals and 10 assists for a career-best 15 points, and he leads the team by six in plus-minus with a rating of plus-11.
And he seems to have saved his best hockey for his final stretch run. Gacek has six points in his last 10 games.
“The knock on me prior to coming in was my defense,” Gacek said. “I really took that to heart, and I really bore down and focused on it, and I’m happy with my defensive game. I really enjoyed PK-ing now – our PK this year is outstanding, and thanks to coach (Brent) Brekke and coach (Enrico) Blasi, we owe them all the credit for sure.”
Gacek is one of the key penalty killing forwards on a unit that is second in all of Division I only to Yale at 92.4 percent.
“He’s the ultimate competitor, a warrior, he sacrifices his body – you see him blocking shots,” Williams said. “Plus, the speed he has, he’s able to put pressure on them and still track back and get back without getting out of position, sometimes force them into errant passes. Luckily, we’ve been pretty good on the PK this year and his is the first name on the list when we have a big penalty to kill, it’s Gace.”
In his four seasons, Gacek has been in the lineup for 143 of 149 games, missing just one since his freshman year and dressing in 92 straight contests.
“You guys can see it from the stands, he’s a top guy on this team,” Kuraly said. “Without him, we lose a lot up front, and in the locker room he’s a leader.”
He has 16 goals and 27 assists for 43 points and has been assessed just 42 penalty minutes. Gacek also has a career plus-11 rating.
“Coming here I obviously wasn’t a perfect player, so the guys here at Miami – the coaches in particular – have really helped me perfect my 200-foot game,” Gacek said. “Obviously I still have a lot of work to do, but from the time I came onto campus to now has been a great improvement.”
Throughout his career, NHL-caliber speed has been a trait Gacek has prided himself on. All four seasons in Oxford he has been one of the fastest skaters on the team.
“Those guys that are playing first line, he creates space for them and sometimes he can be a spark for us,” Kuraly said. “When guys aren’t feeling it he’s the guy that gets us going a lot of times.”
Despite being 5-feet-8, another attribute of Gacek’s is his hitting ability. Giving 20 or more pounds to most players in college hockey, he has taken on countless bigger players and often sends them flying.
“He’s a really strong kid – it’s really not a surprise to us,” Kuraly said. “He can lift just as much weight as anybody in the weight room. It’s a combination of speed and power, and he’s got both.”
Gacek weighs 180 pounds, which is impressive given his height.
“He’s a freak, he’s an animal,” Williams said. “You see him without his shirt on in the weight room, he’s just thick and he’s strong and he’s tough. Nicest kid in the world, best kid in the world but when it’s time to go, he’s got a mean streak to him and he’s not afraid of anyone or anything.”
Said Gacek: “I guess I’ve kind of got a mean streak in me – I’ve had it since I was little. My father said the bigger they are the harder they fall, so I kind of put all of my effort into it and try to separate the man from the puck is really my main goal whether they fall or not. I guess moreso they’re falling than not.”
Gacek would like to continue playing hockey after this season but ultimately wants to get his Masters degree in the business field after graduating this spring. He has a 3.43 grade-point average as a sports leadership and management.
He is interested in coaching when his playing days are over, and he said he has already picked a couple of coaches’ brains on the subject.
“He’s a tremendous kid, tremendous work ethic,” Williams said. “Obviously you can see the relentless mindset. Whether he continues to play or whatever he may do he’s going to be a successful person.”
But in the meantime, he is excited about the final weeks of his collegiate career, which will hopefully culminate in an NCAA Tournament berth for the third time in his four seasons.
“I really can’t thank everyone that’s part of this program enough,” Gacek said. “The Brotherhood is really something special. Definitely some of my favorite memories have been here, both on and off the ice. I owe this program to becoming who I am today. Just the growth and the life lessons that I’ve learned here have really helped me mature. I can’t believe my time here is coming to an end – it’s pretty bittersweet, but I really love this program.”