As the Wichita Thunder prepare to take on the Colorado Eagles in the first round of the ECHL playoffs, Robert Pannier from the Minor League Sports Report features forward Steven Iacobellis, who has returned from a serious leg injury in December to help inspire the team in their upcoming playoff series.
Steven Iacobellis Returns to the Ice
There is truly nothing like playoff hockey. Where every check, shot, and penalty could be the difference between a run for the Cup and an early exit. Where the intensity reaches a boiling point, and the scrutiny on performances by players and coaches is akin to being interrogated by two police detectives.
While these things make the playoffs in hockey unique to that of all other sports, the truth is that it is the unusual stories of guts and determination that separate it from all others. It is the ball on Chris Pronger’s foot getting broken, yet him still returning to the ice to help the Edmonton Oilers playoff run.
It is Bobby Baun scoring the game-winning goal in overtime that gave the Toronto Maple Leafs the Stanley Cup championship after his fibula was broken by a Gordie Howe slapshot earlier in the contest. These are the kinds of stories that make legends of players, and help to make playoff hockey something that is truly extraordinary.
It is also these kinds of stories that help to inspire a team to go much further in their playoff run, maybe even all the way to the Cup. That is the kind of inspiration that the Wichita Thunder hope that forward Steven Iacobellis provides as they look to win their first Kelly Cup since joining the ECHL.
A Cold Day in December
The day was December 16, 2017. Steven Iacobellis was in just his 14th professional game when a freak accident led to the complete break of the bone in his leg. It was a stunning turn of the events for the rookie, as it looked like his 2017-18 season was over. Clearly, not the start to his professional career that Steven envisioned.
Ever since he was about three years old, there was not a day that he can remember where heading to the rink was not a part of his daily routine.
“I grew up learning how to skate. My sister was in figure skating and I got on the ice with her while she was figure skating and I just fell in love was skating. The next thing you know I had a stick in my hand, shooting the puck around. From an early age, I just loved it.”
Steven was not only excelling on the ice but on the pitch as well. His play actually opened the door for him to pursue both sports, but he knew that if he was going to have great success he had to choose one of them. When you get down to it, there was really only one choice.
“I think I thought that I had a better future. I think I was a good soccer player too, but I just thought there was more of a future in hockey growing up in Canada. That kind of made the decision a little easier.”
Pursuing the Dream
At 15, the forward joined the Penticton Vees of the British Columbia Hockey League (BCHL). He played in just two games his first season but, in 2010-11, he became an everyday player for the Vees, appearing in 47 games. Steven scored 7 goals and added 8 assists, helping the team reach the playoffs.
Steven was having some success, but there was a great deal of adjustment. This was the juniors and skill level and talent was definitely something he had to adjust to.
“Everything in juniors is a little faster. I think the biggest thing going to juniors was that it was the first time being away from home for so long. I think you kind of mature a little faster. It’s cool to see the world and you have a different perspective on the world when you’re living on your own or living with another family. Hockey wise, it was just a little bit faster, everybody’s a little bit bigger. Playing in juniors I played against a lot of guys who were bigger than what I was used to, which was good for my experience.”
A year later, Iacobellis moved to the Cowichan Valley Capitals, where he had a breakout season, scoring 13 goals and adding 27 assists in 61 games. The Capitals advanced to the playoffs, where Steven added 2 goals and 4 assists in 7 games.
In 2012-13, he began the season in Cowichan Valley, but the Salmon Arm Silverbacks acquired the forward after just four games for the Capitals. He had his best offensive season yet, scoring 15 goals and 27 assists in 35 games, giving him 45 total points between the two teams in only 39 games. He was named as the Unsung Hero by the Salmon Arms.
By the Stick He Achieves Excellence…
After his junior eligibility had been reached, Steven Iacobellis headed to college, moving to the United States to attend the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. Steven came to Amherst as an economics major and he would earn his degree in that field, but he also came to the school to play hockey.
Steven had an immediate impact for the Minutemen. In his freshman season, the forward scored 11 goals and added 10 assists. That earned him Rookie of the Year honors with the team, not only for his scoring but because of all the areas of the game where he excelled. In fact, Iacobellis was fourth in all of Division-I hockey in faceoff wins by a freshman and eighth in faceoff winning percentage, an area in hockey he feels is one of the trademarks of his game.
“I look at myself as being good in all areas and I kind of pride myself on that, but I take a lot of pride in my face-offs. You have to be tenacious, aggressive, but also be smart and be able to anticipate. I have worked hard on that.”
The success in his first year of college hockey also opened his eyes to realize that his dream of playing professional hockey could very well become a reality.
“I think I always had a dream of going pro since I was little. I always thought that there would be a chance that I could play professionally. When I was offered a scholarship to play college hockey, I thought that this was a lot more real. I thought I had a chance to really do something with this. After my freshman season, I realized that this was my opportunity and I was going make the most out of it.”
His sophomore season, Steven scored 8 goals and added 16 assists in 34 games. His 24 points ranked him third on the team as he helped the Minutemen reach the Hockey-East playoffs. He even earned conference Player of the Week honors.
There Is a Lesson in All Things
Over the next two seasons, Steven Iacobellis continued to put up solid numbers. In his junior season he scored 4 goals and added a single season high 17 assists. He would duplicate the point total in his senior season, scoring 8 goals and adding 13 assists.
However, UMass struggled mightily. In 2015-16, the team went 8-24-4, finishing last in the conference. A year later they would finish 5-29-2, finishing in last in the Hockey-East once again. Losing is never fun, but it gave Iacobellis a chance to improve on one particular part of his game.
“Growing up, I’ve definitely been in situations where I’ve gotten too high or way too low. I think college hockey actually really helped me with that. We kind of struggled for a few years. We had a little success at times, but I was able to learn how to manage my emotions and I think my coaches in college helped me by stressing that. Things are always going to go wrong and you are going to have success, but you just got to put your head down and keep working. That’s kind of my mentality.”
After graduating from Massachusetts, Steven Iacobellis was ready to move onto the next chapter of his career. He had offers from several teams, including in Europer, but was looking for a place where he had the best chance to play and grow as a player. Surprising even to Steven, Wichita became the choice.
“I talked to my agent who knew (Head Coach) Malcolm (Cameron), and gave him a call and he told me he had a spot here for me in Wichita. We kind of worked some things out, but I was kind of shocked to hear that there was a team here and the decision to actually come here was a little shocking, but I couldn’t be happier,” Steven explains with a laugh.
While the system was important, the truth is that a player is not going to get better if he is not on the ice. Add to it the fact that there were people he knew with the Wichita Thunder and the choice really was an easy one.
“It’s a good spot to play, I knew Mark MacMillan and Joel Rumpel. Knowing that my agent knew Malcolm and knowing that I was going to get the opportunity is all that you can really ask for.”
There Was Really No Doubt
Steven Iacobellis had an immediate impact with the Wichita Thunder. He was in the lineup each of the first 14 nights of the season, scoring 3 goals and adding 4 assists. That tenaciousness he showed in faceoffs was seen all over the ice and he had regular shifts each night.
That is until that cold night in Idaho.
The injury was serious. A pin was placed in Steven’s leg to help mend the bone and it would be until late February before he was able to really put any weight on the leg at all. The injury was stunning to say the least, but not one that would leave the Thunder forward down.
“At first, you kind of have to get over that depression a little bit. You know that you’re going to be out for some time, but you got to quickly set your mind to the fact that you’re going to recover and do everything within your power to get back as quick as you can because, like most things, a recovery in hockey is really about getting your mind straight.”
The injury could very well have been a season ending one, but the team never doubted for a second that Iacobellis would return. In fact, during an interview in early February, Coach Cameron made it very clear he expected his forward back.
“This season isn’t over. There is a lot of hockey left, and we expect Steven Iacobellis to be back on the ice. He’s a tough kid and, if we are playing playoff hockey, we expect him in the lineup.”
The words of the Thunder Head Coach proved to be quite prophetic. Two games before the end of the season, Steven Iacobellis returned to the ice. He played regular shifts against the Colorado Eagles, not only giving him some game time experience, but also allowing him to get his feet wet against the team the Wichita Thunder will be playing in the first round of the Kelly Cup playoffs.
Through Pain Comes Growth
For four months, Steven Iacobellis watched his team play hockey from the press box at INTRUST Bank Arena. He longed to get back on the ice, but the rookie also saw this as an opportunity to improve his game in other ways.
“I had a lot of time to watch this year. I think system wise, I’ve had a lot of opportunity to watch and really understand how to slow down the game when you get out there. When you get out there, things move a lot faster. The game is fast and you don’t have a lot of time, but watching helps you to prepare in advance. I think it will help me when I get on the ice to slow things down, make smarter decisions. When you’re up here, you see where guys make mistakes and it really helps you to see things clearer.”
What makes sports so unique from most other professions is that the relationships you build are as solid as any you will find (maybe only matched by those in the military). You sweat and bleed with your teammates, and failure on the ice or field is like losing the battle.
The challenge of returning to the ice required a lot of hard work by Steven, but it also required him to lean on those friendships to help keep him inspired. An injury such as this is not an easy one to return from, especially in just four months period of time, but those friends helped to make it possible.
“I’ve got a lot of friends at home that are still playing at a very high level, and I know that when I look to them that they are there with me. It takes a lot of talking to friends to just keep going, to have them tell you to keep your head down and keep grinding.”
Win One for the Iaco!
On Sunday, the Wichita Thunder will play their first playoff game since joining the ECHL three seasons ago. They are facing the heavily favored Colorado Eagles, who finished 28 points ahead of them in the Mountain Division standings.
Those are some pretty heavy odds to overcome and the team will need a great deal of inspiration to help propel them to victory in this series. Fortunately, all they have to is look over in the locker room at Steven Iacobellis for that motivation and remember one thing. If their teammate can make the impossible come true by coming back so early, then maybe they can overcome the long odds as well. So, get ready, the Wichita Thunder are ready to shock the world.
Featured Image by Ed Bailey
By Robert Pannier