Only a select few hockey players are talented enough, work hard enough, and get the chance to move on up the ranks to play at the NCAA Division I level. The Mahoning Valley Phantoms have been producing such players routinely, however, having sent 45 former players onto college in their five-year existence.
Last season, the Phantoms not only enjoyed their most successful year to date on the ice, but off it as well, getting 10 players committed to D-I universities - the organization’s main goal as a Junior A team.
Among those Phantoms alumni are current college freshmen Ryan Zapolski (Mercyhurst), Dustin Cloutier (Bentley), Mike Fillinger (Ferris State) and Nathan Longpre (Robert Morris).
Zapolski, 21, was arguably one of the best goaltenders in the NAHL last season. The Erie, Pa., native collected a 42 wins, a 2.32 goals-against average and a .929 save percentage during the season before leading the Phantoms to the Robertson Cup championship game.
This season, as a freshman at Mercyhurst College in his hometown, the netminder has enjoyed the benefit of immediate playing time on a Lakers team loaded with young talent and ready for the future.
“It has been pretty good so far,” said Zapolski. “It’s a bit different than playing juniors. There is a lot more balance, but I’m getting used to it. I’m looking forward to some more playing time here in the coming years and getting myself ready to play pro hockey.”
Zapolski will soon be joined by two other current Phantoms who have committed to Mercyhurst: forward Kurt Washnock in the 2009-10 season, and forward Grant Blakey for the 2010-11 Lakers campaign.
At this time a year ago, Cloutier, also 21, was on his way to tallying 83 points in just 52 games for the 2006-07 Phantoms. More incredibly, the native of Berkley, Mich., came huge when the team needed him most, notching 10 points in 10 playoff games and racking up 16 game-winning goals throughout the regular season and playoffs.
Although the Bentley Falcons are struggling through a rebuilding season this year in the Atlantic Hockey Conference, Cloutier has made an indelible mark, and is currently fourth on the team in scoring.
“It’s definitely different,” said Cloutier when asked about his experience as a freshman. “Going from playing hockey and maybe having a job to being a full-time student is different, but it has been easy to adjust to.
“We have a good young team here, and we are going to keep improving, and I think we’ll have a chance at going to the (NCAA) tournament in the next few years.”
Cloutier has the privilege of playing alongside two other former Phantoms, junior forward Anthony Canzoneri and sophomore forward Marc Menzione. Next season, the trio will be joined by a fourth Phantom, veteran defenseman and current team captain Trent Bonnett.
Another former Phantom earning his place as a freshman on a D-I roster is 19-year-old Fillinger. Twelve months ago, the Grand Ledge, Mich., native was gearing up for a playoff push that would eventually see him collect nine goals and 13 points in just 10 games, after a season in which he racked up 44 points.
In his first season as a Ferris State Bulldog, Fillinger had a breakout weekend back in December at the Toyota UConn Hockey Classic, notching a game-winning goal and an assist while being named the Central Collegiate Hockey Association’s Rookie of the Week.
Fillinger credits Phantoms coach-GM Bob Mainhardt and assistant coach Curtis Carr for much of his development.
“It’s been great,” said Fillinger. “It’s a very welcoming atmosphere up here in Big Rapids (Mich.), and Coach Mainhardt and Coach Carr really helped me prepare well for the step up to this level. I’m really hoping now that we can win a CCHA title here (in the next few years). We have some really good talent and a lot of work ethic as well.”
Former Phantoms defenseman Evan Case, who was recently named CCHA Defensive Player of the Week, is Fillinger’s teammate this season, and the two will soon be accompanied at Ferris State by current Phantoms scoring leader Derek Graham.
Longpre is another Phantoms alum to have had an outstanding rookie season thus far. A year after collecting 65 points with Mahoning Valley, the 19-year-old Longpre, a native of Peterborough, Ontario, is the leader among freshman scorers at Robert Morris University (Pittsburgh). Longpre is tied for fourth overall on the team with 21 points.
Besides Blakey, Washnock, Graham and Bonnett, at least four other current Phantoms will soon leave their junior hockey playing days behind them in order to take their careers to the next level.
Committed to join the NCAA Division I ranks are forwards Alden Hirschfeld (Miami-Ohio), Miles Winter (Quinnipiac) and Scott Moser (Canisius) and defenseman Eric Ringel (Notre Dame).