GLENS FALLS — Paul Rodrigues and Stephen Johnson are different ages, play different positions and have different personalities.
But if talk in the Adirondack Thunder locker room ever turns to crazy drills their college hockey coaches made them do, one of them can talk and the other can just nod his head.
In a sport filled with players who either played in Juniors or NCAA Division I programs, Rodrigues and Johnson are rare in that they not only graduated from a Division III college, but the same one: SUNY Oswego.
Rodrigues, a 29-year-old forward from Etobicoke, Ontario, graduated from Oswego in 2013. Johnson, a 25-year-old defenseman from Mississaugua, Ontario, graduated in May.
They laughed recently at how two guys — with birthdays just five days apart — from the other side of Lake Ontario than the one they ended up at would land on the same ECHL team. Part of that is because of Thunder head coach Brad Tapper, who said a player’s hockey background doesn’t matter to him — proved by the fact he also has Evan Neugold, from Division III Middlebury College, on the roster.
“Doesn’t matter where they come from as long as they want to play the game and they’re motivated to play here,” Tapper said. “Obviously their skill set has to be at a certain level for them to play here and they have to have a grit factor to play here as well.”
Tapper and associate coach Alex Loh start by talking to people who know potential players.
“We don’t want poor attitudes here. If they have a good attitude, that’s step number one and we go from there,” Tapper said.
Still, what numbers are available don’t lie. According to the latest NCAA data, from 2016, only 5.6 percent of NCAA ice hockey players make it to the NHL. The number of NCAA ice hockey players who turn professional but don’t reach the NCAA wasn’t even analyzed. So it’s a pretty big deal for one of the SUNY’s best programs to have two pro ice hockey players.
Oswego and beyond
Rodrigues looked at some Division I colleges, but said Division I “just wasn’t in the cards.” There were also some Division III schools interested in him.
“I was actually going to go a year earlier to Elmira College or Plattsburgh, and I decided to give myself a last chance in juniors, and Oswego was on the high end of wanting me to go there,” Rodrigues recalled. “I visited the school and it was better than a lot of the Division I programs I’d visited, so I said, ‘You know what? Let’s go with it. They’re going to treat us well, they’re going to develop us and we’ll see what happens after that.’ ”
What eventually happened was that Rodrigues was named Division III Player of the Year his senior season and helped lead the Lakers to the Division III championship, which it lost to Wisconsin-Eau Claire. He just had to get past his first day on campus.
“I wanted to leave, I’d never been away from home,” Rodrigues said. “Then I got to meet all my teammates, got to go to classes and I was, like, ‘OK, this is kind of fun.’ ”
Johnson had taken two years away from school while playing juniors and wanted to get back to the classroom.
“I decided to forgo my last year of juniors and just go to school,” he said. “I think the main reason I went was that they had a good business program. I was able to learn quite a bit there and get good life lessons and knowledge I’m going to use in my future.”
What Rodrigues and Johnson found in the hockey program was that head coach Ed Gosek runs it like a Division I progam.
“Pretty much 3,000 fans a game (its maximum capacity),” Rodrigues said of home crowds. “The facility is top-end. It’s maybe 10 years old now, but everything seems like it’s brand new, state-of-the-art. And the athletic program now has really amped up its facilities as well, so everything you see is getting better and better.”
Rodrigues and Johnson also said hockey players had the top athletic reputation on campus.
“I don’t know if it’s selfish, but you are kind of the big guys on campus, so it was a lot of fun to have people look up to you, support you. It made for a good experience,” Rodrigues said.
“Even in classes, when people would realize you’re on the hockey team, they’d always be going crazy asking about games, what’s going on and all that stuff,” Johnson said. “I tried to keep a fairly low profile, but sometimes it was tough.”
Enter Gosek, who always required his players to perform community service and reminded them that heavy is the head that wears the crown.
“He’s an unbelievable guy,” Johnson said of Gosek. “He does push you to be the best you can be, whether that’s on the ice or off the ice. He really holds you accountable for all your actions. The four years there were great. He was definitely a big reason I went there.”
Pro? OK, pro
For both having ended their college careers well, turning professional wasn’t on their radars. Rodrigues was a public justice major, with a minor in health science and athletic coaching. Johnson was a double major in finance and marketing.
Someone brought up playing professionally to Rodrigues, but he decided to put it off and get on with his life. The summer after graduation, Rodrigues’ now-fiance asked him, ‘Why don’t you try?’
His first team was Pensacola of the SPHL, where he played 20 games before playing 40 that same season with South Carolina in the ECHL. After spending last season with Norfolk, where he finished with 12 goals and 20 assists, Adirondack signed him for this season.
“The last few years have gone really well, but at the beginning of college I never would have thought pro was an option,” Rodrigues said. “All of a sudden it was like, ‘I can do this.’ Five years now and I’m still doing it.”
“I was more focused on school,” said Johnson, a first-team All-American his senior year. “When I got the call from Alex, I thought, ‘You know what? I won’t get another opportunity to do this, so try it out.’ ”
The fact that a fellow Laker has played professionally for five years gives Johnson some motivation, but he prefers a more short-term outlook.
“I just take it day by day, try to do the best I can and have fun with it — that’s the most important thing, I feel like,” Johnson said. “Obviously, you could be doing something else, making more money, but it’s fun to play the game, especially at this level.”
How Rodrigues and Johnson are off the ice carries over some to how they are on the ice. Both are well spoken, but Rodrigues is more vocal. To that end, Rodrigues is an aggressive forward. Whatever move he makes, you’ll know it. Johnson, on the other hand, is steady and quiet.
“He’s a quiet personality,” Gosek said. “He stays right in the middle the whole time — never gets too up or too down.”
Tapper had no problem seeing that Johnson was a nice but quiet young man.
“But on the ice, because he’s so quiet in the locker room, he’s quiet out there,” Tapper said. “So we’re always on him. ‘You know, you need some chatter. It’s OK to talk out there. It’s OK to be loud, yell to your teammate for the puck.’ ”
Johnson is also honest to a fault. Tapper could tell that he and Rodrigues hadn’t skated as much as they should have over the summer. It’s just that Johnson confessed.
“I said, ‘Don’t ever tell a head coach that again,’ ” Tapper said, laughing. “We like him a lot. He can play forward or ‘D’, but we do like him on our back end because he buys into our system really well.”
Tapper said Rodrigues’ play during January stood out to him.
“Took him a little while to get going, but he’s hit his stride really well. He’s competing more for pucks, he’s using his legs, he’s skating hard,” Tapper said.
Gosek is thrilled to have two alumni playing professionally.
“We understand how hard hockey is at the ECHL level,” Gosek said. “There’s incredibly talented players in that league. If they’re willing to put the time in, I’m sure they can do well.”