RECENT COLLEGE PLAYERS GET TASTE OF PROFESSIONAL GAME WITH WILDApr 8, 2018
By Tom Witosky
When new arrivals enter the Iowa Wild locker room to store their gear, they don’t find their names anywhere.
Instead, the player will find a placard that describes what they are, not who they are.
“We’ve got New Guy 0, Newer Guy 00, and Newest Guy 000,” Mike “Tuna” Lefczik, the Wild’s equipment manager, explained. “We change it when we get a placard with their name on it. It takes a couple days.”
Three new Wild arrivals – defenseman Louis Belpedio and forwards Mitch McLain and Gerry Fitzgerald – more than likely will be getting a placard for their lockers before long, Wild Head Coach Derek Lalonde said recently.
“I like all three of them. Louie is obviously a huge priority for the organization,” Lalonde said. “Mitch and Fitz are a fit for us. They’ve performed great for us already.”
As the Wild enters the final stretch run of the 2017-18 season, the team has again brought in top Minnesota Wild draft choices to get a feel of professional hockey, as well as college free agents who have caught the eye of Wild scouts. In recent years, those finds have included top scorers Sam Anas and Justin Kloos.
Lalonde credited Wild college free agent scout Brian Hunter with finding players with potential like McLain and Fitzgerald.
“Brian does our college free agent scouting and is always looking for the high-end free agents like Anas and Kloos. He also worked hard on Gerry Mayhew last year,” Lalonde said.
For Belpedio, McLain and Fitzgerald, the transition from college hockey to the AHL has been a whirlwind, but one all three see as helping them on the drive to play in the NHL.
Drafted by Minnesota in the third round of the 2014 entry draft, Belpedio decided to sign an amateur tryout contract with Iowa after his college season at Miami of Ohio season ended. After 10 games with Iowa, Belpedio signed a two-year, entry-level contract with Minnesota, where he will finish the rest of the 2017-18 season.
“Coming to Iowa did nothing but help me. This is a really good group here both the guys and the coaching staff,” the 21-year-old native of Skokie, Ill. said. “This was simply my first step. It’s been great for me because it helped me to adjust to the speed and pace of the game.”
What’s also impressed Belpedio has been the size and skill level of the AHL.
“The hockey sense that everyone has in terms of positioning and knowing what it is they do well and don’t do well is amazing,” he said. “They use those strengths so well compared to college.”
Belpedio finished his final year at Miami with 30 points in 37 games, including a college-best 21 assists and a reputation of developing into an attacking defenseman – a key ingredient to the Wild’s offensive strategies.
But Belpedio said he intends to spend a lot of his time working on simplifying his approach on the blue line and being disciplined on his positioning on the ice.
“I got away with stuff in college from a skill level,” he said. “But I haven’t tried it here and don’t think I will. Smooth is fast and less is more and I try to keep that in my head. I want to adjust completely and then go day-by-day from there.”
As a top Wild choice, Belpedio, who will graduate this spring from Miami with a degree in sports management, said he doesn’t feel much pressure despite the attention from fans and coaching staff.
“At the end of the day, it’s still just hockey and you have to approach it that way,” he said. “Obviously, I am going to be expected to do certain things but I’ve been doing it my whole life. So I just try to think of it that way.”
The 24-year-old Port Alberni, BC native signed his amateur tryout contract with the Wild after four seasons on the same line with his triplet brothers – Leo and Myles – at Bemidji State. Fitzgerald, who will graduate this year with a degree in marketing and communications, completed his final season with the Beavers ranked third in total points on the roster with 25 points in 27 games.
“His strength is his speed and his compete level,” Lalonde said.
Fitzgerald said that his arrived with Iowa wondering how he would measure up in the AHL.
“When I first got here I was pretty nervous. I had never played at his level before so it was a big step for me,” he said. “It is certainly different and I’ve just been trying to do my best and help the team out.”
With three goals and three assists in 13 games, Fitzgerald has spent time among the top-six forwards, playing with point leader Cal O’Reilly and veteran Kyle Rau. That kind of test by fire has helped speed his adjustment to the AHL game, Fitzgerald said.
“It is a stronger, more controlled game. At the end of the day, everyone is good. Everyone can play,” he said. “It’s taken me a couple of game to adjust to it but I’m adjusting to it pretty well.”
Fitzgerald and his brothers also have an unusual claim to fame. At the age of five, they were featured in the major studio film, Baby Geniuses, starring Kathleen Turner and Christopher Lloyd. They also appeared in a 2004 sequel featuring Jon Voight.
“My Mom’s sister, Auntie Deb, saw this thing online about how a movie company needed twins or triplets for a movie,” Fitzgerald said. “She sent in our pictures so somehow it worked out and went in for auditions. Then we got the role.”
Fitzgerald said he and his brother, Leo, are the ones on film the most even though Leo and Myles are identical twins.
“Myles wasn’t in it as much because he looked a little bit different,” Fitzgerald said. “I looked more like Leo. That still doesn’t make much sense.”
Asked what his primary goal is for the rest of the season, Fitzgerald said simply he wants to improve his fame.
“I want to work every day and get as much experience as I can,” he said. “It’s been fun and I want the team to win. I just want to help them win.“
The burly center from Baxter, Minn., made an impression immediately on the ice, scoring his first AHL in his home debut with Iowa in a 5-2 loss to Rockford. Then he almost did it again with a shot off a face-off that beat Rockford goalie Jeff Glass, but was called off by officials who said the puck had been dropped unfairly.
“It could have changed the momentum for sure, but it was just one of those things,” McLain said after the game.
McLain said signing with the Wild at the end of his final season at Bowling Green was a bit of surprise, but a pleasant one considering Minnesota is his hometown team.
“I didn’t know until the last two or three weeks of the season,” he said. “My coach came to me and told me that Minnesota was watching game tapes of me, but no one contacted me or talked to me until right after the season.”
McLain left Bowling Green with two accomplishments – he captained the Falcons while finishing the season as the top goal scorer, but off the ice he was one of 11 nominees for the 2018 Hockey Humanitarian award, which is presented annually to college hockey’s finest citizen – a student-athlete who makes significant contributions not only to his or her team but also to the community-at-large through leadership in volunteerism.
That nomination stemmed from McLain’s volunteer work with special needs children throughout his hockey career at Bowling Green.
McLain will receive a degree as mild-to-moderate intervention specialist that will allow him to teach and consult with children and parents with various mental and physical special needs.
“I had a connection with a number of kids with special needs in high school and I really enjoyed working with them,” he said. “So when I went to college I knew I wanted to be a teacher. Those kids are very genuine and so it was pretty clear to me that it would be easy for me to go to work every day to help them.”
But first McLain said he wants to focus on achieving another lifelong goal – making it as far as he can in professional hockey.
“I want to polish my game to the pro level so I can make an impression here and get invited back for next season,” he said.