by Matt Stathopoulos, Youngstown Phantoms
Nobody ever forgets where he or she came from, and that is especially true for members of the Youngstown Phantoms. Many players on the team left home while in high school to play junior hockey. The only Canadian on the roster, defenseman Bo Pellah, took up hockey at a particularly young age in his hometown of Burnaby, British Columbia.
"My dad took me skating for the first time when I was two years old," he said. "I played on my first organized hockey team when I was five years old. It was the Richmond minor hockey organization in British Columbia."
In addition to playing the sport religiously, watching the game was also an important part of his early days. He recalls the players that he looked up to based off of the direction of his father.
"Wayne Gretzky and Bobby Orr were some of the biggest influences on my hockey career," Pellah said. "Wayne is the best player of all time, and an inspiration for all little kids. I also try to model my game after Bobby, as an offensive defenseman. I watched him a lot when I was younger, from the tapes that my dad had. I learned a lot from [Orr], and just try to put his game into my game."
Like Orr, Pellah considers himself to be an offensive defenseman, or more specifically, a playmaking defenseman.
"I like to set players up and contribute as much as I can, while at the same time, keeping the pucks out of our net," he said.
When youth hockey players are just starting, many of them change positions to get a feel for what they like, or what they may be good at. In Pellah's case, he only ever remembers clearing the front of his own team's net, firing shots on the opponent's net from the blue line, and overall providing extra support for his goaltender.
"I've always been a defenseman since I first started playing," he said. "It's all I've ever known."
With the city of Vancouver just a half-hour away from Burnaby, many would probably assume that Pellah grew up following the hometown Canucks. However, he chose a different route at a young age, but he insisted that is not a person that changes his favorite team based on their performance.
"Boston Bruins, and I'm not a bandwagon jumper," he said, with some laughs in between. "Once a Bruins fan, you always have to stick with them. They've picked it up from where they had been when I was younger, and now they're a successful organization."
The most special element of Pellah's hometown, however, is that he shares it with a hockey legend: Colorado Avalanche great and NHL Hall-of-Famer Joe Sakic.
Sakic had served as either a captain or an alternate captain for the Colorado Avalanche since 1990, dating back to when they were the Quebec Nordiques. He won two Stanley Cups with the Avs, with the first coming in 1996 and the second in 2001. Overall, Sakic laced up his skates for 1,378 games in the NHL, scoring 625 goals and 1,016 assists for 1,641 total points. "Burnaby Joe" retired from playing after the 2008-09 season and was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2012.
Pellah remembers Sakic as being the talk of the town almost everywhere he went in Burnaby.
"I've met Joe at the Burnaby Winter Club rink," he said. "He's a great player, and a role model for everyone in the community with what he's done in the NHL, Olympics, and throughout his career."
The Phantom defenseman takes great pride in the fact that such a legendary hockey player came from the same community that he did.
"It's amazing actually, knowing that a player as great as him came from the same hometown as I did," Pellah said. "He made it out of a small town like Burnaby. That gives you something to work for, and makes you believe it's possible to get to the top."
Ever since Pellah's arrival to the Phantoms in January, a front office member came up with a new nickname for the two-way defenseman in homage to Sakic's famous nickname: "Burnaby Bo." His teammates quickly caught on to the new tag, which is popular on social media whenever Bo makes a play.
"I love it! It's creative, and it flatters me getting compared to 'Burnaby Joe,'" said Pellah, when asked if he approves of the nickname.
After beginning the season with the Sioux Falls Stampede, Pellah was acquired by the Phantoms in early January in exchange for Ryan Schwalbe.
"No, not at all. I was actually shocked when it happened," Pellah said, after being asked if he expected the trade. "We were on a five-game skid in Sioux Falls at the time, so we all had a feeling something might happen, but you never expect it to be you as the odd man out. I was excited to come to Youngstown, though. It's a great organization, with great coaches and great guys. It's a new opportunity, so I was definitely thrilled."
Getting traded in the USHL is certainly different from getting traded at the professional level. It can be a lot on a player’s plate at such a young age, without the same travel luxuries or fortunes to make the transition smooth. With a game scheduled the day after the trade was announced, Pellah did his best to get to Youngstown in time to suit up. The expedition came to a halt when his original flight from Sioux Falls to Chicago did not make it in time for him to catch his connecting flight to Pittsburgh.
"I spent the night on a bench at Chicago airport," he said. "I think I had one hour of sleep, flew to Pittsburgh, then had another hour of sleep at my billet house, and then it was time to go to the rink for my first game."
Aside from hockey, there's also a personal adjustment that's required when getting traded.
"It's different, but I like it a lot; my billet family is great!" he said, when asked how life in Youngstown has been thus far. "It's a lot further to drive everywhere because it's bigger than Sioux Falls, but I like it. The guys are great, and I'm having fun."
Teammate and fellow defenseman Steven Ruggiero admitted that their initial perception of each other when they first interacted needed to be put aside.
"When I was with Sioux Falls, and we came here to play earlier in the season, I think I hit Tyler Spezia into our bench, and 'Ruggsy' didn't like that," Pellah said. "He came after me, but I didn't know it until I came to Youngstown. We had a good laugh about it once I got here, and took it maturely. Ruggerio is a great kid, we're buddies."
Ruggiero offered his side of the story, but with a little more of a comical approach to it.
"Bo and I are pretty good buddies, he's a funny kid, and we push each other to work hard. He didn't want a piece of me [after the hit]," joked Ruggerio. "All and all, I think we'll be good teammates, and he's a fun guy to play alongside."
Headquartered in Chicago, Illinois, the USHL celebrates its 12th season as the nation's only Tier I junior hockey league in 2013-14. A record 32 players were chosen in the 2013 NHL Draft and more than 300 players on team rosters last season have committed to NCAA Division I schools, further establishing the USHL as the world’s foremost producer of junior hockey talent. For more information, visit us on the web at www.USHL.com or visit the League’s social media platforms, including Facebook (www.facebook.com/ushlhockey), twitter (www.twitter.com/ushl), and YouTube (www.youtube.com/ushlinteractive). Fans can also watch USHL action all season long, live or on-demand via FASTHockey (ushl.fasthockey.com).
It’s not just hockey. It’s the USHL.
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