By Pete Chiodo
April 2, 2013 7:00 a.m. —
Picking a Player of the Year from the Meadville Bulldogs hockey team was not an easy thing to do this season. There were just too many options.
Senior Cade Nickerson, for example, led the team in points with 53, assisting on almost as many goals (25) as he scored himself (28). He also led the squad in faceoffs taken (1,025) and faceoffs won (670).
Junior Josh Orr, meanwhile, turned himself into the squad’s craftiest playmaker, helping out on a team-high 33 goals while ringing up 17 of his own.
And senior Derek Richardson did the entire Bulldogs program a solid this season when he made the move from the forward line to the team’s depleted defense. And while there, he went on to post a plus-minus of 17, while upping his points total from his junior season by about 10, scoring a dozen goals with 20 assists.
The skater we ultimately chose as this year’s Hockey Player of the Year, however, we chose because for 52 games this season he was as rock-solid as they come.
That player was senior forward Rob Stainbrook.
“It was going to be a tough decision because they’re so close,” said Bulldogs head coach Jamie Plunkett. “I like the choice. Obviously, kids bring different things with them to the team. ... But I think the one thing that would tilt me in favor of Rob would be that, for a kid that played as physical and as aggressive as he did, and to only have 20 penalty minutes this season, he played the game the right way.”
Stainbrook certainly had his share of offensive statistics. He was the team leader in goals with 33. He also had 15 assists. He was the team leader in power play goals with 11. And he tied for the team lead in game-winning goals with five.
And he did it all while spending a meager 20 minutes in the box.
In fact, if there was one criticism about Stainbrook, it’s that he was too clean.
“He could have been a little meaner,” said Plunkett. “He’s too nice a guy.”
Meanness, it seems, just isn’t in Stainbrook’s nature.
“I don’t know, I try to play with the grit,” said Stainbrook. “But I always had the position that I wasn’t out there to bust a lot of heads. I was out there to score goals and use my body effectively rather than just be brutal.”
He could have been a real bruiser, too. He was one of the bigger and stronger kids on the Bulldogs team. Yet he used those physical attributes to get to the net, not so much to knock opposing players on their rears.
“Rob out-muscled the defensive coverage and was able to protect the puck and control the puck and create scoring opportunities,” said Plunkett.
“The other thing about him was he was defensively responsible. He was one of our best defensive forwards of the last year. He plays well in all three zones. That’s probably the thing we strive for as coaches, to get our kids to play well in all three zones. And he’s a three-zone kid.”
It wasn’t always easy for Stainbrook, either. He had a shoulder injury for most of the season. It even kept him out of a couple games in February. But when he was on the ice, it was hard to tell that there was anything wrong.
“Rob would never say anything, but he had a shoulder issue since early in the season,” said Plunkett. “We sat him for a two-game series — Altoona and Johnston — and that was all he missed. He never complained. I never saw his game change or him be less physical. And I know it bothered him a lot.”
Stainbrook wasn’t willing to let that injury sideline him long, though. This was his senior year. It was his final shot to play serious hockey with his close friends and teammates. It could have been his final season in a sport that he’s been involved with since he was 5.
“Let’s see, I think I’ve been playing for 13 years,” he said. “It went by really fast, that’s for sure.”
He would have missed a lot, too; like the team’s 4-2 win over Fairview in the Lakeshore Hockey League championship game on March 14.
He would have missed the Bulldogs’ other highlight of the season — it’s 7-4 victory over Cathedral Prep, played in front of a rowdy home crowd at the DeArment Ice Center.
“That was probably my favorite game this year,” said Stainbrook. “We’d been thinking about that game for so, so long, all of us. We beat them (in Erie), but we squeaked by in overtime. We just wanted to put them away at home, and we did.”
Plus, he’d miss playing with his boys. And that’s the aspect that has kept Stainbrook involved with this game for the majority of his lifetime.
“It’s just the camaraderie with my teammates,” said Stainbrook. “I’ve made a lot of friends — older kids, younger kids. The dedication this sport takes, just how long the season is, you get to bond with team and the players. My best friends are on this team.”
He’ll be attending Penn State-Behrend next fall. And he’s considering getting involved with the school’s club teams. But his Bulldog days are over. And as much as he’ll miss it, the program’s going to miss him too.
“This is a kid that has steadily improved every year,” said Plunkett. “He’s just got a great work ethic. He’s a terrific kid to have around.”