About a decade ago, future Ontario Reign stars crossed in the USHL, as 16-year-old defenseman Vincent LoVerde of the Waterloo Black Hawks matched up against 19-year-old winger Sean Backman of the Green Bay Gamblers.
Vincent LoVerde, Ontario Reign Captain: I remember my first USHL game or goal was against Green Bay. I can't remember. I remember playing against him throughout the year. I remember he was similar to the player he is now. Smaller guy, could skate well, shoot the puck. He had really long hair back then. I do remember that. I think we only intersected one year there.
Sean Backman, Ontario Reign Assistant Captain: Yeah, I remember him vaguely. That was a fun year. Playing in the USHL was exciting for me. Coming out of a small prep school, to play in front of big crowds like that.
VL: [His hair] was down to his shoulders for sure.
LoVerde went on to skate four seasons at Miami of Ohio, while Backman did the same at Yale. Alec Martinez was LoVerde's teammate in 2007-08, then the RedHawks were a minute away from winning the 2009 NCAA championship until Boston University tied the game and won it in OT. But perhaps as painful for the Chicago native was being cut from his first pro tryout in 2011.
VL: I knew after college that I wasn't going to sign an NHL deal just because of where I was as a player. I was hoping for at least an AHL deal, an AHL tryout. I had an AHL tryout with the [Chicago] Wolves. I believe it was during the lockout year, so there were a lot of guys down.
Then I signed with the [ECHL's] Greenville Road Warriors. I was told I was going to be one of the top defensemen, play lots of minutes. I got down there, and obviously, guys came down from [affiliate New York Rangers], it ended up being a numbers game. So I ended up getting cut. On the way home, I was thinking about not playing anymore.
I wasn't going to sit there and do this the whole entire year, so I talked to my Dad, I talked to my brothers, talked to my family members...I'd give it a year or so and go from there.
Yeah, it was tough. It's something you do your whole entire life, and in the back of your mind, you think, "Is it going to end that way?" It's tough. Especially as a 21-year-old.
LoVerde had a family friend who directed him to the [then-ECHL's] Ontario Reign that season.
VL: Dave Maciuk. He used to coach the Chicago Young Americans where I grew up playing. He had some connections out here with [Jason Christie], who was the head coach.
I only packed one bag because I didn't know how long I was going to be out here. I thought it was going to be a short period of time. I ended up being out here the entire year.
Meanwhile, Backman was having some growing pains of his own as a bit player on the Texas Stars. He was sent down to the ECHL very early in his rookie year.
SB: It was kind of a numbers thing. They told me I was going to go down and play five games and come right back. I knew I was coming back. So I just went down there and played as best I could and came back.
After just one season in the Lone Star State, New York Islanders affiliate Bridgeport snapped up the 5'8" free agent in the summer of 2011. There, he began cementing his professional bona fides as a penalty killer.
SB: I took a lot of pride in it.
When you get more ice time, you get involved in the game easier, rather than sitting on the bench and watching your teammates go over the boards.
Coincidentally, LoVerde and Backman could both credit former Kings defensemen for their growth during this period. Mark Hardy was an assistant coach for the Reign, while Brent Thompson was the head coach of the Sound Tigers.
VL: Mark worked with me on the defensive aspects. Taking line rushes, how to move on the blueline, just little parts of the game that you never really thought of. He's had a storied career with the LA Kings. He taught me a lot of little things that I've never even thought of or heard. He was great for me.
SB: The more they started to trust me, the more confidence you have in yourself. So when a coach gives you more responsibility, it's him showing you he trusts you out there, and that gives a player a lot of confidence.
The fruit was ripening, and it would be the Manchester Monarchs who would pluck.
Hubie McDonough, Ontario Reign Director of Hockey Operations: We got a good report from Scott Pellerin down at Bridgeport. (JFTC note: Pellerin was Bridgeport's head coach from 2012-14; he was Manchester's assistant coach from 2006-12.)
And he was a relation of Quickie. He's Quickie's brother-in-law...He's Matt Moulson's brother-in-law too.
And Scotty Pellerin said real good things about him. He wanted to keep him there, but they didn't have any room. So we grabbed him.
[Jack Ferriera] would watch [Vinny's Ontario] games quite a bit because he's from the area. Could move the puck, could skate. Experienced coming out of college. So we gave him the opportunity, and he never left us.
We never even heard of him until Jack mentioned him. He was kind of one of those guys who snuck through the cracks.
Under then-Manchester head coach Mark Morris and his coaching staff, both LoVerde and Backman's pro careers continued to evolve.
VL: I was kind of an offensive defensemen in juniors. I got to college, and...I obviously wanted to help my team play the system that the team implemented. So yeah, I played that [shutdown] role, and I enjoyed it. Like I said before, guys like Mark Hardy and Mark Morris and Freddy Meyer and Chris Hajt helped me along with the offensive aspect of my game after college.
SB: I got to play [on the first line] with O'Neill and Weal, we had a lot of success. Mark liked us together. We were probably together for a couple months. We worked well with each other. It was a lot of fun playing with those two.
But it wasn't until Mike Stothers took command of the Monarchs last year when the veterans really took off.
Mike Stothers, Ontario Reign Head Coach: It was all through him. I just liked what I saw of [Backman] as a player. He's quick, fast. Plays hard. He makes plays. Got a lethal shot. Plays big for a smaller guy.
We talked when I first went to Manchester, we had individual meetings with each and every guy.
He wanted to show what he could do, what he could bring to the hockey club. And he did so. He told us he wanted an opportunity in certain situations. And when he got that opportunity, he backed it up.
He's been as valuable as Buds has been in net, he's been that valuable for us on the puck.
[Vinny was] another guy who wanted to increase his role. You know what? Sometimes guys get pegged into a certain role through previous years, and it's tough to break that mold. So you give them the opportunity and let them grow. They're going to make some mistakes. But if it's through effort and for the right reason, then you go back to them.
Part of it for us is we're here to develop players. So we have to give them a little more freedom to try things.
Stothers had unearthed more than just raw gems. He had also discovered his future Calder Cup-winning captain and assistant captain.
MS: It was a matter of you don't really know anybody, so everybody gets a fresh start. When you're having your individual meetings, you talk to players and you ask them, "Who do you go to? Who do you rely on? Who do you feel is a good leader on this team? Who would be a good role model for this team?"
And the decision is up to the coaching staff. But if you get pointed in the right direction enough, your teammates are telling how much respect they have for you in the dressing room, as a role model, as an influence on them, you go with that.
This season has truly been a shining campaign for the vets, as they were both named to their first AHL All-Star team. The 27-year-old paces Ontario defenders with a career-high 32 points, while the 29-year-old tops the Western Conference's number-one squad in points, having gone from 26 to 44 to 55. The winger has also fired an AHL-leading 245 shots on goal.
SB: That's who I am. I think it started actually back in Green Bay where I started to shoot the puck a lot more.
You could credit my Dad. And probably Stutts as well.
I still listen to [my Dad] to see what he has to say about my game.
Stothers himself said in another interview, "There's a lot of guys who have been talked about as great leaders—Mark Messier and stuff like that—there's just as many in the AHL that don't get the credit that a Mark Messier does." And indeed, LoVerde and Backman's All-Star selections could have been just as well for their leadership as it was for their play.
HM: You have to have those kinds of guys around your young guys. Good character guys. Not only for on-ice but for off-ice. These kids, they're only at the rink for two or three hours and the rest of the day, they're off on their own. And some of them are on their own for the first time.
So having those guys around to make sure [others are] doing what they need to do, keeping [others] on the straight and narrow off the ice is huge. That's why Vinny's the captain and Backs has become the assistant captain because those are the leaders you want around your young guys.
Nic Dowd, Ontario Reign Assistant Captain: Sean's probably a little more vocal. Both lead by example. Vinny's a little quieter in the room compared to Backs. Both have a good pulse of team. They know what needs to be said or what needs to be done. Easy guys to follow.
I think you see it a lot more in the pros, guys are much more willing to follow people that put the team in front of their own aspects. And I think that's seen with Vinny and Backs and Jeff and Buds...It's easy to follow guys like that: Guys who want to get better and are the hardest-working guys on the ice.
And fittingly, the ones who essentially grew up together live together now. From Backman's long locks to LoVerde's even longer odds, it's been some trip to the top for the roomies. Can they polish off personal-best seasons with yet another Calder Cup?
Stothers expands on the hierarchy of leadership in the Reign locker room.
MS: Part of it is there's guys that have letters on their jerseys, but we don't limit it to just the captain and the assistants. Last year, we had six core guys, and this year, we have six core guys that we meet with on a regular basis. Jeff Schultz isn't wearing a letter, but we value what Jeff has to say, his contributions. Michael Mersch could very easily be an assistant captain. So when he's here, we rely on him. Newbs is an experienced guy, both in the NHL and AHL. We kind of bring it to that small group, bounce ideas off them, they bounce ideas off us, and they can take it back to the guys in the room.
The biggest part is just the communication. There's got to be communication all the time between the coach and the players, players and the coach. So long as they know what's going on or what's expected of them, it's easier
You try to get guys that are easy to talk to. Sociable, engageable, that have a good feel for the room and what the guys are feeling. I trust those guys. If I ask any one of those six guys, "Are you guys tired? Are you beat up?" Say, from a road trip. They're going to say, "Yeah, we are." Or, "No, not that bad." So you could gauge even a practice accordingly. You can't ask them, and they say automatically, "Yeah, we're really beat up"...because they don't want to practice or put the work in. Then it doesn't work. But it's not the case with these guys. The trust is a two-way street. I know they'll do anything for us as a coaching staff, and they know we'll do anything for them as a coaching staff. It's trust.