When a player wins an ECHL championship, they instantly join a select group of individuals in league history. Through the ECHL’s first 28 seasons, only 502 players – out of nearly 9,700 who have played at least one game in the league – have won either a Riley Cup or Kelly Cup title.
For many players, capturing one title during their career would be an accomplishment. But four players in this year’s series are looking to join an even more select group of players by capturing a second championship.
Colorado’s Casey Pierro-Zabotel and Matt Register, along with South Carolina’s Danny Federico, were part of Allen’s Kelly Cup title squad last season while the Eagles’ Alex Belzile had his name engraved on the Cup with Alaska in 2014.
Federico is living out an especially charmed life having reached the Kelly Cup Finals in each of his first two seasons as a professional. Throw in an appearance in the 2013 Frozen Four while he was at Quinnipiac University, and Federico certainly knows what it takes to reach the championship stage.
“I definitely think it's pretty lucky and kind of amazing to think about,” he said. “My first two years, going for the championship two years in a row, and some guys can go a whole career without even getting to that point. So I consider myself pretty lucky to have been on two really good teams.”
The Stingrays, who trail Colorado 2 games to 0 with Game 3 set for Sunday at the North Charleston Coliseum, are no strangers to this situation. South Carolina rallied from 0-2 deficits in both the South Division Semifinals against Greenville and in the Eastern Conference Finals against Manchester to win both series. Federico says the deficit against Greenville was the impetus to the team’s run.
“Once we got back home from Greenville after those first two rough losses in the first round, I think that practice and even our mentality in the locker room, it felt like we really turned a page,” he said. “You could see it in those next couple games against Greenville where we really poured it on and scored a lot of goals. I think we started to come together and that's really when we clicked.”
While Federico has reached the Finals in first two years of pro hockey, it took Pierro-Zabotel until his seventh season to advance to the championship round last season in Allen. The veteran forward has passed on some advice to his younger teammates throughout the Eagles’ run this season.
“I’ve told them don't be nervous or change a thing and just have fun,” he said. “We are a really well-rounded team with every player chipping in a lot like we did in Allen.”
The highlight of this run for Pierro-Zabotel was defeating his former team in the Mountain Division Finals, ending their two-year run as Kelly Cup champions.
“It’s always special to beat the former champions. They've been on such a good run we knew we would have to go through them if we wanted to make a good run.”
Belzile is personally enjoying this year’s run more than his championship three years ago with Alaska.
“It is two different scenarios for me”, Belzile said. “In Alaska I was injured pretty much all season and I had a depth role. This year, I have a lot more experience and a bigger role. You never know when you are going to have the chance to play for a cup. It doesn't matter the league you’re playing in, it is always fun to have the chance to win your last game of the season.”
The experience of winning a prior championship has afforded Belzile the change to offer advice to some of his younger teammates.
“I’ve told them to stay composed, don't get too high or too low,” he said. “I know it sounds cliché but we think that is the good approach, to be in control of your emotions, but also to have fun. Enjoy those moments, this is what we play for.”
Federico and his Stingrays’ teammates will look to their home-ice advantage in the next three games to get back in the series and send the series back to Colorado. He’s hoping some lessons he learned last season in Allen will translate to this season and help the team make their third comeback of the playoffs.
“On both teams, there's the mentality that you're never out of a game,” Federico said. “If you go into every game knowing that if we play the right way, if we play the way we're capable of, we can win and we can play with anyone in the league.”
The 2017 Kelly Cup Finals continue with Game 3 on Sunday and Game 4 on Monday. Both games start at 7:05 p.m. ET at the North Charleston Coliseum are can be viewed LIVE on ECHL.TV.