In just a matter of days, the newest Kelly Cup champion will be crowned. For twenty or so men and their family and friends, it will be the culmination of a lifetime dedicated to hockey. Casey Pierro-Zabotel knows the emotions these men are about to go through. He knows about the trips to the rink at all hours of the day, endless bag skates, infinite amount of practices, long bus rides, and countless other sacrifices. He knows what it’s like to risk all those things for a taste of victory. And after winning the Kelly Cup in 2016 and 2017, he knows exactly how you can forget all of those things temporarily as you hoist the 41 pounds of metal above your head.
“It was unbelievable – it’s hard to describe the feeling I had, just so excited, so happy, a big weight lifted off my shoulders with how long it took.”
In 2016, his eighth season in the ECHL, and his first with the Allen Americans, Pierro-Zabotel and his teammates defeated the Wheeling Nailers in six games in the Kelly Cup Finals to cement their place in ECHL history. It was his first championship at any level, and it came at the Allen Event Center, in front of the team’s fans, and with Pierro-Zabotel’s wife, Levi, and son, Lane, present.
“It’s amazing, the energy that we had in that building was unbelievable all year long especially in playoffs. There’s no better feeling than winning the championship but doing it at home was even better. It was great to have my family there, especially my son and wife. My son was out on the ice with me, he wanted to hold the Cup, he was right beside me the whole time I had the Cup.”
Even more impressive than Pierro-Zabotel’s first championship in 2016, which had evaded him for so long, was the fact that he was able to repeat the accomplishment in 2017 as a member of the Colorado Eagles. The Eagles swept the South Carolina Stingrays 4-0 in the 2017 Kelly Cup Finals, raising the Kelly Cup in South Carolina at the North Charleston Coliseum.
“South Carolina played us really well every night, but I think we just had everything going right for us that whole playoffs and then especially in that series. We had our goaltender who played unbelievable, we played great defensively, and we had very timely goals by a lot of guys. A lot of guys stepped up at the right time.”
Accomplishing a feat of such prestige in back to back years, while playing for two different organizations, is a rare occasion in the history of the ECHL. Only twelve players in league history, including Pierro-Zabotel, have won the Kelly Cup in back to back years. Only three of those twelve have accomplished the feat with different teams. But given the achievement, the center is able to draw comparisons between the two championships and identify some of the necessary qualifications to raising the Kelly Cup.
“We had a lot of guys who wanted to win, who knew what they had to do to help us win every night and they just did whatever it took to help us win.”
Pierro-Zabotel returned to Allen for the 2017-18 season as a player/assistant coach for the Americans, his first time serving in such a role.
“It was just a decision I made for my family and me. We both like it here in Allen, and the coach (Steve Martinson) and I have a really good relationship. He also wanted to help me start my coaching career, so he helped me with that a little bit throughout the whole year.”
The Americans season ended in a heart breaking fashion as they suffered a first round Kelly Cup Playoffs exit after losing to the Idaho Steelheads in the Mountain Division Semifinals after leading the series 3-0. For Pierro-Zabotel, the loss stung especially hard given how his previous two Kelly Cup Playoffs stints had finished. And after getting that taste of victory the last two years, it’s no surprise that Pierro-Zabotel’s still frustrated by the Americans’ first round exit from the 2018 Kelly Cup Playoffs.
“It’s not great. I can’t believe how early I’m done playing hockey right now after having long runs the last two years. At first, I didn’t know what to do with myself. I’m kind of over it, it just makes me mad how I lost out. I’m still pretty bitter.”
Putting his bitterness about the early exit behind, Pierro-Zabotel still roots for his former teammates in Colorado.
“I think Colorado’s going to make it to the Finals against Florida. Honestly it can go either way, they’re both really skilled teams. They’re tough and hard to play against but I think Colorado can do it again.”
Either way, the prestige of the accomplishment isn’t lost on Pierro-Zabotel, and he lends his advice for those still competing in this year’s Playoffs.
“Just give it all you’ve got and enjoy the experience. Do whatever you have to do to win it, because it’s an unbelievable experience.”