By Ed Reed
ESTERO, Fla. – Steve Saviano’s destiny hung in his closet for nearly five years.
The Florida Everblades’ replica jersey that Germain Arena assistant box office manager Sandy Moskal gave to Saviano, her godson, still rests in the bedroom of his Reading, Mass., home. It’s hardly been worn.
Saviano has been putting plenty of wear and tear on the real thing this season. The Blades’ rookie forward had scored five goals and made 21 assists in 30 games through play Monday, while logging major minutes as a second-line player and key component of the team’s power-play and penalty-kill units.
Florida and his godmother were on Saviano’s mind when he started talking contract with the American Hockey League’s Lowell (Mass.) Lock Monsters during the offseason.
The University of New Hampshire product figured he’d either end up playing for Lowell, which is 20 minutes from his home in Reading, or else he’d wind up with its ECHL affiliate in Estero.
“It’s kind of funny, kind of ironic, that I’m playing here now,” Saviano said. “(Moskal) always told me about this place, that it’s a great place to play, a great organization and when I signed with Lowell I knew right away if I got sent down I’d end up here.”
Moskal and her husband, Larry, have tried to make Saviano feel at home with home-cooked meals, rounds of golf and an instant cheering section at games.
“I talk to his mother all the time,” said Sandy Moskal, who has been friends with Ann Saviano, Steve’s mother, since college. “I give her updates on how he’s doing. He’s a good kid.”
The 23-year-old needed help from a higher power to land with the Blades.
Saviano entered Lowell’s camp as a free-agent signee and immediately impressed Lock Monsters coach Tom Rowe. Despite having a roster full of the NHL Carolina Hurricanes’ top prospects, Rowe made room for Saviano to start the season.
“We knew plenty about him,” Rowe said. “We knew he was a skilled kid with lots of speed. We wanted to make sure we had good depth in that category. If there wasn’t a lockout (in the NHL) he never would have been in Florida.”
Saviano played six games with Lowell, notching a single assist, before being sent down in the first week of November.
“It was good to be there for those six games so I’d know where I’d have to be as a player and, obviously, there were a lot of NHL players on that team,” Saviano said. “It was really a tough team to make.
“Coming down here is almost better for me right now as a player just because I’m developing my game and learning to be a pro. Taking long bus trips, playing four games in five nights, and all that. It’s probably easier to do that down here than up there because I wouldn’t get as much playing time.”
Saviano’s playing time was limited at first after he suffered a concussion in his first game with Florida and missed the next nine. Once his head cleared, Saviano set out to prove that he belonged in the pro ranks. His production has come around, with 15 points (four goals, 11 assists) in the last 17 games.
“I feel I’ve played pretty well,” Saviano said. “I think I can get better as the season goes along. I feel like I am getting better now. When I get in trouble is when I try to do too much. When I first came down here I did try to do too much.”
Saviano has pushed himself to put numbers on the scorer’s sheet to offset his numbers on the tape measure. While some rosters list him at 5-foot-8 or 5-7, Saviano freely admits he is 5-6 and weighs around 180 pounds.
“I’m lucky I’m as tall as I am,” said Saviano, whose father, Paul, also stands 5-6, while his mother is 4-11.
Saviano is used to coaches and scouts looking past him due to his size and he knows that’s the reason he was not recruited more out of high school or drafted by a NHL team.
“They didn’t think I’d make my high school team when I walked in there as a freshman,” Saviano said. “You deal with it each level you go. Eventually you’ll earn your respect. I don’t take it personally. I never have. I just play my game. I don’t worry about that stuff.”
At Reading High, one of the top public high school programs in Massachusetts, Saviano recorded 70 goals, and his 148 assists rank him No. 1 in school history.
He then moved on to UNH, where he finished his career with 117 points (50 goals, 67 assists) in 139 games. Saviano distinguished himself enough during his senior year to be named the Hockey East Player of the Year, after racking up 27 goals and 22 assists in 41 games. He also received the Len Ceglarski Sportsmanship Award, which recognizes his gentlemanly play as much as his scoring talent.
“Bottom line is, can he skate, will he be able to handle the puck and make plays, and he can do all those things,” said UNH coach Dick Umile. “You can have a guy 6-4, but if he can’t skate and can’t pass the puck he can’t help you.”
Rowe also wondered how Saviano would adjust to the increased physical play between college and the pro levels.
“He’s a little pit bull,” Rowe said. “He’s not afraid out there and that was the only question mark I had, and he put everything to rest as far as his courage.”
Florida forward Matt Hendricks is Saviano’s roommate and occasional linemate. At 6-foot and 205 pounds, the forward is more prototypical of what the experts are seeking. Hendricks said the experts are not always right.
“You hear a lot of people talk about small hockey players and how they won’t make it in pro hockey and how they’re not strong enough,” Hendricks said. “Well, watch Stevie in the corners against the biggest and strongest defensemen in this league. He’s not afraid of them. He’ll go against anybody and he’ll do it in any league.”