With their college careers behind them, the stars of last year’s Massachusetts hockey team are now lacing up for shifts in professional hockey.
Casey Wellman, James Marcou, Justin Braun and Matt Irwin were the foundation of the Minutemen last year. Perhaps no one appreciates their experiences at UMass more than they do. However, as children, their goals surpassed playing for a collegiate powerhouse like UMass. Their dreams lie with the NHL.
Wellman, 23, played his second and last season for the Minutemen last year, tallying a team-leading 23 goals in 36 games, good for ninth in the nation with a 0.64 goals per game average. With 22 assists, Wellman finished his sophomore campaign with 45 points in 36 games.
Following the season, Wellman signed an entry-level contract with the NHL’s Minnesota Wild. He made his NHL debut on March 19, recording an assist in the Wild’s 4-2 loss. Wellman recorded his first goal on April 10, when he netted a loose rebound in front of Dallas goalkeeper Kari Lehtonen.
“It’s tough to describe, it was an unbelievable feeling,” Wellman said about the goal. “To not only be playing in the NHL, but scoring that first goal was unbelievable. There’s a picture on my desktop of me after with a huge smile on my face.”
It was an unforgettable moment for the California native, who is now trying to solidify a spot on the Wild for this season.
“I went from being one of the top guys at UMass to one of the lower guys with the Wild,” Wellman said. “I just have to get used to that and try to work myself up again to the top.”
After playing in Minnesota’s second game of the regular season, a 2-1 shootout loss to Carolina, it appeared that Wellman secured a spot on the team. On Oct. 9, however, Wellman was sent to the Wild’s AHL affiliate, the Houston Aeros, where he has scored a goal and an assist in three games.
The perks of being an NHL player are hard to pass up, like when Wellman was invited to Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau’s suite in Target Field to witness the Minnesota Twins clinch the American League Central in September. But through all the glamour and his budding NHL career, Wellman will never forget his time dressing in maroon and white.
“I really just miss playing for the school,” Wellman said. “Sometimes guys go and play for juniors and stuff like that but they don’t get the experience of playing for a community. It was so fun to play in front of all the students and see all my peers in class and stuff like that. I miss it a lot and I miss my teammates; they were great and the coaches were great.”
Marcou and Irwin both signed entry-level contracts with the San Jose Sharks on March 23, with Braun signing with the team a day later. The trio met up and played the final three games of the regular season with San Jose’s AHL affiliate, the Worcester Sharks.
Their impacts were felt immediately, as they combined for six points in three games.
Although Marcou has yet to play an NHL game since turning pro, he is making quite an impression with the Worcester Sharks. He picked up right where he left off last year by scoring two goals and an assist in the team’s first four games this year, including a game-winning goal against the New York Rangers’ AHL affiliate, the Hartford Wolf Pack.
Off the ice, Marcou has created a Twitter account with teammate Dan DaSilva, as they engage in a friendly battle to see who can get more followers.
Marcou was UMass’ leading scorer last year, registering 51 points in 36 games, setting a UMass’ single-season record with 40 assists.
Before the start of the season, Marcou reflected on his time working out with the big club in San Jose.
“We had training camp in San Jose for two weeks and I played an exhibition game [on Joe Thornton’s line],” Marcou said. “It was cool to be around all the guys in the big club after watching them on TV. Thornton was a pretty fun guy to be around. He’s just like a kid basically.”
“A kid” might not be the best way to describe the 31-year-old with a nickname of “Jumbo Joe” that fits his 6-foot-4, 235 pound frame. Thornton is a perennial all-star who has amassed nearly 1,000 points in his NHL career. Needless to say, the presence of Thornton and other stars have left an impression on Marcou, Braun and Irwin.
“Just seeing them go about their stuff at the rink is pretty cool,” Marcou said. “They’re teaching us how to play [our style] and hopefully in the future we’ll get called up and show them our skill and what we’ve learned.”
Through it all, the big four of last year will never forget their time skating in the Mullins Center in front of thousands of passionate fans.
“The games at the Mullins Center were pretty cool with all the students that came – we had a really good following. I will definitely miss the atmosphere,” Marcou said.
Steve Levine can be reached at [email protected]