Carson Gicewicz and his ever-changing master plan
How the senior transfer's detours put him at the center of UMass' national tournament run
March 23, 2021
It’s a mid-February afternoon in Amherst. The sky is filled with dreary grey clouds, a remnant of the snowstorm a day earlier as temperatures hover in the low 20s. Tucked in between the snowdrifts and trees of western Massachusetts, winding his car down backroads with country music playing softly from the radio is Carson Gicewicz.
It’s not where Carson was supposed to be on that evening.
A weekday afternoon in February almost always means hockey practice at the Mullins Center Community Rink for the Massachusetts hockey team. Instead, rising coronavirus cases at UMass left students in a self-sequester period and forced the athletic department to cancel all practices and games.
Rather than stay cooped in his bedroom, Carson took to the road, seeking a way to reflect and clear his mind.
And while the UMass winger should have been at practice in maroon and white, preparing with the rest of the No. 9 team in the country for a final push towards the Hockey East and NCAA tournaments, in a lot of ways he wasn’t really supposed to be in Amherst at all on that February afternoon.
Orchard Park, N.Y. is a sports-crazed town in western New York. Best known as the home of the Buffalo Bills, look no further than the famed ‘Bills Mafia’ for an idea of how seriously this corner of New York near Lake Eerie takes its sports.
The Gicewicz family is no different.
Rich Gicewicz had a four-year career in the NFL and he and his wife Julie’s children didn’t fall far from the tree. From an early age it was clear Abbey, Anabel, Carson and R.J. loved sports. Carson and his older brother R.J. — separated by just over a year — could be found after school most days playing pickup games with the rest of the neighborhood children. It didn’t matter to the brothers that most of the neighborhood kids were years older than the brothers.
“It’s funny,” R.J. said, “we would get picked on a little bit and we’d always stand up for each other. But just like any brothers we’d fight sometimes and toughen each other up a little bit.”
The two-hand touch football and street hockey games seemed to be the only time that the brothers could be separated, often forced to play on different teams to split up the talent. But when it came to Pop Warner football and peewee hockey, opposing teams had to face the two together.
The neighborhood kids and opposing teams knew Carson was a handful to play against, but when he was playing with R.J., Carson felt like he was just trying to keep up. With a year of height, strength and speed on Carson, R.J. dominated on the ice and the field.
At hockey practices, Carson made sure that when he was matched up with R.J., he would kick it into an extra gear. He knew he didn’t have a chance to beat him, but he just knew that it would take a little bit of extra effort to be sure he wouldn’t get embarrassed by his older brother.
By the time high school rolled it around it was evident that both brothers were destined for the hockey rink. Western New York might favor its Bills, but there is certainly a rich hockey tradition there as well. One of the breeding grounds of hockey talent, Nichols School, sat just a short drive away from the Gicewicz family home in Buffalo, N.Y. Naturally, R.J. chose to continue his hockey career for the prestigious program when the time came.
Nichols is the type of school that pumps out college athletes. Its alumni list boasts six NHL players with its list of Division I hockey players sitting somewhere in the hundreds. With R.J. in the fold and Carson soon to follow, it was clear hockey was going to be more than just a hobby played with neighborhood friends.
Joining Nichols the same year as R.J. was a Lancaster, N.Y. native, Michael Ederer. R.J.—and by virtue, Carson—became quick friends with Ederer. Not only did they play hockey together, but they were part of the same friend group off the ice.
When Carson made the varsity roster at Nichols, R.J. and Ederer were already established on the team; juniors who had two years of experience under their belts. On a team with a plethora of Division I-bound talent, Carson had to find a way to prove himself, and he did.
Early in the season Nichols was taking on Kimball Union Academy, one of the perennial powerhouses in prep hockey, in the championship game of a tournament. That season was no different as Kimball Union sported 13 players with Division I commitments and sat atop many people’s rankings for best team in the country.
The energy at Nichols Ice Arena was palpable. The small barn neared full capacity to see if the Gicewiczs and Co. could topple the established power in Kimball Union.
Soon after puck drop the Vikings needed a boost, clearly overmatched by the more talented Kimball Union side. Carson took matters into his own hands when he saw an opportunity to win a battle for a loose puck. With a Kimball Union senior baring down, Carson made sure it would be his puck.
“And he just absolutely blew the kid up,” R.J. said, remembering the exchange.
With the puck in his possession and his opponent sprawled on the ice, the Nichols fans and players alike were sent into a frenzy, earning the young winger some respect in the process. Though the Vikings went on to lose the game, the play resonated with the team, giving them a sense of confidence that they could play with the best in the country.
As the season wore on, scouts and college coaches alike became staples in the Nichols’ stands to watch Carson play. By that point R.J. had already verbally committed to Saint Lawrence, though legendary Saints head coach Joe Marsh had just retired, leaving the program to promote its assistant Greg Carvel to the head coaching position.
At the end of just one season together for the brothers, an opportunity opened for R.J. to make a move to the USHL as a member of the Green Bay Gramblers. But before R.J. left Nichols, he and Carson made a pact.
“Our master plan was to carry what we had at Nichols in high school on to St. Lawrence,” Carson said. “We knew that was going to happen.”
It was a master plan that the two were intent on keeping, regardless of what others thought.
Carson’s father in particular wanted his son to be patient and see what other opportunities presented themselves. It wasn’t that the Gicewicz family didn’t like the St. Lawrence hockey program — in fact the parents liked Carvel, the Saints new coach, and were happy R.J. was keeping his commitment — it was more a matter of making sure it was as good a fit for Carson as it appeared to be for R.J.
On Carson’s official visit to Canton, N.Y. to see the St. Lawrence campus, his father, Rich, made it clear he didn’t think his son should be making any commitments on his first visit to campus.
“My dad just kept telling me, ‘don’t commit yourself to anything. There’s plenty of other schools you want to look at potentially.”
However, while watching the Saints beat conference-rival Union, Carson got to talking with his brother.
With R.J. telling him about the program’s standard and commitment to excellence, Carson couldn’t help himself.
He whispered to his brother, “If we go down to the coach’s office, I’m going to commit.”
R.J. burst out laughing, knowing that it broke the one wish his parents had for the visit. Despite all that, R.J. offered nothing but encouragement. “Do it,” he said.
With Ederer set to join the Saints the same year as R.J. the master plan was set to come to fruition.
With a college commitment out of the way, Carson’s attention was focused squarely on juniors. The only problem was the USHL wasn’t going as smoothly as the younger Gicewicz expected.
After Nichols, Carson had joined the Lincoln Stars and couldn’t seem to find the same success.
Far from home, in Lincoln, Neb., Carson found himself lacking confidence. It wasn’t something the young wing was accustomed to — he was used to averaging nearly a point per game in high school.
Alone and uncertain in the middle of Nebraska, Carson knew just who to turn to. He reached out to his brother R.J., who for all intents and purposes was a veteran by juniors league standards, having played there for two-plus seasons, seeking advice.
Facing the best players in the country night in and night out made Carson question his game. No longer could he rely on his skill alone to stand out on the ice. It was a feeling R.J. was all too familiar with. In his time with the Gamblers, R.J. felt many of the same feelings of doubt and had come out the other side in one piece. But the young defenseman had one voice in his ear who was there to help Carson as well.
“A lot of it was talking to my brother,” Carson said, “and some of it was just positive feedback from the St. Lawrence coaching staff and Carvel saying, ‘just keep doing what you’re doing. You’re there for a reason. You’re there to come here.’ And I kind of dealt with it as, I could either soak and waste away here or I could try my hardest to prepare myself for the next level.”
Then, in March, just as Carson’s play was making it clear he’d join the Saints at the beginning of the next season, it was announced that Greg Carvel would be leaving St. Lawrence to take the job at UMass.
For R.J., it was the second coaching change he had seen at the program since he’d been recruited. It would have been easy for the brothers to look elsewhere, or at least Carson who had yet to step foot on campus as a player and didn’t have any real ties to the school. Instead, the pact the two made with Ederer held strong and the three would be taking the ice together for the first time since their short stint at Nichols.
While Carson had been figuring out his game in the USHL, R.J. was struggling his way through an injury-riddled season as a freshman for the Saints. He got on the ice in just nine contests, totaling two points from the St. Lawrence blue line.
R.J. couldn’t wait for his brother to join him and Ederer on campus, even if he had struggled his way through his freshman campaign. The team had just finished 19-14-4 and seemed destined for improvement. R.J. credited playing with a chip on their shoulder for the successes the team found in the 2015-16 season and saw no reason why adding a player of Carson ‘s quality could make them worse.
Once the season rolled around, it seemed like the hockey community at large agreed with R.J.’s assessment. The Saints sat at No. 16 in the polls and seemed primed to have strong year. R.J. wouldn’t be ready to start the year as he healed from injuries sustained a season ago, but it seemed as if it was a forgone conclusion that the trio of Nichols kids would finally get to deliver on the master plan they’d set out to complete three years prior.
The first two weekends came and went. Carson got his first four games of college hockey under his belt. Coming into the third weekend, R.J. looked ready to return. He sat out Friday’s matchup against UMass Lowell — a 5-2 loss — but was poised to play in that Saturday’s contest against Providence.
On Oct. 22, 2016, Carson and R.J. Gicewicz, along with Michael Ederer, took to the ice, all in St. Lawrence’s scarlet and brown. It was the first time all three had shared a bench in the same game in nearly four years. Even in a 6-3 loss, they had done it. They had completed their master plan, with time to spare. The trio were all underclassmen and had plenty of hockey ahead of them.
And then it all came to a screeching halt.
Six days later, in a game against Wisconsin, R.J. Gicewicz’s season came to an abrupt end. The injury bug bit again and R.J. was diagnosed with a concussion sustained on a hit from a Badger. As quickly as it had started, it was swept away.
He would skate again in a preseason exhibition a year later. But once again, a hit to the head saw him leave the game. The hits to the head had taken their toll on R.J.’s body and brain and by the end of October he’d announced his retirement from hockey.
The brothers managed to skate just two games together in Canton — one their first, and the next their last. Their plan crumbling before their eyes.
Just as it looked like things were falling apart, head coach Mark Morris offered a lifeline. The Saints bench boss added R.J. to his coaching staff as a student assistant, allowing R.J. to not only continue with a career in hockey but more importantly, keep he and his brother’s master plan going — albeit in a different form.
With R.J. behind the bench, the brother’s plan marched on. The Saints would have much rather had R.J. anchoring their blue line, but his role as an assistant proved invaluable. Having relationships with players already in place — most notably with Carson and Ederer — R.J. acted as liaison between the players and coaches, a unique role for a college team, but one that St. Lawrence’s coaching staff welcomed with open arms.
“It helped me a little bit more,” R.J. said of having his brother on the team. “He and I could talk about a lot of different things with our team from different perspectives. When you get into a coaching role sometimes you forget a player’s perspective and with Carson being really close with a lot of the guys, he was able to tell me, ‘no, this is what’s going on in the locker room.’”
R.J.’s time as a student coach proved to be far more than just a way for him to stay involved in St. Lawrence’s hockey program. After his senior year, the older Gicewicz joined Division III SUNY-Fredonia as an assistant and a year later made the jump to the USHL — the very league he’d helped Carson navigate a few years earlier — as an assistant for the Fargo Force.
With R.J. graduating and Carson heading into his final season of college hockey, the brothers closed in on the final chapter of their master plan.
However, as if things hadn’t been thrown far enough off their initial course, Carson’s senior season ran into similar problems. In St. Lawrence’s second game Carson’s season came to an end. Again, a Gicewicz’s season had been cut short due to injury.
Without Carson the Saints finished the season with a dismal 2-18-2 record. Because he only managed a little over a game’s worth of action before suffering the season-ending injury, Carson was given an eligibility waiver from the NCAA. Looking for a place to pursue his graduate degree and finish out his college hockey career, help came from a familiar face.
When Carson’s name hit the transfer portal, he directed his attention fairly quickly to the man who’d brought him and his brother together to start their plan with the intent of joining forces with him to finish it out.
“We let him know that, ‘listen, we’d love to have you Carson,’” Carvel said. “’We have a bit of a relationship and if you want to be here, we’d love to have you.’”
By November, Carson was embracing with his linemates, Oliver Chau and Jake Gaudet, celebrating a UMass goal. Carson, now donning his No. 11 for the maroon and white, slotted right in on the Minutemen’s top line. When the final buzzer had sounded and Carson had made his way to the locker room, having finished his first game on his new team, there was already a message waiting on his cell phone.
1,500 miles away, R.J. had tuned in to see his brother’s UMass debut. He’d played well and UMass had won, but R.J. wasn’t quite ready to let Carson forget their days in Canton, N.Y., even if things had finished out as planned.
When Carson picked up his phone, R.J.’s text sat between kind messages and congratulations. It was a long one — a paragraph of advice on where he thought he could improve.
“It’s funny,” Carson messaged back. “I’ve actually been working on those things with the coaches.”
It was just one more reminder that the brother’s master plan hadn’t come to end, how could it have. It had persevered through careers ending, new jobs and new schools. If anything, their master plan was simply different than they’d thought. The master plan was never just about playing hockey together. It was about two brothers sticking together through all that life threw at them.
So, when Carson pulled his car into its parking spot on the UMass campus, he wasn’t wondering when he’d hear from his brother next—he knew he’d get a call in a week or two to catch up. He was only wondering what he’d have to say about his last game.
Noah Bortle can be reached at [email protected] . He can be followed on Twitter @noah_bortle.