With the Chicago skyline quietly fading from the rearview mirror of his family’s vehicle, replaced by an endless horizon of cornfields, Louis Belpedio
realized he was going to have to grow up quickly.
At 14, the Illinois native was leaving the big city for Culver Military Academy—a boarding school located in Culver, Ind., population 1,353. Culver is a leading college preparatory school with a demanding workload, especially for incoming freshmen. The budding defenseman had to balance academics, athletics and his spare time, much like a college athlete.
“At first, it was the hardest thing that I’d ever gone through, but going through that I believe made me the person I am today,” Belpedio said. “Living on your own was a big part of it; you don’t have mommy or daddy to walk you through things.
“It was the point where I realized that I’d have to start doing things on my own and start to mature into a young man and not be little kid any more. I think I did that at an earlier age than most people do.”
Having to develop self-reliance at an early age translated onto the ice and in the locker room with teammates. After two years at Culver, he moved to Ann Arbor, Mich., to join the US National Development Program. Last season, he played for the U-18 team and captained Team USA at the World Junior Championships in Finland.
His leadership abilities and maturity caught the eye of the Minnesota Wild. The club drafted Belpedio in the third round (80th overall) of the 2014 NHL Entry Draft in Philadelphia.
“When I realized that was talking to his teammates at the NHL Combine, and during the interview process before. Each of his teammates we asked, ‘Who would you bring with you and why?’ and almost every player mentioned Louie’s name,” Wild Assistant General Manager Brent Flahr said. “That says a lot about a player when every one of his teammates brings his name up as one of those top guys.”
Listed at 5-foot-11, 193-pounds, the blueliner might not be blessed with the size of a prototypical NHL prospect. However, he’s a classic example of bringing intangibles to the game that reach far beyond height and weight.
“Obviously, he’s not the biggest guy, but he’s mobile,” Flahr said.
“He likes to have the puck. He’s very good at moving it up the ice and likes to jump into the offense whenever he has the chance.”
Wild fans are familiar with an- other diminutive defenseman with a similar skill set: Jared Spurgeon. A lifelong Chicago Blackhawks fan, Belpedio took notice of
Spurgeon’s ability in the Wild’s playoff clashes with the Hawks. (Don’t worry he changed his alliances as soon as his name was called by the Wild at the draft.) He also tries to pattern his game after Pittsburgh Penguins blueliner Kris Letang.
“I try to watch (them) as much as possible,” Belpedio said. “It’s special from my point of view watching them. Spurgeon is listed at 5-foot-9 and Letang is 5-foot-11 or 6-foot, right around where I am. They’re also great skaters, which allows them to play the game. They’re smart with the puck and they do all the little things right.
I definitely try to pick up on that and some of their tactics in the offensive and defensive zones.”
The defenseman said he’s always been around the middle of the pack size-wise, so he’s comfortable in his own skin. However, in the eyes of others, the 18-year-old knows he might go disregarded as a pro prospect to patrol an NHL blue line.
“Most guys might say, ‘Oh, he’s too small,’” Belpedio said. “That’s the unique part of my game, being a smaller guy, I try to use my skill set and my skating at the best of my ability to try and make up for that.
“It’s something that drives me, hearing I’m too small to play. It gives me the will to do better.”
So, don’t overlook the not-as-big defenseman. This season, he’s skating as a freshman at Miami University. He’s already made a large impact with the RedHawks, scoring his first career college goal in only his second game against Bowling Green by jumping into the play and joining an odd-man rush.
His skating and offensive ability will set him apart from other blueliners his age, but it’s the things that you might not see at first glance that set him apart from other NHL prospects.
“You see around the NHL and there are guys at all different sizes that play,” Flahr said. “It takes special abilities and character. By no means is he there yet, but we feel he has the skill set to make it and obviously the character and drive and passion for the game that might give him a chance to play in the NHL.”