DES MOINES -- Ask Pat Cannone, Nick Saracino and Alex Stalock where they took their first big steps toward becoming a professional hockey player. Their answers are, perhaps surprisingly, the same.
Not somewhere in Minnesota, Europe or Canada, but the Cedar Rapids (Iowa) RoughRiders of the United States Hockey League with their long-time coach Mark Carlson is where the three say they turned from kids playing hockey into young men playing hockey.
"I'm often asked what the biggest jump in my hockey career was. For me, it was from high school to juniors, but not just because of what I learned on the ice," Stalock said. "I also had to learn to grow up."
Stalock is one of 19 players who has used the RoughRiders and Carlson's brand of tough love as a springboard to a hockey career that has included playing in the NHL. Cannone is an AHL veteran who recently made his NHL debut, while Saracino is a rookie after playing four years at Providence College on scholarship. A fourth Iowa player, goalie Steve Michalek, played briefly for Carlson in college.
Derek Lalonde, Iowa's head coach, has known Carlson since his days as an assistant coach at Ferris State and Denver Universities. The two also competed against each other when Lalonde was head coach of the USHL's Green Bay Gamblers.
"When I was recruiting, we always looked at the USHL players because of how well they were prepared," Lalonde said. "Mark was one of the first places we would contact because his players were among most coachable."
Saracino said a lot of the players had a love-hate relationship with their coach.
"He is one of those coaches that you say to yourself, 'God, I hate playing for you,'" Saracino said. "Then in your sophomore year in college, you're saying, 'Thank God I played for you.'"
Such praise makes Carlson, who has been the RoughRiders coach and general manager since the establishment of the franchise 17 years ago, smile.
"If he said that, that is the biggest compliment I can get," Carlson said. "We certainly never take the place of a parent, but we do have a responsibility to these young men and their parents to continue to teach them and to continue to raise them."
For each of the four Iowa players, there were special moments during their RoughRiders careers to make them remember their time in Cedar Rapids fondly.
For Stalock, it was just after he helped lead the club to the 2005 Clark Cup championship and ran into Carlson's wife, Tammy, during the celebration. Stalock said that's when she revealed just how close Stalock came to not playing for the RoughRiders that year.
Initially, Stalock had been drafted by another USHL team, but became trade bait when the club decided to go another direction with its netminders.
"I really didn't think I would get a place to play," Stalock remembered.
At the time, Carlson and his wife were on their honeymoon at Disney World and she was becoming increasingly irritated that he was on the phone doing hockey business.
"She told me that she gave him one last phone call," Stalock said. "I was that phone call."
For Cannone, Carlson took interest in the Bayport, New York native who had just completed his third year in junior hockey on the East Coast. In each season, Cannone had scored at least 20 goals and ranked as scoring leader twice on his teams.
Carlson, a New Jersey native, said the RoughRiders needed a scorer, so he approached Cannone with one caveat.
"I told him that he had to lose weight and get into better shape," Carlson said, adding that he told Cannone and his parents he would visit them during the summer when Carlson visited the Jersey shore. "I told him that when I got there, we would go down to the local gym and I would weigh him in. If he lost enough he'd be welcome to join us, if not I'd be wishing him well."
Cannone said that while he didn't know exactly where Cedar Rapids was located, he knew he wanted to play for Carlson. He said that his goal at the time was a college scholarship and he knew that Carlson had good connections with the college recruiters.
"When I arrived at Pat's home, he came to the door wearing a golf shirt and shorts," Carlson said. "I just looked at him and said, 'We don't have to go to the gym.'"
At the end of Cannone's 50-point season in Cedar Rapids, he had a scholarship offer from Miami University of Ohio, where he earned a bachelor's degree in kinesiology. Pat never missed a game during his entire collegiate career at Miami.
Saracino's first memory was his experience being invited to the RoughRiders tryout camp without being drafted.
"I just went up there and didn't think I'd make it," Saracino said, adding that the first practice crystallized just how different hockey would be than in high school. "It was like that scene in (the movie) 'Miracle' when [United States coach Herb Brooks] is outlining what he wants and no one understood what he was saying. It was exactly like that for me."
Michalek arrived in Cedar Rapids as a result of academic controversy at Harvard, where he'd been one of the Crimson's goalies. Suspended from playing for the team, Michalek's adviser found him a spot with the RoughRiders for a couple of months while he decided whether or not to return to school.
"We needed a goalie and Steve was available," Carlson said. "He made great progress when he was here. He single-handedly won a couple of games for us."
Said Michalek: "My time was huge there. It was a time of adversity, but Coach Carlson welcomed me with open arms. It was really good for my career and had a positive impact upon it."
One common memory for all four is Carlson's rules.
"Coach wanted you to be a man and to follow the rules he set down," Stalock said. "Curfews were there, but there were funny ones, too."
Among the rules were orders that all locker room urinals had to be flushed immediately after use. In addition, players were to address the team bus driver by his first name, and no yawning in any of Carlson's meetings.
"He expected us to act like adults and made sure we knew what was expected of us," Stalock said. "It's not easy for kids between the ages of 16 and 20 to learn that they are going to be held accountable for how they act."
Carlson said that his rules and his insistence on accountability is one of the hallmarks of the USHL approach to hockey.
"That is why I love the league and have stayed," Carlson said. "When you look at a player's career, there are coaches at all levels that help to develop them. But I don't know if there is a greater opportunity to have an impact that can be special."