Xcel Energy Center, the home of the Minnesota Wild, will host the National Collegiate Hockey Conference's (NCHC) Frozen Faceoff championship tournament March 16-17, 2018. Leading up to the Frozen Faceoff, Wild.com will feature different aspects of the NCHC related to the Wild and Xcel Energy Center. More information, including tickets, is available at the Xcel Energy Center's Frozen Faceoff page.
College hockey hasn't always been an easy ride for Miami University defenseman Louie Belpedio. At times, it's been more like a drive down a pothole-ridden side street rather than a smooth cruise on the interstate.
But Belpedio has learned and grown a lot from the journey, and in the final stretch of his collegiate career, the Minnesota Wild prospect finds himself among the top collegiate blueliners in the country. As the road conditions continue to improve for Miami, the senior captain hopes to help steer the RedHawks toward their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2015.
At the conclusion of last season, which was a plain disappointment for both Belpedio and the team as a whole, Miami head coach Enrico Blasi wasn't even certain whether his star defenseman would return for his senior year. After all, the Wild's 80th overall pick in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft did receive an all-conference honorable mention, despite missing a third of the season due to injury.
Furthermore, the struggling RedHawks had just posted their second-straight losing season -- unknown territory for a program that has made nine of the previous 12 NCAA tournaments. It would have been pretty easy to take the money and run, so to speak, but Belpedio isn't the type of guy who seeks the easy way out. Besides, he made a promise.
"It was difficult in the sense that I knew I was ready to leave and I knew I could handle taking that next step, but the difficult part for me was about finishing school," Belpedio said. "That's always been important to me and my family, because I'm the first one in my immediate family to go to school. It's a promise I made to them."
It takes plenty of patience and poise for a player who captained a number of current NHLers on the 2014 Team USA U18 team to a World Championship gold medal to refrain from trying to join them at the game's highest level. From Auston Matthews to Jack Eichel and Dylan Larkin, the list of successful pros from that gold medal winning team continues to grow. Belpedio's reluctance to leave school without finishing his degree as his former teammates moved onto the NHL resulted in a hilarious tweet from him, when Eichel and Larkin faced off earlier in the season.
But this season hasn't been just a waiting game for Belpedio. Being one of two senior defensemen and one of three seniors on the team overall, he plays up to 30 minutes a night and has well-deserved spots on both special teams units. While the six foot, 200-pound right-handed shot has always been a two-way defenseman, this season he's seen an uptick in offense. With 17 points through 18 games so far, he ranks fifth among NCAA defenders in scoring and is two points from matching his career high. A quick, accurate shot and a knack for knowing when to step up onto the rush or float low in the offensive zone are just a few of his offensive attributes.
However, Belpedio is more interested in playing a complete game than just getting on the scoresheet, and he prides himself on going up against the opponent's top lines every weekend.
"I do like that offensive role, I think that's another card to have in your deck, but I consider myself a two-way defenseman and the scoring is just kind of a bonus," Belpedio said.
"Nobody really cares who scores the goal, just so long as we score it."
The Skokie, Illinois native has also quarterbacked a successful power play unit to the seventh-best conversion rate in the country (25.6 percent), while recording 10 power play points himself.
"It's pretty easy (playing with him)," said fellow defenseman and assistant captain Grant Hutton, who spent time with Belpedio on the top power play unit earlier this season. "He's a great puck distributor, and he makes the right plays at the right time."
Hutton also noted that one of Belpedio's most valuable assets for is how strongly he leads by example, a crucial component of a captain whose team features 19 underclassmen.
"He's always had a professional demeanor to him, and that's really important for our team with all the underclassmen," Hutton said.
But Belpedio hasn't always been able to lead only from the playing surface. Last year, a pair of injuries caused the first-time captain to miss 12 total games. Without their top defenseman, the RedHawks went 0-9-3. Forced to watch practice and games instead of participate, the normally concise and quiet captain had to develop his verbal skills and become a more well-rounded leader in order to continue to contribute.
"When things weren't going well, I couldn't be the one to have bad attitude or body language, especially with having those guys have their eyes on me," Belpedio said. "It's actually helped me a ton last year to go through that rough patch and learn how to handle it and to adapt to talking more. My whole style is lead by example, so it helped me grow in that sense, too."
While his on-ice skills have certainly grown during his time at Miami, one key intangible Belpedio brought with him was maturity. He attributes this growth largely to two years spent at the Culver Military Academy in Culver, Indiana; the school's alumni list includes Wild defenseman Ryan Suter. Playing hockey here before making the US National Development Team Program U18 team was a crucial step in his development, Belpedio said.
"Me and my family were super close, and I had to leave home at age 14, so it was really tough for the first few weeks," Belpedio said. "It really helped me in my maturity level and the way I've grown as a person."
Belpedio also prides himself on selflessness. One sterling example remains the play he made as a freshman when everything was on the line during his first and only NCAA Tournament game in 2015. Belpedio's diving stop to keep the puck out of the empty net serves as a microcosm of his preferred character and playing style.
So forgive the man if entering the final second half of his collegiate career, after enduring two rebuilding seasons, he's thinking about getting himself another taste of playoff hockey.
"It's been a tough two years," Belpedio said. "Freshman year, we didn't make it far in the tournament, but you go from that year when you win a championship with the NCHC and then don't make the tournament (for two years) … It's obviously not anything anybody wants to go through."
Despite finishing the first half of the season with an 8-8-2 record, the RedHawks are tied for 18th in the Pairwise rankings, which helps determine seeding for the 16-team NCAA Tournament. If they do the little things right to win the close games down the stretch, and take fewer penalties (Miami ranks second in the nation with an average of 16.25 penalty minutes per game) in the second half, the RedHawks have a legitimate shot at getting back into the postseason. So at the end of this four-year-long road, Belpedio may just have some fruits to harvest for all of his labor.