Scott Pellerin knows his way around Utica.
A voice mail from AHL President and CEO David Andrews is all it took for Pellerin, 48, to begin thinking of his days as a Utica Devil.
"When we were able to finally connect, he (Andrews) asked if I would accept his invitation to be one of the honorary co-captains of the All-Star Classic. This is very exciting." Pellerin, a veteran of 31 games back in the early 1990's with the U-Devils, said during a recent phone interview.
As with most professional athletes, long after their playing days are finished, with all the accolades and awards collected, it's their beginnings that often seem to remain the freshest, and most impactful. Pellerin is no different. Arriving in Utica, fresh off winning the Hobey Baker Award in 1992 as the top NCAA men's hockey player at the University of Maine, Pellerin was given a fast introduction to the AHL.
"Utica was the start of my professional hockey career. I never forgot my first practice with Herb (Utica coach Herb Brooks)," explains Pellerin. "Everything happened so fast. I just finished my college season, with a very good team. I signed a contract with New Jersey, and they tell me I'm going to Utica. I asked, ‘Where is Utica?’”
After flying into Syracuse, and being picked up at the airport for his ride to Utica, Pellerin recalls being anxious to make a good first impression.
"I got to the arena late. I was hurrying up to get dressed for practice. My skates were tied, and I rush onto the ice. Then, Herb blows his whistle, and practice stops," Pellerin tells.
It's what follows, after Coach Brooks gathers the team around New Jersey's third-round draft selection (1989), that to this day still brings a laugh to Pellerin.
"Herb introduces me to each player, until Dean Malkoc begins skating in my direction. As he gets close to me, I hear him say his name, and ‘274 penalty minutes’," Pellerin recalls. "That broke the ice for me and was my first look at my new teammates."
The three Calder Cup playoff games in the 1991-92 season were Pellerin's audition with Utica. The Devils, who finished fourth in the AHL's Southern Division in 1992 with 74 points, lost in the first-round to the Binghamton Rangers. The four-game sweep had the 22-year-old from Shediac, New Brunswick looking forward to his full first season (or so he thought) in Utica, come fall.
It's his experience as a pro more than a quarter of a century ago, that Pellerin makes good use of today, as director of player development for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
One day, I caught up with Pellerin in State College, Pennsylvania. His assignment: take in the Penn State – Ohio State men's hockey game. In his current capacity with the Leafs, which he has been at since June 2015, Pellerin's responsibilities include overseeing all of the organization's prospects.
"I monitor the development of our minor league players, and draft picks (North America and Europe). We (Toronto) want to ensure they are following our standards and procedures," Pellerin said.
Although he skated in 536 NHL games, it's Pellerin's AHL experiences (Utica, Albany, Worcester, Portland) that easily bring excitement into a conversation. The first stop, Utica, has many other "firsts" for the former Main Black Bear captain eager to share.
"In my first regular season in Utica, I lived in Whitesboro," remembers Pellerin. "Chris Nelson and me rented an apartment. Then, Chris left, and I was on my own."
Robbie Ftorek was Pellerin's coach for the 1992-93 Utica season – all 27 games. Before getting the call to New Jersey and making his NHL debut, rookie goaltender Martin Brodeur and fellow Hobey Baker winner ('91) David Emma were Pellerin's teammates. 21 points in 45 games with New Jersey were Pellerin's numbers, shuttling between the Mohawk Valley and the "Big Apple" area that year.
Pellerin labels his five seasons with the Devils' organization as "quite fun", and seems to run into former teammates routinely, when traveling for Toronto.
"I was in Fargo (ND) for an NCAA regional game, and ran into six former teammates from my Utica and Albany days. Some are scouts, others are agents. It's great that they are still in hockey," Pellerin declares.
Past memories aside, Pellerin is really looking forward to his return to Utica, and being back on the "bridge" (the bench), during All-Star Classic Weekend. Toronto Marlies' (Maple Leafs' AHL affiliate) coach Sheldon Keefe was also selected as one of the four coaches for All-Star Classic Weekend.
"I'm excited to be on the "bridge", as I spent six seasons with Manchester as an assistant coach, then two coaching Bridgeport," Pellerin states. "I'm familiar with the teams, and it will be an honor to be celebrating the newest members of the AHL Hall of Fame, and being with Craig Cunningham (second honorary co-captain)."
For the 20-something kid in Pellerin, he will have no difficulties flashing back, once stepping back through that familiar back door of Adirondack Bank Center at Utica Memorial Auditorium, come All-Star Classic Weekend.
Written by – Don Laible