Peyton Hart won't forget his "welcome to junior hockey" moment.
The Granite City Lumberjacks made sure of that.
Hart was a 17-year-old North American 3 Hockey League rookie on Sept. 15, 2018, when the Rochester Grizzlies played the first game in franchise history against the powerful Lumberjacks, who had won two of the previous four NA3HL national championships.
The Grizzlies were confident they would go to Sauk Rapids and go toe-to-toe with the Lumberjacks.
"It was the first junior game for a lot of us, the first time being away from home for a long period of time," Hart said. "We weren't playing against boys, we were going against men, 20- or 21-year-old men. As a 17-year-old it was a shock. I just wanted to do something to affect the team in a positive way.
"We lost 10-0. I was looking around the locker room afterward like 'we don't want this to be our whole season.'"
Matt DeRosa was in the same boat. Just 17 at the time, he was wondering a bit if the 1,000-mile move from his home in Alpharetta, Ga., had been the right decision.
"I remember the week leading up to the game, we had our lines set and I was feeling comfortable and felt good about my spot on the team," DeRosa said. "I kind of got an eye opener two or three hours before the game. Some kids got cut by (NAHL team) Austin and came and played with us. It shocked me, like 'I could really not play if I don't show up.'
"It gave me a kick in the pants, but it made me more passionate about the team and (my place on it)."
A week later, Rochester blasted Evansville 10-0 in the Grizzlies' first-ever home game, a win that started Rochester on a 10-game winning streak. Hart had an assist. DeRosa had a goal and an assist. And another NA3HL rookie, Rogers, Minn., native Joey Fodstad had a three-point night.
Everyone took a deep breath, realizing the opening loss to Granite City was an anomaly, not the norm.
"We went to Granite City for that first game," Fodstad said. "It was 10-0 ... we all kind of thought 'it could be a long year, or we can turn this around.' We did a great job of turning it around right away and we got much better as a team throughout that year."
That Grizzlies didn't drop below .500 again that season, finishing with a 31-15-1 record, an impressive accomplishment for a first-year team, especially playing in the league's toughest division that season, the NA3HL West. Rochester missed gaining home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs by just four points, and it pushed league power North Iowa to three games in a fiercely contested playoff series before falling to the Bulls 2-1 in the best-of-three series.
"That was a unicorn team, a special, special team," DeRosa said. "We all walked into it not knowing anyone. There were no cliques from the (previous) year to that year, no core group of returning guys. We were all new, all really nice and welcoming. We did everything together as a team. There was no odd man out — there's no odd man out this year, either — but it was tight. We were all in it together."
DeRosa, Hart and Fodstad all had the same goal that season: Improve enough to climb the ladder of junior hockey in search of an opportunity to play in college. They didn't know, or strongly consider, at the time how big a part of their lives and hockey careers that Rochester and the Grizzlies' organization would become.
Old-timers on the team
All three are still here, largely due to circumstances out of their control.
The coronavirus pandemic has caused a trickle-down effect in junior hockey, with a greater number of players being available at all levels. That means the spots the Grizzlies' veterans thought they'd likely have this season on Tier II NAHL rosters were no longer available, many of them instead filled by players cut from Tier I USHL teams.
But Fodstad, DeRosa and Hart aren't pouting.
They've embraced their roles as veterans and leaders on a Grizzlies team that is off to a 15-3-0 start and has the most wins in the NA3HL despite practicing and playing entirely on the road for the past six weeks as rinks across Minnesota have been shut down due to government restrictions designed to slow the spread of COVID-19.
"It's not about what level you're playing at," said Fodstad, who is fourth on the Grizzlies this season with 14 points. "A lot of guys on our team and other teams in our division could be in the NAHL. It's not about that, it's about what can I do to help the team and make myself develop and become better as a player? I look at it from a farther glance, to see what I can do to keep developing as a player and as a person on and off the ice."
Fodstad trails only Hart (21 points), DeRosa (16) and second-year Grizzly Garrett Smith (15) in points this season. A lot of that has to do with the comfort level the three third-year Grizzlies have developed with one another and their coaches.
In fact, the only people who have been with the Grizzlies' organization longer than DeRosa, Fodstad and Hart are assistant coach Mike Aikens and owners Mike Cooper and Craig Patrick. Aikens has grown to know Hart and DeRosa intimately, as Aikens and his wife, Hope, have been their billet family for all three of the players' seasons in Rochester.
"First of all they're unbelievable kids as far as, I think anybody would be proud to call them their own," Aikens said of the team's most-veteran players. "They come from great families. Matt and Peyton made the transition to our house seamlessly. They quickly bonded with our family. It's like those boys have been with us our whole life.
"Peyton is a little more conservative and Matt is a little more free-wheeling. They complement each other pretty well."
'Don't try to do that'
The third-year forwards rank 1-2-3 in the Grizzlies' record books in career games played (Hart 111, Fodstad 104, DeRosa 104) and career points (DeRosa 104, Hart 102, Fodstad 100) and are setting marks that are unlikely to be topped anytime soon.
They've all accomplished those feats in different ways.
Fodstad's biggest strength may be his vision and creativity. Hart is a creature of habit and game-day routine. DeRosa has a perfect combination of speed, vision and Hockey IQ.
"Joe is very unique," Grizzlies second-year head coach Chris Ratzloff said. "He has some real sneakiness to him. You watch him when he does things and you have to give him some room. He does some things you wouldn't want other guys to do, but he does it in a way that he gains an advantage for himself.
"Last year he scored three or four goals from below the goal line and it wasn't an accident. He sees things that other guys and we as coaches don't. We'll watch Joe and tell the other guys 'don't watch that, don't try to do that.'"
Aikens said he's seen a sense of urgency creep into the veteran trio this season, with the realization that this is their last chance to lead the Grizzlies, and the knowledge that college scouts have their eyes on them.
"Matt's a good goal-scorer and what's increased his production lately is, he's working harder than earlier in the year," Aikens said. "He's the first guy in on the forecheck for that line. He's being disruptive and creating turnovers, leading to a lot of offense for them. He does a lot of things right.
"With Peyton, he has really good speed and is very strong. He has enough speed where he can beat guys. Several times a game he just skates around guys and there are times he can do it more. He gets a lot of scoring chances because of that speed. He's leading us in goals and I think he could have way more if he capitalizes on more of his opportunities."
Hart, DeRosa and Fodstad all expect to be playing college hockey a year from now.
They also know that the best way to get that opportunity is to show their versatility as 200-feet players this year. The pandemic robbed the Grizzlies of a postseason opportunity last spring, on the heels of a 37-8-2 regular season and the franchise's first-ever Central Division championship.
"We definitely look at every game differently now," Fodstad said. "We were a really strong team last year. We felt we were the best team in the league. We had a special group and to have it end that way was brutal. ... We have some unfinished business. We look at every game like 'this could be our last, play like you may never get another game.' That approach is a big thing. We have a lot of guys back from last year and not getting to the playoffs was really tough."
It's a relief to the Grizzlies' veterans, too, knowing that when January comes they'll likely be able to get back on their home ice at the Rochester Recreation Center on a regular basis, both for games and practices. The hour-plus bus rides to practice twice a week in Wisconsin, as well as the road trips to Milwaukee, Wausau and Peoria, Ill., won't be as frequent, and they won't be missed.
"We're so used to being on the road and going 75 minutes to get to practice every day that it'll feel weird driving 10-15 minutes to our home rink," Hart said, "but we're looking forward to it, playing at home in front of our own fans and getting back into that routine a little bit."
Ratzloff said that, no matter how this season ends, or how the junior hockey careers end for Fodstad, Hart and DeRosa, he has a good idea of how the ensuing years will play out.
"When they leave here and leave college and are done with hockey," Ratzloff said, "they're all great humans and will all be very productive in society. They're just great individuals. We want them to have success in hockey wherever they go, but we want all our guys to have success in life. That's the kind of guys they are and that's what they're teaching the younger guys.
"You want to be a better player, but you want to do the little things, clean the locker room before you leave, clean the bus before you get off, be respectful on the road in hotels ... whatever you did before, this is how we do it here."