January 28, 2012

From NEHJ: Plymouth State's odd couple

By Mike Zhe

PLYMOUTH, N.H. — For generations, hockey teams have counted on their stay-at-home defensemen to clean things up on the ice.

Plymouth State junior J.C. Richardson takes that concept even further. He’s the guy who cleans things up off the ice as well. 

Plymouth State junior captain J.C. Richardson (Plymouth State Athletics)

“Everybody calls me ‘Dad’ or ‘Pops,’” said Richardson, who hails from Fort Collins, Colo. “I usually try to clean up the loose ends, take care of everybody.”

As the new year begins, Plymouth State has taken care of just about everybody it’s played and owns first place in the MASCAC after going 8-2-0 overall. And much of the credit belongs to the team’s very own “odd couple” — junior defensemen Richardson, the team captain, and Richie Zobak, an assistant captain, whose contrasting styles extend beyond their on-ice pairing.

The two do share one common trait, though.

“The compete level in both of those guys is unmatched,” said Plymouth State coach Craig Russell (Northfield, Vt.) “They’re matching up with the opponent’s top line every night. They’re doing it all and playing 25 minutes a game.”

Richardson and Zobak have been teammates and roommates for four consecutive seasons, since suiting up for the Bay State Breakers of the EJHL in their final year of juniors in 2008-09. Not only were they teammates for the first time there, but they also were sharing a waterfront house in Marshfield, Mass., with a couple other guys — current UMass-Boston players Mike Crowder and Tim Niedzielak — and getting to know each other’s off-ice quirks.

One of the first things they learned was the disparate values each placed on neatness.

Richardson, by both of their admissions the neater of the two, is a 6-foot-3, 215-pound force on skates who’s not easily dislodged. His career scoring totals of 6-21-24 are barely half of what Zobak’s put up, but his hits are memorable, his play reliable.

“He just murders people in our own end,” Zobak said. “He hits, plays the body, chips the puck out when it’s supposed to be chipped out.” A grin. “He’s starting to move his feet and skate the puck up the ice more, which is nice.”

“He’s a physical presence and a strong physical presence,” Russell said. “He’s not the fastest guy, but he always makes the good first pass, always makes the right play.”

Then there’s Zobak. A first-team All-MASCAC selection in each of the past two seasons, he possesses the kind of offensive flash that’s allowed him to post 14-32-46 career scoring totals, and adds to his strong two-way game.

“Super-dependable,” Richardson said. “Even if I leave him on a 2-on-1, I’m pretty comfortable with it.”

Away from the rink, though, Zobak can tend to get too comfortable.

Junior forward Kyle Greco, the Panthers’ leading scorer with six goals and 15 points, grew up with Zobak outside of Chicago, and they both billeted with the same family when they were playing juniors together in Springfield, Mo.

“I think he did his own laundry once, from mid-October to Christmas,” Greco said.

“We call it the hamster cage, where he resides,” Richardson said. “You let him know that he’s got to take care of that or pick that up.”

Where the Panthers have really enjoyed kicking their shoes off is in their new home, Hanaway Rink, part of a $16.4 million construction project that was completed prior to last season.

The rink itself seats 850 spectators, without a bad seat in the building. Most of those seats are taking on game night, and the amenities underneath are squeaky clean, right down to the big black panther painted across the locker room floor.

“I still find myself walking in here and saying, ‘Wow. This is cool,’” Zobak said, relaxing in the locker room one day last month. “I’ll end up sitting in my stall for an hour after practice. I just wished the cable worked.” 

Plymouth State junior assistant captain Richie Zobak (Plymouth State Athletics)

The knock on the Panthers last season was that they couldn’t finish games. They went 15-6-5 (10-5-3 MASCAC) but left a lot of wins on the table, and got upset at home by Westfield State in the first round of the conference playoffs.

“Stats don’t lie,” Greco said. “We lost seven games in the third period. This year, going into the preseason, our whole team was working out six days a week. … What it comes down to is we have that extra fuel in the tank to win those close games. Last year, we didn’t.”

The Panthers are 5-1 in one-goal games and a perfect 5-0 at Hanaway. Their greatest escape came last month against Fitchburg State, when Greco scored on the power play with three seconds remaining in regulation for a 4-3 win.

“We just don’t give up, basically,” Zobak said. “We’ve had four overtime games and beat Fitchburg with three seconds left. We found a way to screw those games up in years past. This year, we’re not.”

It also helps to have a goalie such as Jack Astedt, whose play has been every bit as steady as it was a year ago, when he earned second-team All-MASCAC honors. He’s played every minute in net, with a 2.07 goals-against average and .922 save percentage.

“When we have a breakdown,” Greco said, “we have one of the best goalies in the country to back us up.”

What’s heartening to Russell is that the success of the program may not even be close to peaking. With forward Bryan Kriner (Newport, R.I.) likely done for good with a concussion issue, only three seniors are in the lineup each night: forwards Chris Zaremba and Brian Johnson (East Bridgewater, Mass.), and defenseman Chris Mohar.

As for Zobak and Richardson, they’ve played so much hockey together they may as well be seniors themselves.

“I don’t even have to think when it comes down to passing the puck, are you going (or) am I going?” Zobak said.

“It’s kind of just natural at this point,” Richardson said.

Living together, though, is still a work in progress.

This year, the two are living in an apartment with six other players on the team. As classes and practices run together, and free time disappears, messes can pile up. And it’s usually the guy they call “Dad” or “Pops” who has to rally the troops.

“He’s the one that definitely pushes,” Zobak said. “The other seven of us are always, ‘We’ll get to it tomorrow.’ Then tomorrow turns into a week-and-a-half.”

If time seems to fly this winter, it’s because the Panthers are having a good time doing what they’re doing. While the odd couple has played a big role, there’s nothing odd about the success.

“It’s been a great start,” Richardson said. “Obviously, we’d like to change two games out of that. But I think we came together right from the beginning and got off to a really good start.”

This article originally appeared in the January 2012 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

Mike Zhe can be reached at mzhe@hockeyjournal.com