July 20, 2011

A monumental moment for Rapid City's Hodge

By Mike Zhe

Editor's note: This article originally appeared in the July 2010 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

Brendon Hodge (photo: Mike Wolforth) Rapid City Rush center Brendon Hodge (Lynnfield, Mass.) skated out for a shift in the second period of Game 7 of the Central Hockey League conference finals in April and knew he had a problem.

“Something didn’t feel right in my face,” he said.

Easily explainable. It was just one shift earlier that a nasty hit from behind by Bossier-Shreveport defenseman Clay Plume – a former teammate -- had sent him face-first into the dasher board, a scary moment that resulted in him fracturing three orbital bones.

Plume got sent off the ice for five minutes for boarding. Hodge – the youngest hockey-playing son of former Boston Bruins great Ken Hodge Sr. – might have been forgiven for staying off the ice the rest of the CHL playoffs. But he was right back in action for Game 1 of the finals, wearing a cage facemask for the first time since college and helping the Rush defeat the Allen Americans in six games.

“It took me seven years to get to the finals,” he said. “I wasn’t going to miss a single second of it.”

Hodge was one of a handful of New Englanders who celebrated professional championships, either in North Americaor in Europe. But unlike former Vermontstar Patrick Sharp, a forward with the Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks; or even the trio of Keith Aucoin (Chelmsford, Mass.), Chris Bourque (Boxford, Mass.) and John Carlson (Natick, Mass.), who hoisted a Calder Cup with the Hershey Bears, the spotlight on the other guys was a relatively local one.

But it didn’t make it any less special.

For the 31-year-old Hodge, who’s played seven pro seasons in two leagues and four cities after a standout career at Division 3 Plattsburgh (N.Y.) State, it was an appreciated reward for all those years of long bus trips, low salaries and playing hurt.

And the feeling when veteran Scott Wray handed him the Ray Miron President’s Trophy after a Game 6 title-clinching win in double overtime was unparalleled after a season that saw him collect 23 goals and 34 assists, and another 3-9-12 in the playoffs.

“At 31, you’re not old in the real world but you’re old at the minor-league level,” said Hodge. “It seemed the time was slipping away a little. It kind of makes you feel you accomplished something you’ve been working for your whole life.”

Like any good marriage, Hodge’s relationship with the Rush was a two-way street. Heading into 2009-10, the fledgling franchise needed Hodge as much as Hodge needed it.

For both parties, the 2008-09 campaign had been a forgettable one. In Rapid City, S.D., it was the first season on ice for the expansion Rush, who play home games in a new, 5,132-seat rink some 23 winding miles from the locale’s most famous attraction, Mount Rushmore.

“The first thing you tell (prospective) players is, ‘It’s where Mount Rushmore is,’” said Rush coach Joe Ferras. “And they say, ‘Oh, yeah.’ Then, ‘Where’s that?’”

Nobody was ready to immortalize the team after it went 22-33-9 and missed the playoffs that first year. Playing the first 18 games away from home didn’t help, and the talent was young and suspect.

“That year was kind of the lovable losers,” said Rush radio broadcaster Daniel Nieves. “We looked back at some of the players, where they came from and where they are now, and it was like, ‘Wow.’”

While the Rush were struggling up north, Hodge’s career was at another crossroads in the dust bowl. He was in the midst of his second season with the CHL’s Tulsa Oilers when his older brother, Danny, was fired as the team’s coach. Brendon played out the season, put up 24-35-59 totals in front of 1,200 fans a night and jumped at the chance to play for Ferras soon after he got his release.

Rapid City ranked among the league leaders in attendance, an average of 4,811 per game, or roughly 95 percent of its arena’s capacity.

“It was the type of atmosphere I knew I wanted to be a part of,” said Hodge. “No bad tension in the locker room at all. We were all fighting for the same thing. I hadn’t been in that kind of atmosphere for a few years.”

The Rush, which also included Harvard product Jon Pelle, finished the regular season atop the Northern Division with a 43-14-7 record. They kicked off the playoffs with a four-game sweep of Missouri, then outlasted Bossier-Shreveport, with Hodge absorbing the three fractures for the effort.

“It just showed the character of the young man,” said Ferras. “He came back and played the rest of the playoffs without missing a beat.”

By the time Game 6 of the finals rolled around on May 4 – after two straight wins – there was a sense that something special was close. It got even more special for Hodge when he stopped by a local hotel to meet up with his brother and sister-in-law; unbeknownst to his youngest son, Ken Hodge Sr. had driven 31 hours across country so he could be in Rapid City for the game.

“When you have a dad who has two Stanley Cups (1970 and ’72), you try to win some kind of a cup,” said Brendon. “It was a joy to do it and have my dad in the crowd.”

At 31, the younger Hodge knows his pro hockey days are numbered. He wasn’t drafted coming out of a Division 3 school and has never played a shift in the AHL, even. His dad was 35 when he bowed out after a season with the AHL’s Binghamton Dusters in 1979-80.

“I definitely want to go back to Rapid City and defend the title,” said Hodge. “I’ve told the guys that we’re going to get everybody’s best game.

“I can see myself playing two or three more years. I’ll give myself until (age) 33 and then get into the real world. But I hear that the real world’s not that much fun.”

Not compared to Fantasyland, which is what Rapid City seemed like this season.

Mike Zhe can be reached at mzhe@hockeyjournal.com.