Written for ProHockeyNews.com and re-published with permission.
(Click the link to view the story on PHN.)
It’s been less than 24 hours since Evansville IceMen forward Matt Schepke stepped off of the ice for what may have been the final time in his professional hockey career. The Michigan native is at the Ford Center watching Evansville’s regular season home finale from the suite of Orthopaedic Associates, the team’s official sports medicine provider.
Kelly Wonder, Orthopaedic Associates’ administrative liaison to the IceMen, has made arrangements to get an IceMen stick for a young man who could use an emotional boost. A few games prior, Wonder had already presented the 12-year old with a t-shirt signed by several of the IceMen players. Tonight, she’s upping the ante with the help of Schepke and two of his teammates.
The young man’s name is Houston Rogers. Along with his mom Jennifer, he is a devout IceMen fan. They have season tickets at center-ice in Section 117, a.k.a. “The Maniac Asylum.” He is perhaps the youngest member of the “Cowbell Army,” a group of fans who lead chants with the aid of drumsticks and full-sized cowbells.
Fueled by his passion for the IceMen, Houston had recently decided to try playing hockey himself. Exactly three weeks before the home finale, he took part in a “Try Hockey For Free” seminar that was presented by Orthopaedic Associates and the Evansville Youth Hockey Association.
It was the first time Houston had ever attempted playing hockey. His previous skating experience had been limited to the occasional public skating session at Swonder Ice Arena, the city’s recreational rink and the official practice facility of the IceMen.
The seminar was going well, for a while. Houston was thoroughly enjoying his first foray into playing the game he already loved watching so much.
And then he took a nasty spill, badly breaking both bones in his lower left leg. Just like that, his introduction to hockey was over. He would need to attend the season’s final handful of IceMen home games from the confines of a wheelchair, allowing his leg to properly heal.
It was a lot for a kid to take. Houston was understandably upset and disappointed. That’s when the “IceMen family” stepped in.
At the home finale, Houston had already been featured on the Ford Center’s enormous scoreboard during pre-game festivities. IceMen game-night emcee Stephen Rickard and the Icicles, the franchise’s promotional team of attractive young ladies, surrounded Houston for a series of announcements and gave him a shout-out.
But unbeknownst to virtually everyone in the building, that wasn’t the only special visit Houston enjoyed that night.
When the first period ended, fans turned their attention to the on-ice intermission entertainment, an appearance by the popular ZOOperstars.
Houston was taking it all in when suddenly, he found himself surrounded by Schepke, scratched IceMen defenseman Tyler Hinds, and injured IceMen winger Andre Bouvet-Morrissette.
The players had signed the stick Wonder had acquired, and they wanted to personally deliver it to Houston.
Their message was simple: Keep a smile on your face and don’t give up.
Said Schepke: “We just wanted him to know that we support him in his recovery, and just because he had one bad experience doesn’t mean he shouldn’t get back out there and try it again.”
The uplifting delivery was not announced to the crowd. There were no microphones or video cameras capturing the moment for publicity purposes. It was simply Schepke and his teammates taking a few minutes to brighten the day of a kid who needed it. Pure class.
A LONG AND WINDING ROAD
Schepke played three years of junior hockey in Texarkana and Omaha, followed by three years of college hockey at Michigan State. He was a member of the Spartans team that won the NCAA Frozen Four championship in 2007.
His five-year professional career has taken him to Charlotte (ECHL), Hartford (AHL), Albany (AHL), Greenville (ECHL), Bridgeport (AHL), Reading (ECHL), Wheeling (ECHL), Glasgow (the United Kingdom’s EIHL), and Evansville (ECHL).
Nine teams, three leagues, seven states and two continents. He has accumulated 179 points in 272 regular-season games, the last of which may go down as his finest – but more on that later.
Last season began in Greenville. When the Road Warriors released him in December, Schepke signed with Evansville as a free agent. He quickly became a fan-favorite due to his energy on the ice, despite playing just 15 games for the IceMen before departing for what he termed “a better opportunity” in Europe.
Schepke says he just “needed a change of scenery.” He enjoyed himself while playing for the Braehead Clan in Scotland, and had every intention of returning to the EIHL this season.
But then the IceMen let Rich Kromm go as head coach last April, and replaced him with longtime ECHL bench boss Jeff Pyle. Pyle contacted Schepke about returning to Evansville, and the two talked all summer.
“Knowing Pyle’s track record, I was happy to return to Evansville,” Schepke said. “The arena is one-of-a-kind, along with the organization. (Owner) Ron Geary has put together a great staff to run the organization, and they really take care of the players. It’s a top-notch place to play and guys really enjoy being here.”
So Schepke returned to Indiana and put together a career year, with 51 points in 62 games. But in concert with his considerable skills, he often generated offense by throwing his body around with reckless abandon. Eventually, that physicality caught up with him.
The pain in his shoulder first appeared in the middle of February. Schepke played through it for a few weeks, but the pain progressed to the point that he needed to get it checked out.
Tests revealed a small tear and a non-cancerous cyst, which was formed from the shoulder rubbing the wrong way due to the tear. Making matters worse, the cyst was putting pressure on a nerve, thus causing more pain than the tear itself.
The fix? Season-ending surgery.
CULTIVATING FUTURE ALL-STARS
The ECHL did not have an All-Star Game this season, but the league’s schedule still included a de-facto “All-Star break” in January. Players were given a league-mandated three-day break, with no organized practices or team-sanctioned activities allowed.
Of course, what the players do on their own time is up to them. Schepke decided to put together a youth hockey clinic at the Ford Center. Although EYHA graciously helped promote it, the clinic was not sanctioned by the youth organization or USA Hockey. It was simply Schepke’s way of giving back to the area’s kids, some of whom he already knew.
Throughout the season, Schepke had been volunteering at EYHA clinics and also giving regular private lessons to a handful of aspiring young novices. The lessons varied from on-ice skating and skill development at Swonder to off-ice conditioning and coordination drills at local school gyms.
Among Schepke’s regular pupils was 6-year old Max Shuler, who only got into hockey – and started playing about a year ago – because of the IceMen. Max and his mom, Michelle, are IceMen season-ticket holders.
Michelle can’t say enough about Schepke’s positive influence on her son and his peers. “He taught them so much more than hockey. He made them do every drill correctly, or they had to do it again. When they missed the net, they did push-ups. But when they hit the net, SCHEPKE would do push-ups! He always encouraged teamwork and passing, and was always 100% honest with them.”
Schepke’s drills and lessons weren’t re-inventing the wheel, but Michelle believes that the teacher can make a huge difference. “The kids just listen better and work harder when it’s an IceMen player telling them what to do. The boys all improved greatly this year – not just at hockey skills, but their work ethic and their drive to always push themselves as hard as they can. Never settle or just get by. Schepke is really an amazing guy.”
So, not surprisingly, Max was one of about 35 kids who attended all three days of Schepke’s All-Star camp at the Ford Center. IceMen goaltender Garrett Bartus and captain Josh Beaulieu joined Schepke in teaching the youngsters.
Max is and wants to remain a goalie, so Bartus’ presence was huge. Schepke asked Bartus to always stay with Max, and personally work with him during every drill that required a partner. Bartus showed Max that goalies do all of the drills too, and his example provided encouragement that Max needed. Michelle says that since the Ford Center clinic, Max hasn’t complained once about drills in practice.
Schepke seemed to enjoy the All-Star camp just as much as the kids. “It was a lot of fun to be out on the ice with them and see them working hard, especially since most had never skated at the Ford Center,” he said.
“I really enjoy working with the younger guys,” Schepke continued. “I remember what it was like to have the older guys work with me, and it’s all about giving back. I’ve watched the kids I’ve been working with get better and stronger over the course of the year, and it’s very rewarding to see that they are learning and still enjoying themselves while doing so.”
A FANTASTIC FAREWELL
The surgery was set for Thursday, March 20. It was a mutual agreement between Geary, Pyle and Schepke. “I knew we were in a tight race for the playoffs and didn’t want to stop playing, but it was for the better.”
Schepke’s final game of the season – and possibly his career – was to be Tuesday, March 18. Evansville lost a 3-2 decision to Florida in front of a small weeknight crowd of 2758, not exactly the ideal way to go out.
But then, due to what he calls “a paperwork misunderstanding with the league,” the surgery was postponed a couple weeks because Schepke needed to play one more game – Evansville’s penultimate home game of the 2013-14 season, a big matchup against fellow playoff bubble team Wheeling on Friday, March 21.
“The shoulder was sore, but the doctors were okay with me playing,” Schepke said. “I wasn’t mad at all. I’m glad I got to play one more game. I was more worried about having to get back on Facebook and Twitter to apologize to the fans for (previously) telling them that Tuesday was my last game. The response I received after (originally) telling them was unreal, so I felt bad (about the postponement) but I knew they would be happy I was able to play in the Friday game.”
And boy, were they indeed happy.
A vocal crowd of 5321 turned out for the game, and the love for Schepke was flowing even before the puck dropped. Fans at one end of the ice brought 15 full-sized posterboards, spelling out “THANK YOU SCHEPKE.”
The game – Schepke’s 77th in an Evansville uniform – was a back-and-forth affair, with the IceMen scoring first and the teams alternating goals the rest of the way. Rickard interviewed Schepke from the bench during the second intermission, making sure that everyone in attendance knew that it could be Schepke’s last night as a pro hockey player. Schepke, of course, thanked the fans for their support.
The fans then witnessed a storybook ending that Hollywood producers would likely deem too far-fetched to put into a movie.
With six minutes remaining, it was tied 3-3. Evansville had surrendered leads of 1-0, 2-1 and 3-2. And then, with 5:57 on the clock, it happened.
Schepke buried a pass from Nathan Moon into the Wheeling net, and the Ford Center erupted. When his name and picture appeared on the scoreboard, the celebration peaked. And when play resumed and Schepke was formally announced as the goal scorer, the crowd upped its game further and delivered perhaps its loudest ovation of the night.
The game’s final moments were a tension-filled blur. The desperate visitors launched puck after puck at the Evansville net, but this time, the playoff-hunting IceMen would not surrender a lead that was given to them by their departing workhorse.
When the horn sounded and victory had been earned, the IceMen gathered around winning goaltender Mike Clemente in celebration, then moved to center-ice to salute the fans. Then as the team returned to the bench to take the celebration to the locker room, Schepke lingered on the ice just a bit longer than the rest.
IceMen public address announcer Tommy Mason then re-introduced the “3 Stars of the Game.” To the surprise of no one, Schepke was named the game’s 1st Star.
As Schepke took the customary “3 Stars” loop to center-ice and back, his teammates re-emerged from the locker room and spilled back onto the bench, joining the fans in giving the evening’s hero a standing ovation. And before he could exit, they pushed him back onto the ice for a “victory lap.” Schepke circled the Ford Center ice once more, applauding the fans as they stood and did the same for him.
Finally, Schepke returned to the bench and was mugged by his teammates. The gaggle of happy hockey players retreated to the locker room once more as the fans chanted the name one final time. “SCHEP-KE! SCHEP-KE! SCHEP-KE!”
The evening was still not quite over, as the IceMen hosted a post-game jersey auction for charity. Shockingly, Schepke’s pre-game warm-up jersey fetched by far the biggest donation, a whopping $1600 for the Visiting Nurse Association. (No other warm-up jersey topped $900, and the average was about $450.) It was the second-largest haul for a single IceMen jersey during any of the season’s four post-game auctions. Who fetched the largest? Schepke, of course. His game-worn camouflage jersey from November’s Military Appreciation Night raised $2550 for military support services.
Days later, Schepke reflected on his farewell, first about the respect shown for him by his teammates. “It was awesome to be the first star, and then to turn around and see all the guys standing there. Amazing. That just shows you how close of a group of guys we have. We’ve had our ups and downs all year like any team, but everyone in that locker room has stuck together.”
He continued, discussing the support of the IceMen fans: “And to see the response from the fans as I skated around and applauded them for all their support is something I will never forget. I enjoy playing in front of such a passionate following. They have stuck by the team’s side all year and they’re the ones that deserved that applause.”
THE NEXT CHAPTER
For the first time in years, Schepke doesn’t really know what will happen next – at least, professionally.
Personally, though, the next step in his life is marriage. His impending nuptials will take place on May 10.
He will say “I do” to Lacey, who he met in Charlotte during his first professional season. They were introduced through a mutual friend, and “have been going strong ever since.”
Lacey still lives in Charlotte, and Schepke has spent the past few summers there with her. He admits that leaving her at the beginning of each season has always been tough.
“She has been an unbelievable shoulder to lean on. She’s a very strong and intelligent individual. She really kept my spirits up through rehab after I broke my arm early in my second season. Lacey and my family have been so amazingly supportive throughout my pro career. I couldn’t have asked for more.”
And as for his playing career? Well, that’s “all up in the air.”
Schepke says that after the surgery and wedding and rehab, he and Lacey will sit down and figure out what’s next. He may keep playing, or he may retire and settle down with his new bride in Charlotte.
If he does decide to hang up his skates, Schepke won’t have any regrets – and he’ll always fondly remember his final night on the ice.
“My career has been very special. I’ve gotten to do and see some amazing things. You always wish you could play in the NHL, but I am very happy with how my journey has gone. I have two memories that I will never forget. The first would be the national title at Michigan State. We had such a special group of guys that year, and those memories and friendships will last a lifetime. The second would be Friday’s game. Seeing all the signs from the fans and getting the game-winning goal are just some of the things you dream about when you think of your last game. I don’t know what the plan is for next year, but if it was my last game, I couldn’t have asked for a better way to end it.”