By John Lachmann
OXFORD, Ohio – When Steven Spinell was a freshman at the beginning of the 2009-10 season, the defenseman was scratched for six of Miami’s first seven games.
In four seasons with the RedHawks, not only has the undrafted 6-feet-2, 216-pound senior gone from rarely dressing for games to playing against opponents’ top lines each night, he is also team captain.
Spinell has become revered in the CCHA for his tenacious defense, physical play and shot-blocking ability.
“I think his all-around game, every year, has taken another step,” senior forward Curtis McKenzie said. “Year after year he’s been getting a lot better consistently, so he’s turned into a great guy for our D-corps and a veteran leader for our team.”
A true defensive defenseman, Spinell has recorded 28 career points and is plus-55 at Miami, finishing each of his first three seasons with a plus-minus rating in positive double digits.
The Vernon Hills, Ill., native did not begin playing hockey until he was six, which is a late start for a player of Spinell’s caliber. One of his best friends, Nick Mazza – who also attends Miami – invited him to attend one of his practices.
Spinell jumped on the ice and was instantly hooked.
“I had a wood stick that had a straight blade and some rental skates and I was wearing jeans on the ice,” Spinell said. “And I loved it.”
His father and uncles played football as youngsters, but Spinell did not participate in any other sports in high school.
Right after he turned 17, like many teenaged hockey players, he had to leave home to pursue his dream. He moved to Columbus to play for the Ohio Junior Blue Jackets.
“It definitely wasn’t easy,” Spinell said. “Looking back, I had some of the best times of my life – it was great meeting new people. It was a good time.”
In his first season in the USHL, Spinell scored five goals and dished for 12 assists. After 2007-08, Spinell moved along with the team to Fargo.
He finished with two goals and six assists in 58 games in his one season with the Force, and he rolled up three more points in 10 postseason games as Fargo advanced to the Clark Cup finals.
Spinell came to Oxford in the fall of 2009 with Miami having gone to the NCAA championship game the previous season.
“Steve’s just one of those guys that we thought would fit in our system,” Miami coach Enrico Blasi said. “He’s a real good person off the ice, and that was the most important thing. The relationship we had built was great with our assistant coaches at the time. Just one of those guys that we wanted to have as a part of our program.”
Spinell said that he wanted to stay in the midwest, and after several other visits Miami was an obvious choice.
“When I came to Miami it just felt like home,” Spinell said. “The rink was just finished, the campus was beautiful. I guess for me because I never played a high school sport, just hockey, I went to three different high schools, I didn’t really have anywhere to call home. I was just constantly moving, so I wanted to come to a place where hockey was the focal point of the sports program.
“Coming here, you go to class and people know you and support you, it’s kind of high school sports on an even bigger stage. I wanted a piece of that because I kind of missed out on that in high school.”
Elite players are used to being among the best on their teams as they ascend through the ranks, so when Spinell was often scratched early in the 2009-10 season, he had difficulty dealing with his situation.
“That was probably some of the toughest times I’ve ever been through as a hockey player,” Spinell said. “You come in and you obviously expect to play every night, and when you sit back and look at the situation, we were a top three program in the nation, surrounded by top players from every team that comes here.
“So when you take a step back and look at it, you know you’re in a good place but it was definitely tough to work through it, so I just had to keep working and when I had my chance, make the most of it.”
Miami boasted a blue line of Chris Wideman, Cameron Schilling, Will Weber, Joe Hartman, Vincent LoVerde and Matt Tomassoni that season, so playing time for an unproven freshman was limited.
“It took a little bit for him to adapt with our D-corps – we had a really strong D-corps our first year – so I think he must’ve learned a lot from them and developed, and now he’s a standout in college hockey,” McKenzie said.
After a difficult first two months, Spinell’s ice time increased. He ended up playing in 31 of 44 games his freshman season, including the last five – the CCHA semifinal and final and all three NCAA Tournament games as the RedHawks made their second straight appearance in the Frozen Four.
“One of those things, we had some depth and so we wanted him to make sure he knew exactly his role, and he figured that out quickly,” Blasi said.
Spinell finished his rookie season with a goal, three assists and a plus-11 rating.