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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.
As a sophomore, Spinell missed the
first two games but dressed for Miami's final 37 as he scored a goal and set up six others, blocking 25 shots and finishing with a plus-19 rating.
Spinell's assist total swelled to 11 his junior season, and he also scored a goal and led the RedHawks with 70 blocked shots. He earned CCHA Defenseman of the Week honors for the first time in his career and went plus-17.
After the 2011-12 season, captain Will Weber and Miami's assistants graduated. The RedHawks did not name assistants this season and put the ‘C' on Spinell's sweater, the only player on the team wearing a letter.
"He's a natural fit," Blasi said. "He's one of those guys that's pretty strong in his opinion, knows how to do things the right way and he's a pretty good example in all areas."
Forward Marc Hagel, a graduate student who transferred to Miami for his final year of eligibility, said Spinell is not big on yelling and screaming but he definitely commands respect in the locker room.
"Given that he's 6-2, 220 and he's our only captain – we have no assistants – he owns the room," Hagel said. "It's his room, and that's the way you like it, and he does it with integrity, which is important. He means what he says and he says what he does."
This season, Spinell is fourth on the team in plus-minus (8) and second only to freshman defenseman Matthew Caito in blocked shots (41). He picked up two helpers Saturday vs. Bowling Green, giving him five on the season.
Spinell is also logging significant minutes on the power play after seeing practically zero playing time on the man advantage his first three seasons.
While Spinell means business on the ice and in the locker room, he has a more playful side away from the rink.
"He likes to have fun – he's the ringleader of every practical joke that happens around the team," Hagel said. "Steve's an awesome guy. He's a loyal guy, he's committed to his teammates, his family, his friends.
Said McKenzie: "He's pretty serious but he's kind of the prankster of the team, too."
Several of Spinell's family members have also chosen to attend Miami. His older sister, Samantha, graduated two years ago, and he has a younger sister, Briana, and a cousin, Christina, currently earning degrees in Oxford.
But Spinell said his decision to come to Miami had nothing to do with his sisters' or cousin's decisions to come to Oxford.
"Actually to be honest I think I decided I wanted to come here before my older sister even decided that she was going to attend, so there was no relation," Spinell said. "It was a coincidence but it worked out great. We're very close."
With four immediate relatives either in Oxford or recently graduated, Dick Spinell, Steven's uncle, created a scholarship within Miami's Farmer School of Business despite not being an alumnus.
Spinell is a business finance major boasting a 3.3 grade-point average, but he said he has put little thought into his future plans, focusing solely on this hockey season and school.
With just 10 regular-season games and the postseason remaining in his senior season, Spinell reflected on his time in Oxford.
"Honestly I can't even put that into words," Spinell said. "That sounds cliché – it's just true. So many people I've met and the experiences and the adversity I've had to go through, on ice, off ice, just made me really grow and become the guy I am today. I'm very blessed for what I have."
To go from an undrafted freshman wearing a suit and watching games from the stands early in his career to Miami's lone captain in 3½ years on a team that is consistently one of the best in college hockey speaks volumes about Spinell's drive and work ethic.
"It's a testament to his hard work and his commitment to himself and his own standards that he holds himself to, and also the Miami RedHawks," Hagel said. "I know for a fact that he goes home and works hard every single summer, and he puts all the time in that he possibly can here at the rink."