YOUNGSTOWN – When Youngstown Phantoms coach Anthony Noreen received the unprotected players list the day before the United States Hockey League draft, one name stuck out to him right off the bat.
Muskegon, a rival of Youngstown, didn’t protect forward John Padulo, who had been a devil to the Phantoms during the previous season. Noreen had to give the Rochester, N.Y., native a call about potentially playing in Youngstown.
“Last year, he was one of those guys who no one on our team or staff liked playing against,” Noreen said. “It seemed like he was always doing exactly what we love our guys to do. He’s one of those guys you hate to play against but you love as part of your team.”
The Phantoms made Padulo a member of the team, drafting him in the ninth round, and Padulo has turned out to be a key player in the franchise’s farthest run in the USHL playoffs.
At the beginning of the season, Padulo and his teammates needed to get over some bad blood. Padulo wasn’t well-liked by his future teammates in the 2011-2012 season, getting into a fight with former-Phantom Kevin Liss in a 5-2 Youngstown win on Feb. 10, 2012.
It seems that the guys were able to get over it quickly, according to Noreen and Padulo.
“Obviously, some guys didn’t like me, and I didn’t like them,” Padulo said. “There were some words that were said throughout the games which can’t be repeated, but that stuff happens. It was a change that was great for me. Ever since I came here, I gelled well with the guys. They welcomed me with open arms.”
What made it so easy for his teammates to forgive his past actions against the team? Well, he’s defending the Phantoms now.
Padulo transferred his physical play to Youngstown, where he earned a team-high 191 penalty minutes during the regular season. The 5-foot-10 forward said he got into nine fights this season, the most he has gotten into during his five years in the junior hockey circuit.
Noreen said he likes Padulo’s aggressive style, although he admitted that predicting what the 20-year-old will do on the ice can be a little nervy at times.
“He’ll go out there and stick up for anyone,” said of defenseman James Mazza, his roommate. “He’ll get the boys going. He’s an energy, character player out there, and he’s a leader on the ice.”
His physical play makes him look like an enforcer, but it sometimes overshadows his technical ability.
In the regular season, Padulo was third on the team in total points, collecting 48 throughout the season playing on the team’s top line and power-play unit. Because of this, Padulo’s coach said that he isn’t much of an enforcer.
“I wouldn’t label him as an enforcer – I would label him as a power forward,” Noreen said. “His skating is elite. His puck-handling, his shooting, his offensive instincts are all elite. There’s a reason he plays on our power play and on our top line. He’s got an ability to score and compete with your most skilled players, but he also has the ability to protect your most skilled players. There are not a lot of guys who have that whole combination.”
Thanks in large part to his play and leadership, Padulo is playing playoff hockey for the first time in his five-year career, which included three years playing in the Ontario Hockey League.
When Youngstown struggled early in the season by losing 11 in a 12-game span, it was Padulo who tried to motivate the team to turn it around, according to Noreen. It was this leadership that the third-year coach wanted from him and one reason why he can’t believe this is Padulo’s first go-around in the postseason.
“It’s crazy that he’s never been in a playoff series because if you could custom-build a hockey player for playoff hockey, it would be John Padulo,” Noreen said. “I’ve said to him and everyone before, he’s going to be one of if not our best players in the playoffs because that’s the type of player he is.”
The forward has stepped up to the challenge so far, scoring two goals and assisting on another in Youngstown’s 3-1 series win over defending Clark Cup champion Green Bay during the Eastern Conference semifinals.
The Rochester, N.Y., native said he’s enjoying his foray into the postseason.
“Now I know what guys mean when they say the playoffs are the best time of the year,” Padulo said. “The way that guys come together … it’s like you become a family. Everyone is so close, and the atmosphere is totally different, the style of play is different. You can’t really describe it unless you experience it.”
With this being his last year of junior hockey eligibility, Padulo said the best way to go out would be winning a Clark Cup.
“The way guys should approach it is you don’t know what tomorrow will bring,” Padulo said. “It could be your last day. It would be nice to go out on a winning note, bring a championship home and help hockey to continue to grow here.”