By Steve Gunn
Local Sports Journal
MUSKEGON – A year ago everyone was wondering what was wrong with Matt Iacopelli.
The Muskegon Lumberjacks drafted the 19-year-old forward for his scoring skills, and he couldn’t seem to find the net.
He went the first 11 games of the 2013-14 season without a goal or an assist, and as a result found himself pulled from the lineup.
One game on the bench was the only wake-up call Iacopelli required.
He relaxed, started shooting more and played with increased confidence, and the goals started coming in bunches.
Despite playing on a mediocre Lumberjack team, he ended the 2013-14 season with 41 goals, tops in the United States Hockey League. He also collected 22 assists to finish with 63 points, which tied for seventh in the overall league scoring race.
“I think it was more about the jump from midget majors to the USHL, which is one of the biggest jumps you can make in hockey, except for going to the pros,” Iacopelli said. “It’s a lot faster and you have to make much quicker decisions.
“I also think I was just trying to do too much. Once I simpled it down I started scoring again.”
Lumberjacks Coach Todd Krygier said Iacopelli had all the tools, but had to learn more technique.
“We knew he had the talent and he could skate and shoot, but he wasn’t doing what he had to do to be successful at this level,” Krygier said. “So we started breaking down his game. For example, he had to learn that he can’t stay on one side of the ice and expect a pass in this league. He had to get across the ice and get the puck.
“He’s always been a hard worker and he’s always been very coachable. Once he started doing the little things we asked, things started coming together.”
Iacopelli’s performance was more than enough to gain the attention of National Hockey League scouts. When the NHL draft rolled around in June, he was taken in the third round by the Chicago Blackhawks.
Even more impressively, the Blackhawks traded veteran forward Brandon Bollig to Calgary to move up and draft Iacopelli.
“I was in the bathroom (at home with his family) when my agent called and said I had been drafted,” said Iacopelli, who added that he did not watch the draft on television with his family, because he didn’t want to get his hopes up.
“I’m sure Bollig was not too happy about it. But it was a great feeling that they thought that much of me (to draft up).”
Under normal circumstances, that would have meant an exit from Muskegon for Iacopelli. He had already accepted a scholarship to Western Michigan University, and planned to head to Kalamazoo this fall to play college hockey and prepare for the pros.
But he learned near the end of last season that he had to complete a few online classes before enrolling at WMU on a full-time basis. That guaranteed his return to Muskegon this season for another go-round with the Jacks.
Lumberjack officials and fans are naturally thrilled to have their scoring champion back.
And while Iacopelli is eager to get on with his promising career, he’s more than happy to return to Muskegon and anchor a team that’s expected to be pretty darned good.
The Lumberjacks open their regular season Friday in Ann Arbor against Team USA, then play their home opener Saturday night against Madison at L.C. Walker Arena at 7 p.m.
“If I had known at the beginning of last season I would have taken the classes then and got them out of the way,” Iacopelli said. “That put me in a little bit of a hole. But we’re going to have a great team in Muskegon this year. Hopefully everything comes together and we’ll win the Clark Cup.”
Iacopelli’s first experience on ice skates was even rockier than his start last season.
He was a very small boy, maybe four or five years old, living in Woodhaven in the metro Detroit area. He remembers his parents taking him to a local arena, lacing on his skates and helping him onto the ice.
“My feet went out from under me and I smacked my head,” he said. “I remember I started crying and I told my mom I didn’t want to play anymore.
“But I’m pretty sure they got me out there again the next day. They must have bribed me with something or another.”
Iacopelli’s distaste for the sport didn’t last long. By the time he was seven or eight he was playing in local youth leagues as a defensemen.
While hockey defensemen are not usually known for their scoring, young Matt quickly broke the mold, with the help of a financial incentive.
“I played defense and scored 42 goals one year,” Iacopelli said. “My Grandma said she would give me a dollar for every goal I scored, so I ended up making $42, which is a lot of money for a little kid. She never made that bet with me again.”
His development was hastened by the influence of his stepfather and uncle, who both played professional hockey.
His stepfather, John DePalma, played eight years in the minor leagues, including a short stint with the old Muskegon Lumberjacks pro team in the 1986-87 season.
His uncle, Larry DePalma, had a long pro career that included several stints with the Minnesota North Stars (now the Dallas Stars) of the National Hockey League.
The DePalma brothers coached several elite midget major teams when Iacopelli was younger. He remembers hanging around the team and working out with the players, just because he looked up to them.
“I just always did the stuff they were doing,” Iacopelli said. “I wanted to be like the older guys. But I didn’t start getting serious about hockey until my junior year in high school.”
Iacopelli played hockey for Woodhaven High School during his sophomore and junior years, then took his first shot at playing high level juniors in 2011-12 with the Texas Tornados of the North American Hockey League.
That experience lasted one game. He developed mononucleosis, had to go back to Michigan, and ended up being released by the team.
He recovered by the following season and got the chance to show what he could do. He had 26 goals and 20 assists in 2012-13, playing with the Bell Tire squad in the Detroit area.
He was drafted by the Lumberjacks in the spring of 2013. He was a second round pick, the 43rd player taken overall.
“That was when I started to realize that I might have a shot at playing college or in the pros,” he said.
‘As long as we’re winning the games’
Iacopelli’s 2013-14 season was an odd mixture of success and misery.
Leading the league in goals was obviously the high point. Iacopelli said he surprised himself and far exceeded his personal goals.
“I didn’t really think I was going to score as many goals as I did,” he said. “Before the season I was hoping to score 20 goals. I remember talking to someone on the team and he said 20 goals was a lot for the USHL. But by Christmas I had 22 or 23, and I just kept going after the break.
“It was just a matter of gaining my confidence, being on the ice and doing what I do best.”
The season was far less rewarding from a team perspective.
The Lumberjacks languished at or below the .500 mark for most of the season. Many teammates came and went as Krygier tried to find the right combination of players.
But they got hot in the last few weeks of the season, winning 10 of their last 14 games to climb back into the playoff race.
They hosted Green Bay on the last game of the regular season, with the final playoff spot on the line. The two teams were tied in the standings, so the winner would make the playoffs and the loser would go home.
Muskegon fell behind by three goals in front of a large home crowd and hope seemed lost. Then the Lumberjacks rallied to tie the score, before falling in the end 4-3.
“Everyone was bummed, especially me,” Iacopelli said. “We made a real push in the last part of the season, but it just didn’t come together at the end.”
There could very well be a silver lining for the Lumberjacks this season. Eleven players from the final roster are back this season, along with several other USHL veterans and a promising crop of newcomers.
So far the signs have been good. The Lumberjacks recently wrapped up their preseason schedule with a 5-2 record, including a sweep of two games last weekend at the USHL’s Fall Classic West.
Unfortunately their worst preseason effort came in their only home game, a 5-0 loss to Bloomington, a new expansion team in the league.
“I just think we came out flat,” said Iacopelli, who had three goals and one assist in the preseason. “I think we just expected to win, because Bloomington is new to the league. Unfortunately it happened in front of our home fans. But we still went 5-2 overall, which wasn’t bad.”
Iacopelli isn’t willing to predict how many goals he’ll score this season – “let’s start with 10 and we’ll take it from there,” he said.
With a more talented roster of teammates, he knows his point total may even be lower than last season. He said he doesn’t care, as long as the Lumberjacks accomplish their goals.
“I feel like our team is a lot more skilled this year,” said Iacopelli, who is a team alternate captain this season. “There are a lot of returnees from last season, so there will be a wide range of scoring this year. Whether I score or not, I’ll be happy, as long as we’re winning the games.”