DENVER – COVID-19. Like most people here in the United States, I didn’t give it much thought when I’d heard about the virus on the news in early to mid-January. Past worldwide health scares like the Hantavirus, Avian Flu, SARS, H1N1, and Ebola were often joked about as these far-flung diseases that wouldn’t ever end up here in the United States.
As the days continued, the reports kept coming in. Asian and European countries were starting to get more and more confirmed cases. Death tolls slowly began to creep up; new hot spots were identified: South Korea, Spain, Italy…and then, the United States. New York City and Washington State were the first to be pinpointed as areas hit hard by the virus, further proved when the cities where placed under stay at home orders.
Come early March; professional sports leagues began suspending play — the NBA, NHL, MLB, MMA, and so forth. The AHL followed the NHL’s lead by suspending their season, while both the ECHL & SPHL campaigns were canceled. The editorial and writing staff here at The Sin Bin were stunned, some of us paralyzed about what to write next.
I was one of the staff members who was stunned to the point of being unproductive. What could I do? There were SO many bigger things at play here. I couldn’t complain about my sports writing gig being compromised by a worldwide pandemic. But that didn’t change the fact that I was rendered useless — our site should have been gearing up for the playoffs, and yet, here we were with suspended and canceled league seasons.
Most likely in a stupor over world events, I was browsing social media one day, scrolling through suggested friends out of morbid curiosity. A photo popped up of a familiar hockey player wearing an eye-popping, red hockey sweater adorned with advertisements galore. It took just a split second for me to realize who it was and, more importantly, where he was.
The player was 29-year-old, former ECHL forward Steve McParland. And the photo was him playing professional hockey in a COVID-19 hot spot — Italy.
I immediately reached out to Steve, asking if I could speak with him about his time in Italy and if he had made it home all right in spite of everything.
He was more than happy to oblige.
THE DECISION TO HEAD OVERSEAS
McParland’s story starts during the 2019 offseason. He had just completed his second year with the ECHL’s Idaho Steelheads and his third full season of professional hockey. He began looking at other professional hockey options outside of North America, leading him to Asiago Hockey (Italy) in the Alps Hockey League (AlpsHL). His choice was made much easier due to a couple of familiar faces, one of which was former Steelheads teammate Daniel Tedesco.
“What ended up happening was that Dan played (in Italy) last year, so when I was finally making the jump, I texted him. He was like, ‘Oh, so where are you looking to go to?’ I said, ‘Well, Asiago made me an offer.’ And he said, ‘Okay, I’m talking to Asiago and a couple other teams in the league. Because you’re going to Asiago, I’ll come there with you.’ Oh, that makes it easier on me, so at least I have a friend there.
“Later, I found out I already had a friend on the team: Alex Gellert. His dad actually grew up in my hometown, so we’ve known each other since we were kids. He was born in Italy, and we didn’t really live in the same town (in Canada), but his dad would come back every year for the local annual golf tournament. So, I met Alex a couple times, we got to bond over his dad’s and my hometown, and we hit it off quickly. Having friends there really helped.”
Did he base his decision to leave Boise and the Steelheads on any bad blood or ill feelings? Far from it. Steve thoroughly enjoyed his time in The Gem State, but wanted a respite from a grueling hockey schedule, wishing to tackle a new challenge.
“There are SO many things I miss about Boise. The guys don’t really help, either. I talk to A.J. White and Kyle Schempp once or twice a week. That makes it harder. It’s bittersweet.
“The whole reason why I moved on from the ECHL had to do with wear and tear on the body. Grinding out three (games) in four (days), which is really hard on the body. In Idaho, you play one of the best schedules in the ECHL and it’s still hard on the body. That was my main thing; I don’t regret it, I would have liked to have stayed another year in Idaho. I loved it there.
“People always ask me, ‘Where’d you live in the States?’ Providence (Rhode Island); Charleston, South Carolina; Boise, Idaho. ‘Which one did you like the best?’ I can’t pick one. I haven’t had any complaints about anywhere I’ve been. I like adventure and to find new ways to adapt. It’s tough because Boise has a special place in my heart and always will.”
PLAYING THROUGH THE EUROPEAN AHL
McParland began playing with Asiago Hockey 1935 — full team name, Migross Supermercati Asiago Hockey — in mid-September 2019 (Steve’s comment: “Migross Supermercati is a grocery store. That’s our sponsor.”). The regular season lasts from September until early March, but unlike North American pro hockey, the workload is cut in half from the ECHL’s 72-game campaign.
“The AHL itself is broken up into three countries: Italy, Austria, and Slovenia. The season is 34 games long; you play every team once at home and once on the road. After that, you get ranked for the playoffs. But in European hockey, they have what’s called ‘National Team breaks’. There is one at the beginning in November — a week and a half — where Team Italy, Austria, and Slovenia go away and have little group tournaments. When that happens, you get some time off in the middle of the season, which is nice.
European hockey mirrors that of soccer leagues in the sense that there are frequently in-season tournaments. The AlpsHL is no different, especially with three different countries represented.
“And then there’s the Italian Championship. When you play a fellow Italian team during the Alps regular season, you accumulate points toward the Italian Cup. There are seven Italian teams. Of those, the top four in points accumulated from playing other Italian teams in Alps League games play against each other: best-of-three series, one versus four, two versus three.
“We had some early year goalie troubles and missed some points against Italian teams. But we ended up sneaking in right at the last minute to finish fourth in the Italian Championship regular season. We played first-ranked Renon, and we beat them in three games to go to the Finals to play against Brunico. Then, we beat them in three games to win the Italian Championship in early February.”
Asiago was gearing up for the Alps League playoffs after their Italian Serie A Championship victory. McParland was kind enough to detail the nuts and bolts of the unique AlpsHL postseason format.
“Once you finish the 34-game season, the top six teams (in the Alps League) are placed in the Master Round and automatically guaranteed a playoff berth. The bottom twelve teams are split up into groups of six and play each other once each, home and away. In the Alps League, a win is worth three points, overtime/shootout win is worth two, overtime/shootout loss is one point, zero points for regulation loss.
“From there, it gets more weird. Of the two bottom-six groups, only the two winning teams join us in the Master Round to make eight. The first place team after the Master Round gets to pick who they play in the playoffs; it doesn’t matter what their ranking is. One, two, and three pick who they want; four and five are stuck with each other. After the Master Round, we found out who we were playing…and then the season got canceled. So we didn’t play any actual Alps playoff games.”
SEASON CANCELLATION & EVACUATION FROM ITALY
The Alps Hockey League was officially canceled on March 6. As the COVID-19 cases continued to rise in Italy, foreign nationals playing sports or otherwise were planning to head back to their home countries. The entire nation was ready to completely lockdown.
“We had to fly home out of Italy on March 12. All the imports had to be on it. If you wanted to make it home, you had to be on it because Italy was closing down all the borders, McParland said.”
“The two worst-hit provinces in Italy were Lombardi and Veneto. We were in Veneto (Venice and further north), Lombardi is where Milan is. In my town, Asiago, we didn’t have a single case when I was there. The day we left was the day the city and the country closed down; people weren’t allowed to go anywhere.”
The news to head out came as a shock to McParland, as he was hoping to have a little more leisure time before heading back to Canada.
“I had a flight booked; I was going to stay around and party with my friends a little bit before I left. I get a call on the 11th at about 4 o’clock in the afternoon. ‘Here’s your new flight. You’ve got to be at the rink at 3:00 am, because we’re bussing you guys down to the airport altogether.’ So I didn’t have much time to pack up my apartment and bring my stuff to storage to get myself ready to go. Guys were scrambling to pack up their places and clean their apartments…kind of a really weird situation.
“We got out safe, that’s all that matters.”
Steve says that, presently, Canada as a country is where Italy was at in early March. Comparatively, he praises Canada for their quick action handling the pandemic.
“I think Italy maybe tried to keep things open a little bit too long. I think they should have closed two or three weeks earlier than they did. Canada took the right steps; it could have been an issue, so they took extreme measures right away.”
BACK TO WORK (AND MOVIES) IN NORTH AMERICA
McParland has found himself where a lot of folks are in these stay-at-home ordered days: watching a lot of films to pass the time.
“I’m a big movie guy. I can watch movies for hours, but this is getting ridiculous.”
As for TV, one can only watch Tiger King so much, right?
“Exactly. Usually, I wouldn’t even watch or indulge in that, but where society is going now if you’re not watching that stuff, you can’t follow along or get into the jokes on social media. You kind of have to ride the wave and follow along.”
Thankfully, McParland’s employer is going to be needing him for essential work much sooner than later.
“My job wasn’t supposed to start until June. There was an emergency rockfall in Kenora, Ontario, so I leave Friday [April 24th] to go to work. I’m a rock scaler; we work on the CP rail — Canada’s lifeline to transport coast-to-coast. Our job is to make sure the tracks are safe, so we’re pretty essential that way.”
A HOPEFUL RETURN FOR ‘THE PLUMBER’
When asked about whether he knows if he’ll return to Italy next season, Steve didn’t hesitate to confirm his plans.
“I’m in the process of getting my Italian citizenship and passport. I have to play sixteen months in Italy, which I’ll do in Asiago because I loved it there. Unreal fan support, people, and the organization treats you really well and gets you whatever you want. I have no real complaints; I made a lot of friends and just liked it.”
Whether seeking new adventures in various locales or escaping an international pandemic, McParland has proven he isn’t afraid of taking on challenges in life — getting in the dirty areas, as they say in hockey. He left me with a fitting anecdote (including both of his hockey-playing siblings) that describes how he operates both on and off the ice.
“My sister Jenna and my brother Nick were similar in the way that they had natural talent. They can pull off toe drags and have a lot more hand-eye skill. I had to work a lot harder than they did. We like to joke around in our family that I was willing to go into the corners a little bit more than they were.
“It kind of came down to the plumber and the painter — the plumber gets under the dirty sink, does his work, and gets paid. The painter uses a roller and doesn’t do much hard work, but his job is much prettier. You don’t really see the outcome of the plumber, but you always do for the painter.”
Steve isn’t afraid to work hard for little praise like a plumber does. And, considering the long road ahead to play in Italy again, he’ll need every bit of gumption to make it work after the world gets back to normal following the COVID-19 pandemic.
Lord knows, we all will.