Connor Scahill would not be playing for the Kenai River Brown Bears right now if the defensemen on his Little Caesers 18U team had not been terrible during a game in the middle of last season.
One was told to undress in the locker room. Two more were benched. With more defensemen needed, one of the players the coach turned to was Scahill, who up until that point in his hockey career had always been a defensive forward.
Scahill notched a goal and two assists in the third period and the rest, as they say, is history.
“I told my coach I was more comfortable back there and asked if I could stay there,” Scahill said.
The 18-year-old firmly believes he would not be playing his rookie North American Hockey League season for the Brown Bears this season if it hadn’t been for the change.
“If I was still a forward, I wouldn’t be here,” he said.
The change of positions is not common. Scahill told his teammates about it a few weeks ago and they thought it was nuts.
But the transition has not been difficult.
“It definitely hasn’t been that hard to adjust,” said the billet son of Tim Bornowski and Naomi Hodgson of Kenai. “You can’t play hockey if you can’t skate backward.”
Scahill added 2 inches to his stick to make poke-checking easier. He also added a healthy, goalie-style knob on the end of his stick to make it easier to grasp.
And voila. Scahill, who was cut from the Shreveport (Lousiana) Mudbugs after main camp before the 2016-17 season, was suddenly being invited to the Brown Bears main camp.
Scahill’s player adviser, Alec Austin, had played with Brown Bears assistant coach Nick Sova at Hamline University. Austin convinced the Bears to check out Scahill at their main camp.
“He came in and had a great main camp,” Kenai River head coach Josh Petrich said. “He’s very fluid with the puck, a tough presence and a physical player.
“He was a very well-rounded defenseman at main camp.”
Suddenly, the Brown Bears and Scahill had a big decision to make, but the choice to bring the 5-foot-11, 175-pounder to the Kenai Peninsula for his senior year of high school was not tough at all.
“Anytime you take a kid out of high school, you want to be sure because it can be a bad experience if it doesn’t work out,” Petrich said. “He’s been everything we expected and he’s still got room to grow. He’s doing a great job.”
Scahill also had to decide if he wanted to leave his friends and family for his senior year of high school.
“It’s tough being away for my senior year, because I’ll miss things like Friday night football and dances, but I’m living my dream,” Scahill said. “I know that means I’ll have to make sacrifices and I’m willing to do it.
“I’ll be able to see family and friends at Christmas and in the summer.”
Scahill started skating at the age of 3, following his father, John, and older brother, Luke, into the sport.
While Connor said his mother, Shelley, balked a little bit at him coming to Alaska, after all the sacrifices the family made for Connor to play pricey AAA hockey in the Detroit area, there was no doubt he would take the Alaska opportunity.
Petrich said Scahill has been a typical rookie thus far.
“In half the games he’s played in, he’s made mistakes and had issues,” Petrich said. “The other half, he’s looked like a seasoned guy that has been here a couple of years.”
Scahill, in his first games back from three games off due to an injury sustained after a crushing hit in Minot, North Dakota, on Oct. 7, had a big home-opening series for the Bears on Friday and Saturday against the same Mudbugs that had cut him.
Friday, he scored his first goal of the season on a laser from near the blue line to keep the Bears close in an eventual loss. Saturday, he had a key power-play goal that allowed Kenai River to reach a shootout and eventually earn two points.
Both goals showcased Scahill’s shot, an advantage he has from his forward days. Ironically, Scahill said he didn’t get to showcase his shot as a forward because his job was going to the corners and winning pucks, not scoring.
“When it’s time to shoot, I can relax because it’s something I’ve done a lot before,” Scahill said.
Petrich said the goals did not come out of nowhere. The coach said Scahill has to work on a few things, like strength and knowing when and when not to step up on rushes, but shooting is not one of those things.
“That doesn’t shock me at all,” Petrich said. “Connor has one of the heavier and more accurate shots on our team.”
Scahill is from Clyde, Michigan, an hour from Detroit, but a place he describes as more country than city.
“This is more my style,” he said of the peninsula. “I’m not really a city guy. I come from a country area.
“In the fall, I do hunting and fishing, and coming from Michigan, I’m no stranger to snow.”
Scahill also has the indelible memory of scoring the Bears’ first goal on home ice this season, a strike that was made more emotional because Kenai River almost folded after last season.
“It was a great experience scoring a goal and having all of those salmon on the ice,” Scahill said.
Even though Scahill is not a forward, Petrich said there are plenty more salmon in the defenseman’s future. After this season, he has two more years of junior eligibility.
“He’s like a lot of rookies in this league,” Petrich said. “He’s good now, and he’s going to be really good next year.”