Hello, my name is Mike Peluso. No, not the Stanley Cup champion Mike Peluso. He just so happens to be my cousin.
But in Bismarck, N.D., I’m THE Mike Peluso. The Mike Peluso who, like his cousin, played for the Chicago Blackhawks.
Now, the journey to my 38-game NHL career wasn’t exactly easy. It included over 400 professional hockey games.
Imagine the challenges a kid with NHL aspirations faced in North Dakota back in the day.
Sure, it didn’t hurt my chances that my family was deeply rooted in the hockey culture of northern Minnesota. My father, Jim, and my uncle, Tom, both starred on the Coleraine Greenway teams in the late 1960’s and early 70’s with teammates that included Mike Antonovich.
Both my dad and uncle went on to play college hockey at Denver University. I had other cousins who played for the Minnesota Gophers.
And, of course, there was “Big Mike,” with whom I’m so often confused. He got his chance to hoist the Stanley Cup in 1995 with the New Jersey Devils.
Still, with all the hockey pedigree that I had, there loomed a huge obstacle. The hurdle was basic geography.
My parents moved out to Bismarck in the mid ’70s after dad graduated from DU. Not knowing what the future held, dad ventured to North Dakota’s capital city to coach a little hockey and find work. As luck (for me) would have it, my dad was hired to manage the Bismarck ice rink in the fall of 1976.
My mom, Margaret, originally from Roseau, recognized the challenges early on. She claims to this day that the first time she walked into Schaumberg Ice Arena with me, she looked out and saw some kids skating. After she watched them for a few brief moments she looked at me, still in my car seat, and said “Mike, hockey probably won’t be in your future if we stay here.”
But stay we did!
When you’re young and love something so much, you have no idea hockey is being played anywhere else in the world. The Schaumberg hockey rink was home for me. Of course I really didn’t have a choice in the matter, but all the better. Our evenings and weekends were always spent at the rink and Christmas was for putting new lines on the ice, since both my parents worked at the arena.
For many years dad and mom were the only two employees. They had the rink dialed! Both had things down to a science — from resurfacing the ice and making food for the concession stands, to sharpening countless pairs of skates. Let me tell you, anyone has ever had my mom sharpen their skates knows what I’m talking about!
While mom was busy sharpening skates, I was honing my skills. Between ice resurfaces, I was in the corners of the rink playing ball hockey, and begging any coach I could find to let me practice with them.
My skates were set by the Zamboni room door pre-tied so I could slip them on fast in order to get 15 minutes of stick-handling and shooting in every hour on the hour while moving nets for dad.
It’s amazing to think I did this for 12 years or more without getting a puck stuck in the Zamboni auger! That’s probably why I ended up with really good puck skills.
Dad taught me how to run the Zamboni at age 12 because I used to ride my bike down to the rink after school and I would stay and skate until the early morning hours. I think he really did it so he could get some sleep. I swear my parents had ice coolant running through their veins.
Every fall when dad fired up the compressors he would call home and have mom put the telephone on his pillow so if the compressors quit running he would hear it in his sleep and run back down and fix them before the ice melted.
In those days in hockey was not a big deal in Bismarck. It wasn’t until the 1980 Miracle on Ice that people really started to get interested and the participation numbers blossomed.
Our program was set up very simply. Termites were the very beginners. Then it was up the ladder to mites, squirts, pee-wees and bantams.
In-house hockey was where it was at. Only a pee-wee team and a bantam team or two traveled for league play. Even all the way up through pee-wees everyone still played on an in-house team. Weekends at Schaumberg were like carnivals to me. You pretty much saw every player, parent and coach who was involved in BHB hockey on the weekends. It honestly felt like extended family.
The best part was the opportunity to play multiple in-house games and skate during public skating. If your timing was really good you might get to see one or both high school teams play that evening. Everyone stayed for the games.
Travel hockey was a reward at the end of the squirt in-house season if you were fortunate enough to be picked. Back then, this would be the very first time you had a chance to travel to play hockey. Money was tight and it wasn’t uncommon for only a handful of parents to go. Heck, I remember hopping in with someone else’s family on many occasions because my mom and dad were tied down caring for the rinks.
Every year came and time rapidly flew by. When the ice came out every spring, it meant three things for me — fishing, baseball and swimming. My parents switched from the arena to supervise the swimming pools in the summer. The change of pace was always welcome, but once the air cooled and the leaves began to change it meant just one thing for me. The ice would be going back in soon!
I was about 15 before I started to realize hockey was played elsewhere. My first eye-opening experience was a trip to St. Cloud State for a USA select camp. I played against kids mainly from Minnesota. To me, it was cool to see these guys and how they played. I didn’t even really understand I was trying out for a team to be honest.
I remember registering at the camp and they asked me where I was from. I said “Bismarck, North Dakota.” The guy chuckled and said “they have hockey out there?”
I should have known right there and then my hockey journey was not going to be an easy one.
Looking back at those early years, and especially the selects, it’s obvious to me that politics in hockey has always been around. In retrospect, I remember Mike Guentzel, now associate head coach of the Minnesota Gophers, pulling me aside after my very first festival. He told me not to be discouraged over failing to make the team.
“You should have (made the team), and the only reason you didn’t, was because you’re from North Dakota,” he told me.
It’s amazing how, decades later, you see guys from all over the U.S. getting the chance to play. But not back in those days.
Growing up in Bismarck and having my dad coach at Bismarck High was the fulfillment of a dream for me. It used to be a huge deal if BHS would get a chance to play in the state high school hockey tournament at Grand Forks. It wasn’t until the late 1980s that Bismarck actually won a state tournament game. As a stick boy for those early teams, I used to promise my dad and his assistant coach, Ken Erickson, it would be different when I was old enough to play for them.
I made good on my promise, helping my team reach the state finals in 1992, my junior season. That was also a record-breaking year for me. I broke the state high school record by scoring 99 points in 23 games, which amazingly, still stands today. I’m still trying to figure out why I couldn’t have mustered up one more point (lol).
Anyway, that terrific season became both a blessing and a curse for me. It forced me to decide whether to leave Bismarck or stay for my final year of high school. It’s crazy to think the guy who pulled me aside all those years earlier somehow acquired my rights to join his United States Hockey League team in Omaha.
The USHL became the springboard that launched my hockey career. We had two very successful years winning Anderson Cups and Clark Cups. I got drafted into the NHL by the Calgary Flames and obtained a full scholarship to the University of Minnesota-Duluth to play for the famous Mike Sertich. For a kid from Bismarck, reaching this point was a huge accomplishment. Little did I know that, once again, this was only the beginning.
Judged by today’s standards, my college career would be off the charts good. Ranking top 10 all-time in goals, top 15 all-time in points at Duluth would be a one-way ticket to the NHL in today’s game. I am, however, very honored that UMD selected me for its 2016 Hall of Fame class. That was a humbling experience.
Being drafted by the Flames created a few issues for me. First, it was a Canadian team. And second, management changed hands shortly after I was drafted. I went to two training camps there and did really well in both. I had the chance to play on a line with Jerome Iginla and Marty St. Louis. Holy cow was the game easy with these two alongside me. In hindsight I should have fought to stay in the Flames system and played with Marty in the AHL.
Of course I didn’t, and my path led me to the IHL for a few weeks of pre-season action until the Washington Capitals traded for my rights. Off I went to Portland, Maine, to begin my career as a professional.
It was always interesting to me that in the professional ranks I was rarely asked me where I was from. When asked, I would tell them North Dakota, and the answer was always the same: “I thought you were Canadian.”
Injuries seem to follow me around after I left college. I was into game 26 playing in front of the Capitals general manager in Hersey, Pa., when I dumped a puck in the corner. I chased after the puck and finished my check on the defenseman late in the third period. I immediately knew something wasn’t right with my knee. I hid it well, got to the bench and told my trainer my knee felt like it was on fire. We headed back into the locker room where it was diagnosed as a torn ACL/MCL. Upon the team’s return to the locker room, luck would have it I was being called up.
Unfortunately for the kid from Bismarck my dream of playing a game in the NHL would have to wait. Eleven painful months of surgery and rehab took its toll on me. I realized how much I loved the sport, and couldn’t wait to return. Looking back on it now, I had no idea how bad this injury was, but I overcame it, and I actually think it helped me understand my love for the game.
A couple of really good years and two AHL all-star game appearances weren’t enough to prompt the much-anticipated call-up. I did, however, get another call-up during the playoffs.
The Capitals were in the sixth game of a playoff series with the Pittsburgh Penguins. The game was in overtime when one of the assistants came up and told me if Washington won that night I would be dressing because someone got hurt. I think this was a way to tell the black aces like myself not to go out and drink too many. Anyway, a guy by the name of Jagr scored the season-ending goal and my hopes of playing in a NHL game that season were extinguished.
I was ready to return back to Bismarck that summer, but the phone rang and I was off to represent our country in the World Championships in Russia. What an experience it was for me to get to play on that stage! I had a pretty good run, finishing second in scoring behind NHL hall of famer Phil Housley. I went back to training camp and was playing well! I had the opportunity to play with Oats and Bondra. The game was easy again. We were scoring lots of goals in the preseason when I was told I was not a good enough skater. I wasn’t all that mad because I felt honored just being there.
Back to the AHL I went, only to be traded while leading the AHL in scoring. It was a short-lived trade, I was brought in to help the AHL team make a push to the Calder Cup finals. Once again, I was playing really good hockey, putting up numbers, when a pulled groin in the semifinals slowed me and we lost in the seventh game that year to the team that ended up winning it.
After returning home, now as a free agent, I got a call from my childhood favorite team, the Chicago Blackhawks. This sparked me to redouble my training. I wanted so badly to make this hockey team. I was 27 years old, in the best shape of my career and I figured it was now or never.
Chicago had a different rule for preseason games. You didn’t normally play in back-to-back games. We played down in Dallas where I had a super strong game. As we boarded the flight back to Chicago, one of the coaches pulled me aside and told me to get ready because I was going to play again back in Chicago. I figured I would be on the third or fourth line. Those guys normally only see 7 to 12 minutes of ice time in a game.
I arrived at the arena only to see my name with Zhamnov and Amonte. What a deal, we were playing the team I had just come from, the St. Louis Blues. I scored two goals and had three assists in 20-plus minutes of play and never broke a sweat with those two feeding me pucks. I thought for sure this was it. The Blackhawks had sent everyone down and I was still hanging on the night before the season opener. In fact, the GM announced that night at a banquet to kick off the season that I had made the team out of tryouts because of my hard work and determination.
Strangely enough, the coach stopped me after the banquet to tell me I was being sent down. I could have easily pouted and exuded displeasure but I felt I was close. I probably should have been a little more hard to deal with, but I wasn’t.
I went down and started to score a lot of goals in a short period of time. It happened. I was selected as an emergency call up. One of the forwards was questionable to start. It didn’t happen and he played and I sat up in the buzzard perch watching and waiting. I was once again shipped back down.
One week later I got the call again that changed my life forever!
It was mid-November and the Hawks were scheduled to play the Predators in Nashville. I warmed up and all I could do is watch the clock in the locker room. A part of me was gun-shy because I figured someone was going to tell me to get undressed. It never happened and I finally got my chance! As luck would have it, I scored a goal in my very first shift, on my very first shot in my first NHL game. I’m guessing everyone in Bismarck could have heard me celebrating when I saw the red light go on. Thirty-seven games later I ended up with four goals three assists playing on the fourth line. That probably wasn’tt exactly the best line for a guy like me, but I didn’t mind. I figured if I got a full year I could score double digits in goals and assists at that level.
We were battling the whole season with the Red Wings as the number one team in the NHL, but the GM thought he needed to bring in more experience. Once the new guys began showing up, my time was shortened and we slowly dipped in the standings. The heartbreaker came when we lost to the Blues in the first round of the playoffs.
The next year I came back for another training camp playing well. I never got a chance to play again due to the presence of all the new faces Chicago had brought in the year before.
I returned to Bismarck after my short stint as a black ace. My contract was up and the word on the street was the NHL was going to lock out after the next season.
I signed to play for the Philadelphia Flyers. A strong training camp got me an early call-up. I played one game for the Flyers that year. I remember my last NHL game like it was yesterday. I started on the fourth line and before the game was over Ken Hitchcock had moved me up to the second line. I was Hitches type of player, he praised me for my ability to get pucks up along the wall in our end and I was a big body for his hard forechecking style.
Remember that knee that took me out my rookie season? Well, I tweaked it a small bit in this game. Nothing major but they wanted to hold me out of skating a day to let it rest. Instead of taking it easy, my work ethic took over and I decided I needed to really push myself in the weight room. I have no idea what happened that day or why, but when I was getting done with my workout, I decided I needed to do a little more work in the bench. I didn’t try and do anything out of the ordinary, but when I went to push the bar up I felt a major snap. My pectoral muscle completely severed and I was once again sidelined.
I came back and played my final days in the AHL only to go down to block a shot in playoffs. Yes, you guessed it. The shot broke my foot. The season ended and the NHL locked out.
Back in Bismarck, not knowing what my future held, I decided to take an assistant coaching job with the North American Hockey League junior team in town. I was with them for parts of four seasons before deciding I needed a break.
My break didn’t last very long, I took the head coaching job at the very same high school where I played for my father. As I write this story, I just finished my ninth season as head coach in Bismarck. It’s been a heck of a journey for me and all the players I have had the opportunity to coach. We won Bismarck’s first state title in 2014 and we have been in the finals five times in the last nine years. Previously, Bismarck had reached the state championship game only once. That was back when I was playing. Some of the same things are still happening today. Many of our players get overlooked a bit. The ones that do get a chance seem to do very well. North Dakota can’t match Minnesota’s numbers, but I think there is quality mixed in.
As I reflect back on my career in hockey, I must admit this game can be cruel. A player has to overcome a lot of adversity and deal with doubters. Hockey, for some reason, can bring out the best in people, but at the same time it can bring out the worst. You have to hope someone along the way believes in you and gives you a chance, even if your a Rink Rat from Bismarck, North Dakota.