It's a RoughRiders state

10 former Cedar Rapids players in professional hockey in Iowa

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CEDAR RAPIDS — They still talk about the “bathroom rule.”

It’s one that’s in effect even today. The urinals and toilets must be flushed in the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders locker room after use.

There are no exceptions.

“Kids, for whatever reason, we’ve got to teach them these details,” explained RoughRiders Coach/General Manager Mark Carlson. “I’m not being critical of anybody. We have to go through it at the beginning of every year. There are times where we skate (extra) because guys don’t do it.”

It’s that kind of discipline, that kind of tough love from their coach that former Riders players appreciate more and more as they move on in their hockey careers. There are 10 of them playing or coaching professionally in the state of Iowa right now.

TEN of them: six with the Iowa Wild of the American Hockey League and four with the Quad City Mallards of the ECHL, formerly called the East Coast Hockey League. Both are affiliated with the NHL’s Minnesota Wild.

Iowa, located in Des Moines, is its top farm club.

“It’s nice to see the guys go on and have success,” Carlson said. “It’s not easy to play in those leagues. That’s a high level of hockey, the equivalent of Triple-A and Double-A baseball. How many guys do we all know that play at the level? Not many.

“I’ve always said the same thing. To have a small influence, a small impact on guys is kind of a neat thing. I’m happy for them all that they are doing so well. It’s pretty cool.”

Really cool.

“It’s crazy that it has all ended up piecing together like that,” said Phil Axtell. “Carly is one of the best junior coaches out there. He develops players, prepares them for the next level, whether that next level is college or pro. He forces the fundamentals into the players’ heads. As you go up in levels, I think that’s a key component to being successful. I think that’s why so many guys are moving on after being coached by him.”

Axtell is Quad City’s head coach, elevated from an assistant’s position midseason after the firing of Terry Ruskowski. He played in Cedar Rapids from 2004 to 2006.

Three of his top forwards are RoughRiders graduates as well. Going into Friday, Justin Kovacs had 53 points in 61 games, Michael Parks 51 in 53 games and Sam Warning 48 in 60 games.

They played together on a 2010-11 C.R. team that won the USHL’s Anderson Cup for most regular-season standings points. Even QC radio play-by-play man Brian Lavelle used to work for the RoughRiders.

What a small world.

“The first couple of months (of a season) can always be a little tough, so just knowing a couple guys here from the Cedar Rapids days really helped,” Warning said. “You know, that was a big part of our lives. It just shows how great of an organization Cedar Rapids is. It’s crazy that you have so many guys in the (Wild) system in Iowa right now. That’s pretty special.”

At Iowa, both goaltenders (Alex Stalock and Steve Michalek) are former RoughRiders. Stalock led Cedar Rapids to its only Clark Cup championship in 2004 and has 62 National Hockey League games with the San Jose Sharks on his long professional ledger.

Forwards Nick Saracino and Pat Cannone have been with Iowa the entire season. The 30-year-old Cannone made his NHL debut this season, playing three games with Minnesota.

Defenseman Nolan Zajac is a first-year pro who was playing great in the ECHL and recently signed a Player Tryout Contract (PTO) with Iowa. He has two assists in four games.

Forward Gerald Mayhew recently completed his four-year college career at Ferris State and signed as a free agent with Iowa, a contract that includes being part of the club next season as well. He has three goals in his first five professional games.

“Nolan Zajac is my roommate, and we’ve talked about it. You’ve got us, Steve, Cino, Cannone, Stalock. I didn’t even realize Stalock played in Cedar Rapids,” Mayhew said. “Carlson really knows how to develop his players. He’s tough on them, but he needs to be. I miss C.R.”

It’d be impossible considering their busy and separate schedules, but it really would be something if all 10 of these guys gathered together in Cedar Rapids for a reunion with Carlson before the season ends. There certainly would be some great commiserating you’d just love to overhear.

“A lot of us, we just shake our heads like ‘If we only knew then how great Mark was,’” Axtell said. “It was tough love, there were things we didn’t want to do at the time. But you look back, and he was right.”

“Sometimes it got tough, not just physically, but mentally,” Warning said. “But he just does a tremendous job, not only in getting guys to perform and work, but just in being a better person. It’s not just hockey. He shapes you as a person. It’s definitely a little scary when you leave your family when you’re 15, 16, 17 years old. But that organization is just unbelievable. We still talk about it today. A lot of great memories. Being there definitely helped our hockey careers and in being better people.”

Carlson said he was honored by hearing things like that.

“From the start, I was getting letters in the mail from different USHL teams, but he was the only one to call me personally and invite me to their camp,” Mayhew said. “Right there, that was a green flag for me that I needed to go there and try out. I made it, and I absolutely loved his style of coaching. Well, sometimes I didn’t, sometimes I did. But I would recommend to anybody and everybody to go play for him.”

Here are Mark Carlson’s thoughts on the 10 guys playing or coaching professional hockey in the state of Iowa right now: 

On Phil Axtell, 2004-06: “He and I have become really close over the years. Maybe almost like a brothers kind of thing. We have had a lot of hard discussions over the years. But he has been a real student of the game ... He’s got a real passion for it. He came here and made our team as a free agent. To still have a great relationship with him is just awesome.”

On Sam Warning, 2009-11: “Deuces. Deuces was a lot of fun to coach. He brought great character to our team, great skill to our team. He was a great weapon to have on the bench, that’s for sure.”

On Michael Parks, 2009-11: “I’d love to have those two (he and Warning) on any team. One’s a left shot, one’s a right shot. They can fly, they both can score goals. Just a lot of similarities between the two. Great character guys.”

On Justin Kovacs, 2009-11: “I remember watching Justin in a high-school showcase and deciding at that time that we were going to draft him. The first year here was a big adjustment for him, and he went to Topeka (of the lower-level NAHL) and had a real good year. To his credit, he came back here that second year, had 59 points and led us in scoring on that Anderson Cup team. When we needed a big play, he made it.”

On Alex Stalock, 2004-06: “I’ve got to thank my wife, Tammy, for that. That’s known as the ‘Disneyworld Trade.’ We were on our honeymoon in Florida, and she allowed me to be on the phone. That’s where that trade was made to acquire Al.”

On Nick Saracino, 2010-12: “Cino made our team as a free agent. Another St. Louis kid, like Warning and Parks. I’ve been to his family’s restaurants a few times. That’s one of the first things we did when we took him onto our team, was eat at one of his restaurants and talk to him about how he was going to have to work on his conditioning. He did that. Nick, I thought he would become a pro, and he has become one.”

On Steve Michalek, 2012-13: “It was great having Steve here. He won some big games for us when he was here. I really wanted to continue to work with him, but he had to take care of a situation at school (Harvard), so he wasn’t here long. I’m certainly thrilled for him.”

On Pat Cannone. 2006-07: “He sat in that very chair where you are right now (in Carlson’s office) and was 211 pounds. We met with him and his dad and explained to them that we thought he could be a great player if he got into shape. Went to his house in New York when I was visiting my mom at the Jersey shore that summer. He opened the door, there was a little dog running around. I told him we were going to the gym and weigh him in, but he was wearing a polo shirt and shorts, I looked at him and said ‘We don’t need to weigh you in.’ So we went and had a sub at a great Italian deli instead. He came into camp at 187 and had an unbelievable year for us as a one-year player and a 20-year-old. An unbelievable story.”

On Gerald Mayhew, 2011-13: “From down river, as they call it. Wyandotte High School there in Michigan. A really good two-year player. Came in and made the team as a free agent, an undrafted guy who could score. To see him start where he started and end up now at the level he’s at is awesome.”

On Nolan Zajac, 2009-12: “Nolan was here for two-plus years, and I really enjoyed him and his family. A poised offensive defenseman. I’m not surprised that he has gone on and doing what he is doing. He can produce.”

l Comments: (319) 398-8259; jeff.johnson@thegazette.com

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