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Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS – He was not here this weekend as a National Hockey League general manager, scouting young talent.
Tom Fitzgerald attended Cedar Rapids RoughRiders tryout camp at the ImOn Ice Arena in a more important role and with a more important title. Much more important.
“I’m a dad,” Fitzgerald said.
The New Jersey Devils GM traveled to town with his son, Brendan, who appears to have impressed enough to at least right now be part of the 2021-22 Riders. Brendan Fitzgerald is an 18-year-old defenseman who played prep school hockey in Massachusetts this past season.
A University of New Hampshire commit and former draft pick of the USHL’s Chicago Steel, Brendan was among a group of participants in Sunday’s “Top 40” game that met with RoughRiders Coach/General Manager Mark Carlson and his staff postgame Sunday afternoon, which always is a good sign you have “made it” so far.
“I just wanted to spend some quality time with Brendan that you don’t (normally) get,” Tom Fitzgerald said. “I’m living in New Jersey, and he’s in Boston. This was a great weekend. Though it started off horrible.”
Fitzgerald said he and his son had a canceled flight on their journey west, their luggage not showing up in Cedar Rapids initially. Brendan had his hockey sticks broken in transit, which set them on a scramble to find replacements.
“I just felt bad for him,” Fitzgerald said. “We figured it out, we handled it, got him some sticks. He started off the weekend well, I thought he looked really comfortable and confident, not really knowing what to expect. I thought the pace was really good, Mark did a really good job of making everyone feel welcomed and comfortable.
“It’s a hard league, something that Eastern kids aren’t exposed to because of geography. But he’s looking forward to this. As are we.”
Fitzgerald and his wife have three other sons, two of whom play professionally. Ryan Fitzgerald was drafted by the Boston Bruins and played this past season for Lehigh Valley of the American Hockey League, which is a Philadelphia Flyers affiliate.
Casey Fitzgerald is a Buffalo Sabres draft pick who just finished his second full season in the AHL with Rochester. Neither played in the USHL, so this was Tom’s first exposure to a team tryout camp.
Tom Fitzgerald played three shy of 1,100 games in the NHL over parts of 19 seasons, with the New York Islanders, Florida Panthers, Colorado Avalanche, Nashville Predators, Chicago Blackhawks, Toronto Maple Leafs and the Bruins.
His front-office jobs have included being Director of Player Development and assistant general manager for the Pittsburgh Penguins. He went from assistant GM to interim GM of the Devils in January of 2020.
“I looked around on the arena walls at all of the pictures of former players, and it was like ‘Oh, I didn’t know he played here,’” Fitzgerald said. “There have been some really good hockey players that have come through here.
“You see a lot of good hockey players coming out of (the USHL). It’s a longer path, it’s not like the Canadian Hockey League where you get two years and then you have to make a decision on a kid … Colleges are getting players who are ready. That’s important.”
The three-day tryout camp consisted of 119 hopefuls. Only two have ever played for the RoughRiders, goalies Nikolas Simo and Andrew Pichora.
That’s a sign that Coach/General Manager Carlson is pretty much starting from scratch in building a team. The RoughRiders sat out the 2020-21 USHL season because of severe damage done to the ice arena by this past August’s derecho, with players going elsewhere via a dispersal draft.
Cedar Rapids retained the rights to players who could return to the USHL, but that’s expected to be a handful at best. There are multiple league deadlines during the summer in which teams must be at a certain number of players on their rosters, leading into preseason camp in late summer/early fall.
The RoughRiders play their first two regular-season games in late September in Pittsburgh, as will every USHL team. The home opener is Oct. 16 against the Des Moines Buccaneers.
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