In 2001, Alberta-bred country music singer Paul Brandt wrote, “The best things around that I have ever seen… came from small towns and big dreams.”
That’s probably the best way to describe the long and fruitful hockey journey of former Prince George Spruce Kings and Vernon Vipers forward Rod Pelley. The now 36-year-old grew up in Kitimat BC, an hour south of Terrace and seven hours west of PG.
As a young minor hockey player, Pelley set his goals high from a young age with the hope of getting noticed by scouts to eventually make the jump to junior. That opportunity came knocking for him in 2000-01 with the Spruce Kings as a fresh-faced rookie.
Pelley found himself on a team that included older stars like John Morlang, Billy Collins, and John Hopson. “It feels like yesterday (when) I was in Prince George as a young 16-year-old moving away from home, and I think the first thing that stands out for me is my billets. They were like a second set of parents for me. I was in grade 11 at the time and they treated me like I was one of their own kids.”
“I was also fortunate enough to have a lot of good veteran hockey players to watch as a 16-year-old and those are some of my first original thoughts. Playing for the Spruce Kings was a dream of mine.” Despite being a rookie, Pelley made an instant impact, notching 35 points in 54 games for a PG squad that went 28-26-6.
“I remember my first goal. It was against Penticton at home and I will always remember it. It was in overtime and I went to my backhand. I had a break and eventually beat a guy one-on-one and scored.”
“It was a bit of a fluky goal, but I took it. I had some fun games against Quesnel and Merritt too. I had my first fight at (age) 16 against a 20-year-old. That was a learning experience.”
However, off the ice proved to be the biggest adjustment. “It was the first time for me, learning about what time management was,” explained Pelley. “Growing up in Kitimat, I would play bantam rep hockey, go to school and get your homework done. But, this was the first experience where we were travelling a lot.”
“We had a long bus ride and you would get home at five in the morning and you get to school at 7:30 (or) eight o’clock and that is after playing two or three games on the weekend.” In the postseason, he continued to shine, maxing out a near point-per-game clip as the Spruce Kings were swept in the quarterfinals by the Merritt Centennials.
A young leader
After a successful first season, Pelley got the surprise of a lifetime as he was named team captain at just 17 on a young and rebuilding team. It turned out to be a trying year for the Spruce Kings who finished seventh in the Interior Division.
“We had a pretty young team to start the second year. I remember at the beginning, we had a coaching change as well, and Brent Arsenault (came) on board. I have so much respect for Brent. I really was excited for the chance to be a leader (and) take on that responsibility.”
“I was probably in over my head with being named the captain and learning how to handle these little details, but it was a great learning experience,” added Pelley.
However, even with the on-ice struggles, Pelley thrived with his performance and posted 56 points in 37 games before being dealt at the trade deadline to the heavily-favoured Vernon Vipers.
“I found out later though (that) I was a loan to Vernon and my rights were traded back to Prince George the following season. At the time, I didn’t know that and was headed off to college the next year anyway, so it didn’t quite matter.”
Once in the Okanagan, the adjustment appeared seamless as he picked up right where he left off by recording a point-per-game pace with his new club, finishing with 10 goals and eight assists in 19 games.
“Shooting the puck is something I love to do, I got off to a decent start and when you get the opportunities offensively, your confidence just grows and picks up from there.” In his last hurrah in the BCHL, Pelley enjoyed a deep playoff run with Vernon as it slipped past Merritt and the Penticton Panthers en route to the Fred Page Cup final.
Unfortunately for the Vipers, they fell short of the ultimate prize, dropping a six-game set to the vaunted Chilliwack Chiefs. “(The Chiefs) had some good players including Jeff Tambellini, who stands out for me.”
“I remember the playoffs being a grind, especially against Penticton. We had a line brawl and it was just good playoff hockey. The hockey was the best I had ever played,” said Pelley.
With a two-year stint in the BCHL behind him, Pelley focused on the bright lights of NCAA Division I hockey with one of the most well-known schools on the planet in Ohio State University. One of his best experiences at the big school was when the Buckeyes took to the football field.
“I never experienced a college football game before. We had our team training at six in the morning and you would see all the grandparents and grandkids setting up their motorhomes and getting their barbecues out. That whole experience was amazing, having a football game on a Saturday night, it was quite the experience as a young freshman,” added Pelley.
No one would have faulted Pelley for being a little bit star-struck during his freshman year as he was on the same team as future full-time NHLers and first-round draft picks Ryan Kesler, RJ Umberger, and David Steckel.
The on-ice success wasn’t hard to come by for the Buckeyes, going 16-8-4 in the CCHA conference. In the playoffs, Ohio State slipped past Nebraska-Omaha and Notre Dame before being dispatched in the semifinals by their arch rivals from Michigan.
To make matters worse, Pelley and company fell in the third-place game to Northern Michigan. The losing habits continued to haunt the Buckeyes at the National Tournament, dropping a 1-0 decision to Boston College in the regional semifinal.
2003-04 turned out to be a bit of a roller coaster ride that ended happily for Ohio State. Despite a mediocre 16-12-0 record in conference play, Pelley and the Buckeyes caught fire in the postseason.
Ohio State swept its first-round series against Bowling Green and then went on to a pair of thrilling overtime victories against Notre Dame and Miami University Ohio before exacting revenge on the Michigan Wolverines to claim the CCHA championship.
“We just had success as a team. I just remember the feeling around the group beating Michigan and that was fun. It seemed like everyone was clicking at the same time and I remember after that weekend though, we had given it (our) all. Guys were cramping up and we gave every bit of energy we had.”
However, once at nationals, the Buckeyes were dealt a similar fate, dropping a 1-0 overtime decision to Wisconsin in the regional semi-final.
For his part, Pelley finished the year with 22 points in 42 games. The next season turned out to be Pelley’s best statistically at the collegiate level. During the 2004-05 campaign, he eclipsed the 20-goal plateau to go along with 19 assists in 41 games.
“The success started early in the year. I was in a shooting position on the power play and we had some really good skilled guys that would get the puck to me. I was very fortunate to be in a position where I could rip one-timers from guys who got me pucks.”
In addition, Pelley was looked upon as a leader as he was named one of the alternate captains. The Buckeyes steamrolled through the competition during the regular season going 21-5-2, good enough for 2nd place in the CCHA.
However, a back-to-back title run would fall just shy, losing to the hated Wolverines. For the third consecutive year, it was one and done for the Buckeyes at the national showcase, dropping a 3-2 close shave to Cornell.
With the goal of a pro contract in mind, Pelley’s final year at Ohio State turned out to be his most trying. After a solid three-year year among college hockey’s elite, the Buckeyes slid in the standings, going 11-14-3 and eventually getting ousted in the first round by Ferris State.
Pelley’s offensive production slipped as well and he only registered 14 points in 39 games.
Shout at the Devils
With college in his rearview mirror, Pelley focused on his pro opportunities and eventually signed with the New Jersey Devils. “New Jersey was the frontrunner in terms of interest. When you look at the Devils and the foundation from (general manager) Lou Lamoriello, it doesn’t take too long before you realize that when you sign with them, you are in an organization that is team-first and very professional.”
During the 2006-07 campaign, Pelley spent the majority of the season in the American Hockey League with the Lowell Devils, notching a respectable 17 goals in his rookie year.
“I had very little to worry about except for performing and having fun playing the game. My whole day consisted of practice and what I could do the next day and that is basically what I did every day. I put everything I had into stepping out on the ice whether it was a Monday morning practice or that pregame skate on Friday. I really focused on it.”
For that, Pelley was rewarded with a nine-game stint with New Jersey who was still among the NHL’s Eastern Conference elite with a mark of 49-24-9. In the postseason, the Devils stumbled and were dispatched in the Conference semifinals by the Ottawa Senators in five games.
The following season, Pelley eventually carved out a bottom six role for himself, registering six points in 58 games. “That was a pretty special time. I did get a taste of it the year before, but this was a true opportunity where I am on the roster. (I) created a little bit of an identity for myself within the organization and now it’s time to really prove it at the NHL level.”
“What I did find is that my jump from college to the American League wasn’t as steep, it was pretty seamless from the pace, strength, and speed. The jump from the AHL to the NHL was a bit tougher. The time and space are very limited and making plays in just a fraction of the time.”
Again, the Devils were unable to translate a successful regular season into a deep postseason run, falling in five games to their cross-town rival New York Rangers.
In 2008-09, Pelley made the mature decision and elected to refine his game at the AHL level with Lowell and posted his best season as a pro, 38 points in 75 games.
“It was a big year for me development-wise to be quite honest. I took a step back and I found more of a complete game and I realized how important it was to be well-rounded. I worked on my game and I was able to get more puck touches, play a little bit of power play time and really focus on the defensive side of the game, and shut down opposing players.”
The move proved beneficial, as he enjoyed some moderate success over the next two seasons with New Jersey, tallying 20 points in 137 games while also seeing his first playoff action in 2010, suiting up in three games.
“Marty (Brodeur) was obviously the backbone of the organization and the one thing that stands out for me with him is that he is such a competitor. Even in practice, if you scored on him you probably aren’t going to score again on him the rest of the way because he doesn’t like getting scored on.”
“I always respected his calmness (and) coolness. He had pretty much won his Cups and every award you could win, but for a young player like myself to be sitting in the dressing room (with him) was quite special.”
Pelley’s last season in the NHL came in 2011-12. After suiting up in seven games with the Devils, he was acquired by the Anaheim Ducks where he finished the season with three points in 45 games, playing alongside elite players such as Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf.
“I wasn’t playing too much towards the end of my time in New Jersey. I got put on waivers a couple times and Anaheim acquired me in early December and I was going to get an opportunity to play. I got to see a different lifestyle living in California. It was fun.”
“You almost had to slap yourself at times, basically living on the beach but playing a hockey game that night. Fortunately for me, I was a little bit older and you learn a lot of things going through your first few years. You can enjoy the beach, but you can also be a dedicated hockey player as well.”
A return to the minors before heading overseas
Over the next six years, Pelley played in the AHL with the Norfolk Admirals, Albany Devils, and Stockton Heat. In five of those seasons, Pelley was named team captain.
“That part of my career from 2013 to 2017, I was in a leadership position and took a lot of pride in that. For me, the second-best thing was to be a leader and to help pass my knowledge and compassion, and love for the game to the younger generation of players – all while playing in the American Hockey League, which is a very good league.”
“Those four years in Albany and that one year in Stockton were great steps in my journey (and) career to where I am at today.” Seeking a change of scenery, Pelley uprooted his family and moved across the Atlantic where he played two more seasons.
In 2018-19, he signed with SønderjyskE in Denmark and recorded 18 points in 29 games, plus four points in 14 playoff games.
“It was a perfect spot for the family. They run a very professional organization and the coach was Canadian so it was a really good fit and (a chance to) play some decent hockey.”
His team fell in the final series and collected a silver medal. Pelley ended his pro career with a Romanian-based club where he tallied 60 points in two different leagues.
“That was a lot of travel since we played in two different leagues. We would be in Budapest a lot although (and) I must say you get to see a different part of Eastern Europe. I chalked it up as a unique and positive time to play professional hockey.”
“The fans in Romania are exceptional. They love the game there. The team I was on (played in what) was considered a hockey town. The young kids growing up were sport club fans and they lived and breathed it. The rink has some character to it and it brings you back to your roots a bit.”
In fitting fashion, his SC Csikszerada team captured the ERSTE Liga Championship in 2020. All told, Pelley played in 906 professional games in five different leagues during his career. Not bad for a kid from Kitimat.